DECATUR – Thousands of sandhill cranes covering the fields, farmlands and ponds of the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge signal the onset of winter. Their calls, which echo in crisp, chilly mornings, serve as a beacon for bird watchers, nature lovers and explorers.
Among the sea of 15,000 sandhill cranes, 14 whooping cranes – rare endangered white birds with black tip wings and red caps – winter on the protected lands of northern Alabama.
“There are 800 whooping cranes in the world and every winter 10-20 come here,” said David Young, ranger at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. “It’s really amazing because you can park your car, walk five minutes to a heated building and see them. I think this is what makes Wheeler so unique for whooping crane viewing: convenience, comfort, and affordability.
To celebrate and shine a light on cranes, the Friends of Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, a local conservation group, hosted the Crane Festival 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. Weather permitting, organizers expect up to 3,000 people from across the country to attend the festival.
This year’s festival kicks off Friday and features a Grammy Award-winning musician, storyteller, birding walks, photography workshops, art exhibits, a falconer, the screening of an award-winning documentary. International animal film festival and raptor shows. Along with the refuge, events will be held in downtown Decatur at the Princess Theater, Carnegie Visual Arts Center, Alabama Center for the Arts, Old State Bank, Decatur Public Library, and Cook Museum.
“The first festival was at the shelter so we moved some events to town. It really became a community event and all because the whooping cranes overwintered here because they are a bit lazy. Instead of going all the way to Florida, as planned, they stopped here, where we had free water and food, ”said Mary Lee Ratliff, President of the Friends of Wheeler.
Whoopers, a term used by avid whooping crane watchers who refer to themselves as “skulls,” first appeared in northern Alabama in 2004 to the surprise of staff, volunteers and staff. researchers of the refuge. Biologists initially predicted that whooping cranes, which numbered 15 in 1941, would winter in Florida with its salt marshes and crabs, a habitat and diet similar to that of the 500 whooping birds that winter at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas.
Some of the whoopers, who are 5 feet tall and weigh 15 pounds, have however chosen to call northern Alabama their winter home.
With 14 birds currently at the 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 Eastern United States Flyway. Whooping cranes migrate to their wintering grounds in Alabama, Florida, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Indiana from Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, and Illinois.
To learn more about whooping cranes overwintering 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 traveled to Decatur with his parents last winter, and 4-13 who, found in an abandoned nest, learned the route flight from an ultralight aircraft.
On average, one to eight Whooping Cranes, as well as up to 10,000 Sandhill Cranes, can be seen around the Wheeler Observation Building.
“We are thrilled 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. Grandparents told us that they hadn’t missed a crane festival yet and that they were bringing their grandchildren. It’s gratifying for us. That’s why we’re doing this, ”Ratliff said.
When: Saturday and Sunday with special events on Friday.
Or: Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, Princess Theater, Alabama Center for the Arts, Carnegie Visual Arts Center, Old State Bank, Decatur Public Library, and Cook Museum of Natural Science.
Car park: With limited parking at Wheeler, a shuttle will run from the Princess Theater to the Refuge on Saturdays and Sundays. The cost is $ 2 for a round trip.
To know: Masks will be mandatory for all indoor events.
• Crane Art Show for high school students at Old State Bank, 925 Bank St. NE, 9:30 am to 3 pm Free.
• Wild About Whoopers at the Cook Museum of Natural Science, 133 Fourth Ave. NE Coloring activity, 10 am to 3 pm; whooping crane selfie station, 10 a.m. to 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 15-64 year olds, $ 17 for 65 year olds and over and the military, $ 15 for 3-14 year olds and free for 2 year olds and under.
• John Paul White concert at the Princess Theater, 112 Second Ave. NE The Grammy Award-winning musician’s concert begins at 7 p.m. Tickets cost $ 25 to $ 30. Princesstheatre.org.
Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge
• Breakfast at sunrise and bird walk, 6:30 am $ 5 per person.
• Birding 101 with Christopher Joe, 8:30 am Learn the basics of birding as you stroll the grounds of the Visitor Center. To free.
• Identity theft of President Theodore Roosevelt by Joe Wiegand, 11 am Free.
• Session with Richard Beilfuss, President and CEO of the International Crane Foundation, 12:30 pm Free.
• Photo workshop with Paul Bannick, 2 p.m.
• Photo presentation, “Owl: A Year in the Life of North American Owls” by Bannick, 9 am Free.
• Presentation by falconer Lauren McGough, 11 am Free.
• Raptor Show by Auburn University Southeastern Raptor Center. The show features hawks, eagles, hawks and owls. 1 p.m. Free.
• Identity theft of President Theodore Roosevelt by Wiegand, 3 pm, free.
• Screening of “Overland,” an award-winning documentary by the International Wildlife Film Festival, starring McGough and other falconers. Special guests include McGough and producer and director Elizabeth Haviland James. 7 p.m. Free.
Alabama Center for the Arts133 Second Ave. BORN
• Thumbprint Critters art workshop for children. 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. To free.
• North Alabama Zoological Society session, 10 am to noon. To free.
• Duck stamp design workshop for Kindergarten to Grade 12 students. 3 p.m. Free.
• Festival of the Cranes Art Exhibition featuring artwork by students, alumni, faculty and staff of Calhoun Community College and Athens State University, 10 a.m. 12 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Free.
Decatur Public Library504 Cherry Street NE
• Crane activities for children, 3 pm to 5 pm Free.
• Cool cranes! Science on the spot
• Wild About Whoopers. Coloring activity, 10 am-3pm, whooping crane selfie station, 10 am-3pm, 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 15-64 year olds, $ 17 for 65 year olds and over and the military, $ 15 for 3-14 year olds and free for 2 year olds and under.
Carnegie Visual Arts Center207 Church Street NE
• Family art workshop with artists Dariana Dervis and Chiharu Roach, 10 am and 1 pm Free. Register on Carnegiearts.org.
• Crane art exhibition for high school students, 9 am-12noon. To free.
Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge
• Photo workshop with Bannick, 9h Free.
• Connection with birds and nature with Christopher Joe, 10 am free.
• Identity theft of President Theodore Roosevelt by Wiegand, 1 pm Free.
• Session with falconer McGough, 3 p.m. Free.
• Identity theft of President Theodore Roosevelt by Wiegand, 10 am Free.
• Session with falconer McGough, 11:30 am Free.
• Raptor Show presented by Auburn University Southeastern Raptor Center, 1 p.m. free.
• Presentation “Owls and woodpeckers of North America” by Bannick, 3 pm Free.
• Children’s crane activities, 10 am to 12 noon and 2 pm to 4 pm Free.