Friday, April 30, 2010

Local birders report rare sighting

Hooded crane—a native of Siberia—spotted in open fields near Carey

Express Staff Writer

A dark-gray-and-white hooded crane, left, walks through open fields east of Carey alongside a sandhill crane earlier this week. Hooded cranes are native to Siberia. Local birders who made the very rare find have touched off a spirited debate about whether the crane is a wild stray or an escapee. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Cameron

Just east of the rural farming community of Carey in southeastern Blaine County, an avian mystery—a real "who dunnit" of the natural world—is captivating avid bird watchers from across southern Idaho and beyond.

Last Sunday, Wood River Valley birders Poo Wright-Pulliam, Jean Seymour and Judy Foster were scanning the open farm and ranch lands and marshy areas on the north end of the Carey Lake Wildlife Management Area when they spied a large bird with all-white plumage on its head and neck. The bird was obviously a crane of some sort, but its red-and-black crown and dark-gray body was unlike anything they'd seen.

Though these longtime birders have numerous sightings to their credit, this one left them initially scratching their heads.

As it turned out, the large and beautiful bird was a hooded crane. The sighting is remarkable, given that hooded cranes are not native to North America.

Rather, the elegant cranes migrate between Siberia south across East Asia to the Japanese islands.

The debate—which is now dominating comment boards on online birding websites—centers on whether this is truly a wild stray or "accidental" from Siberia or just a more close-to-home escapee from a zoo or other bird sanctuary. Wright-Pulliam said this would be the first-ever sighting of a wild hooded crane in North America.

"I'm thinking it's a wild bird that maybe wanted to get out of town for a while," she quipped.

There is at least one previous example of a wild Siberian bird that showed up in Blaine County. In 1996, a Siberian accentor—a small, shy and sparrow-like bird—created a furor among local birders when it was spotted in Hailey. For the hooded crane to be another such accidental, it would have had to be knocked off course across the Pacific Ocean to Alaska. From there it could have conceivably flown the same migratory pathways that bring other birds to Idaho.

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"If a Siberian accentor can make it, why not a hooded crane?" Wright-Pulliam asked.

According to the International Crane Foundation, hooded cranes nest in such remote wetlands in southeastern Siberia that it was not until early 1974 that the first nest was located by biologists. There are believed to be fewer than 10,000 wild hooded cranes in the world.

More than 80 percent of hooded cranes spend the winter at the Izumi Feeding Station on the Japanese island of Kyushu. Small numbers are also found at Yashiro in southern Japan, in South Korea and at several sites along the middle Yangtze River in China.

Adult hooded cranes are about 3 feet tall and weigh about eight pounds.

Those leaning towards the escaped bird idea have more than assumptions to pin their theory on.

According to birder Cliff Weisse of Island Park, three hooded cranes are believed to have escaped from a private enclosure in Idaho around 2001. Weisse, a member of the Idaho Bird Records Committee, which keeps track of rare sightings like the Carey hooded crane and is funded by the Audubon Society, said it's not clear when or where in Idaho the cranes escaped from.

He said he's leaning toward the escapee theory, though he can't be sure. Weisse and other birders are trying to find more accurate information about the reputed escapees.

"In a way, it's far-fetched that it would get missed for nine years," said Weisse, who drove to Carey and spotted the bird on Sunday.

On the other hand, hooded cranes are known to live up to 40 years, meaning this could be one of those escapees. Should the bird listen to its inherited migratory tendencies and fly north at the same time its counterparts in Asia do this summer, that would suggest that it is a wild bird.

"If it remains around Carey all summer, I think we'll know what it is," Weisse said.

Another mystery is the bird's lack of leg bands, which are required on captive birds. In the end, the crane may just up and disappear, leaving local birders to forever wonder.

"You never really know," Weisse said. "For me it was worth driving over to see. It's a beautiful bird."

Jason Kauffman:

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