By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

When they're not chasing snowy owls or any of the 326 other birds they've spotted since they took up birdwatching, Sam and Terry Mannell recently traveled to Cheyenne Bottoms to see a family of whooping cranes now believed to be overwintering in Kansas.

There are as many as five whoopers spending the winter in Kansas, according to Dan Severson, manager of the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge south of Great Bend.

Sightings of whooping cranes in January are "unprecedented," Severson said in a statement announcing the five birds are still in Kansas, spending time at both Quivira and Cheyenne Bottoms.

They are, however, spending most of their time in private land.

Typically, whooping cranes spend their winters on the Texas coast, but conditions there are less than ideal, what with the drought and a resulting dip in blue crab production, a favorite food of the cranes.

Yet the health of the cranes is good, according to Vicki Muller, a crane specialist at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

"We're not seeing the doom and gloom," Muller said of earlier reports on the fate of the only naturally migrating flock of cranes. "I can definitely tell you the whooping cranes we're seeing have bright white feathers and that indicates they're in good condition.

"So far, so good."

The birds, she said, are "not disheveled and shabby like we saw in 2008."

It was the whooping cranes that drew the Mannells to Cheyenne Bottoms.

"We went down specifically to see the whooping cranes," Terry Mannell said, "because you don't see many of them."

While there, they also caught sight of a snowy owl perched on a blind. It was one of four at Cheyenne Bottoms.

Mannell said the cranes he saw are believed to be the same group spotted during a Christmas bird count near Holyrood.

While there are five whoopers in Kansas, Severson said they are split into three separate groups.

One is a family group with two adults and a juvenile. The others include a lone juvenile bird and a single adult that has been sticking close by a group of sandhill cranes.

Mannell said about 15 sandhill cranes flew over them as they drove on Kansas Highway 4 near Geneseo last week.

It's unusual for sandhill cranes to stay in Kansas this late in the season, typically moving out of the state in October and November. Currently, Severson said, thousands of sandhill cranes remain.

Quivira Refuge staff are asking for the public's help in monitoring the remaining whooping cranes.

The birds may roost in or near marshes or lakes, but feed in grain fields or pastures.

Anyone seeing a whooping crane should call Quivira at (620) 486-2393 as soon as possible. The date and time spotted as well as the bird's behavior and type of habitat should be noted.