As the bird-watching calendar pushes further into spring, Oklahoma birders can look forward to the arrival of many migrating birds, including whooping cranes, a federally endangered bird whose wild flock numbers just over 500 birds.
Our Outdoor Oklahoma Field Note shares whooping crane identification tips.
The spring migration is the first of the crane's two annual migrations and consists of a 2,500-mile flight north to Canadian nesting grounds, with brief stops in Oklahoma expected in early April. The return journey to coastal Texas wintering grounds will take place in late fall, with Oklahoma stopovers expected in late October and early November.
Whooping cranes most commonly migrate through the western half of the state, typically east of Guymon, OK and west of Interstate 35. Although rare, cranes have been known to land on sites in central Oklahoma, including reservoirs in the Oklahoma City metropolitan area. While moving through Oklahoma, whooping cranes typically use shallow wetlands, marshes, and crop fields. The Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge, near Jet, is a very important migration stopover area and has been designated as critical habitat for the species. As is typical of many migrating birds, whooping cranes are usually at a stopover site for only one to three days.
As one of North America's tallest and most rare birds, the whooping crane is fairly distinguishable. The bird has bright white feathers across most of the body, except for red feathers on top of the head and face and black wingtips seen only when in flight. Like the sandhill crane, the whooping crane has a long neck and legs that remain outstretched in flight, and a large rump bustle that helps identify cranes standing in a field. While the closely related sandhill crane often congregates in flocks of 50 or more birds, whooping cranes rarely migrate in groups larger than eight birds.