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Craniac Attack: Birders flock to Wheeler’s Festival of the Cranes to see endangered whooping cranes

DECATUR – Thousands of sandhill cranes blanketing the fields, farmlands and ponds of Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge signal the arrival of winter. Their calls, echoing through the crisp, cool mornings, serve as a beacon to bird watchers, nature lovers and explorers.

Among the sea of 15,000 sandhill cranes, 14 whooping cranes — rare endangered white birds with black-tipped wings and red caps — are wintering on the protected lands in north Alabama.

“There are 800 whooping cranes in the world and every winter 10 to 20 come here,” said David Young, ranger at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. “It’s really incredible because you can park your car, walk five minutes to a heated building and see them. I think that’s what makes Wheeler so unique for whooping crane viewing — the convenience, comfortability and accessibility.”

To celebrate and spotlight the cranes, the Friends of Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, a local conservancy group, organized the Festival of the Cranes nine years ago.

Over the years, the festival, which started as a one-day event with 900 visitors, has grown into a three-day event. If the weather cooperates, organizers expect up to 3,000 people from across the country to attend the festival.

This year’s festival will kick off Friday and feature a Grammy Award-winning musician, storyteller, birding walks, photography workshops, art exhibits, a falconer, screening of an International Wildlife Film Festival award-winning documentary and raptor shows. Along with the refuge, events will take place in downtown Decatur at the Princess Theatre, Carnegie Visual Arts Center, Alabama Center for the Arts, Old State Bank, Decatur Public Library and the Cook Museum.

“The first festival was at the refuge and so jam-packed we moved some events into town. This has really become a community event and all because the whooping cranes wintered here because they are kind of lazy. Instead of going all the way to Florida, as was planned, they stopped here, where we had open water and food,” said Mary Lee Ratliff, president of the Friends of Wheeler.

The whoopers, a term used by avid whooping crane watchers who refer to themselves as “craniacs,” first appeared in north Alabama in 2004 to the surprise of the refuge staff, volunteers and researchers. Biologists originally planned for the whooping cranes, which numbered 15 in 1941, to winter in Florida with its salt marshes and crabs, a habitat and diet similar to that of the 500 whoopers that winter at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas.

Some of the whoopers, which stand 5 feet tall and weigh 15 pounds, however, opted to call north Alabama their winter home.

With 14 birds currently on site, Wheeler is home to one of the largest wintering congregations of whooping cranes in the Eastern Flyway. Of the more than 800 whooping cranes in existence today, about 80 birds migrate along the United States’ Eastern Flyway. The whooping cranes migrate to their wintering grounds in Alabama, Florida, Tennessee, Kentucky and Indiana from Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa and Illinois.

To read about the whooping cranes that winter at Wheeler, visit the International Crane Foundation’s whoopermap.savingcranes.org. The birds include 1-11, who has wintered at Wheeler since 2011, W18-20, who flew to Decatur with her parents last winter, and 4-13 who, found in an abandoned nest, learned the migration route from an ultralight plane.

On an average day, one to eight whooping cranes, along with up to 10,000 sandhill cranes, can be seen around Wheeler’s observation building.

“We are excited to share the beauty of Wheeler with others. We want this festival to have something for everyone. We want people to come back year after year. We’ve had grandparents tell us they haven’t missed a crane festival yet and they bring their grandchildren. That’s gratifying for us. That’s why we do this,” Ratliff said.

Festival of the Cranes

When: Saturday and Sunday with special events on Friday.

Where: Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, Princess Theatre, Alabama Center for the Arts, Carnegie Visual Arts Center, Old State Bank, Decatur Public Library and Cook Museum of Natural Science.

Parking: With limited parking at Wheeler, a shuttle will run from the Princess Theatre to the refuge on Saturday and Sunday. Cost is $2 for roundtrip.

To know: Masks will be required at all indoor events.



• High school students Crane Art Show at the Old State Bank, 925 Bank St. N.E., 9:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Free.

• Wild About Whoopers at Cook Museum of Natural Science, 133 Fourth Ave. N.E. Coloring activity, 10 a.m.-3 p.m.; whooping crane selfie station, 10 a.m.-3 p.m.; Cool Cranes! Science on the Spot at 10 a.m., 11 a.m., noon, 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. Admission is $20 for ages 15-64, $17 for ages 65 and older and military, $15 for ages 3-14 and free for ages 2 and younger.

• John Paul White concert at the Princess Theatre, 112 Second Ave. N.E. The Grammy Award-winning musician’s concert will begin at 7 p.m. Tickets cost $25-30. Princesstheatre.org.


Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge

• Sunrise breakfast and bird walk, 6:30 a.m. $5 per person.

• Birding 101 with Christopher Joe, 8:30 a.m. Learn the basics of birding while walking the grounds of the Visitors Center. Free.

• Impersonation of President Theodore Roosevelt by Joe Wiegand, 11 a.m. Free.

• Session with Richard Beilfuss, president and CEO of the International Crane Foundation, 12:30 p.m. Free.

• Photography workshop with Paul Bannick, 2 p.m.

Princess Theatre

• Photography presentation, “Owl: A Year in the Lives of North American Owls” by Bannick, 9 a.m. Free.

• Falconer Lauren McGough presentation, 11 a.m. Free.

• Raptor Show by the Auburn University Southeastern Raptor Center. The show features hawks, eagles, falcons and owls. 1 p.m. Free.

• Impersonation of President Theodore Roosevelt by Wiegand, 3 p.m., free.

• Screening of “Overland,” an International Wildlife Film Festival award-winning documentary, featuring McGough and other falconers. Special guests include McGough and producer and director Elizabeth Haviland James. 7 p.m. Free.

Alabama Center for the Arts, 133 Second Ave. N.E.

• Thumbprint Critters art workshop for children. 10 a.m.-noon. Free.

• North Alabama Zoological Society session, 10 a.m.-noon. Free.

• Duck stamp sketching workshop for students kindergarten to 12th grade. 3 p.m. Free.

• Festival of the Cranes art exhibit featuring art by students, alumni, faculty and staff of Calhoun Community College and Athens State University, 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Free.

Decatur Public Library, 504 Cherry St. N.E.

• Kids’ crane activities, 3-5 p.m. Free.

Cook Museum

• Cool Cranes! Science on the Spot

• Wild About Whoopers. Coloring activity, 10 a.m.-3 p.m., whooping crane selfie station, 10 a.m.-3 p.m., Cool Cranes! Science on the Spot at 10 a.m., 11 a.m., noon, 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. Admission is $20 for ages 15-64, $17 for ages 65 and older and military, $15 for ages 3-14 and free for ages 2 and younger.

Carnegie Visual Arts Center, 207 Church St. N.E.

• Family-friendly art workshop with artists Dariana Dervis and Chiharu Roach, 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Free. Register at Carnegiearts.org.

Old State Bank

• High school students crane art show, 9 a.m.-noon. Free.


Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge

• Photography workshop with Bannick, 9 a.m. Free.

• Connecting with Birds and Nature with Christopher Joe, 10 a.m. Free.

• Impersonation of President Theodore Roosevelt by Wiegand, 1 p.m. Free.

• Session with falconer McGough, 3 p.m. Free.

Princess Theatre

• Impersonation of President Theodore Roosevelt by Wiegand, 10 a.m. Free.

• Session with falconer McGough, 11:30 a.m. Free.

• Raptor show presented by Auburn University Southeastern Raptor Center, 1 p.m. Free.

• “Owls and Woodpeckers of North America” presentation by Bannick, 3 p.m. Free.

Decatur Public Library

• Kids’ crane activities, 10 a.m.-noon and 2-4 p.m. Free.

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