Rare whooping cranes spotted making their annual spring journey through Kansas

A flock of rare whooping cranes that has been wintering in Texas is on its journey back home to Canada, and the cranes have been thrilling bird watchers with layovers in Kansas.

On Monday, staff and visitors at Quivira National Wildlife Refuge counted 29 of the birds, which are part of the endangered Aransas-Wood Buffalo flock, believed to be only about 505 birds strong, said Rachel Laubhan, a biologist at the refuge.

And the birds are a dramatic sight, standing about five-feet tall with a seven-foot wing span. When wildlife enthusiasts hear they’re making their way through Kansas each spring and fall, they flock to the refuge to get a look.

“A lot of people in the area come out,” Laubhan said. “And they even come from other states to see such a big bird.”

The cranes, Laubhan said, often stop at the refuge on their 2,500-mile journey to Texas each fall, usually mid-October through mid-November. Their return trip brings them back through usually starting in late March and continuing through early or mid-April.

This weekend was the first time this spring the cranes had been spotted at the refuge, Laubhan said. The spotters saw both adult and juvenile cranes.

Two endangered whooping cranes wade the shallow at Quivira, feeding on dead carp. Michael Pearce The Wichita Eagle

Henry Armknecht, a bird watcher from Hays, was among the people who saw the cranes on Monday. He frequently makes the hour-plus drive to the refuge when he hears there’s something to see, and on Monday, he’d heard about the cranes.

When he arrived at about 10 a.m., he saw five resting near the road. Then he heard a noise.

“A flock of 18 flew right past me,” he said. “And I was so enthralled, they were going away before I realized, ‘I have a camera here. I should have taken a video.’”

Armknecht said he’s spotted the rare cranes several times over the years. Many years ago, he said, he and his wife spotted 38 in one day.

Monday morning’s fly-by was special, he said.

“They are huge birds, and to have that big of a flock fly by that close is pretty awe inspiring,” he said.

The best time to spot the cranes, Laubhan said, is just before sunset when they arrive for the night and just after sunrise, when they usually depart. The refuge is open daily from one and a half hours before sunrise to one and a half hours after sunset.
The best place to see them is at the big salt marsh area on the Wildlife Drive, on the north end of the refuge, she said. The adult birds are white with dark legs and bill and have a dark red cap. It’s easy to confuse them with other large white birds like egrets or pelicans, Laubhan said.

If the cranes are standing, it’s easier to identify them because of their long legs. If they’re in flight, birders should watch for black wing tips.

The Quivera National Wildlife Refuge is about 90 miles northwest of Wichita near the town of Stafford.

Denise Neil has covered restaurants and entertainment since 1997. Her Dining with Denise Facebook page is the go-to place for diners to get information about local restaurants. She’s a regular judge at local food competitions and speaks to groups all over Wichita about dining.