By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

STAFFORD -- If last fall is any indication, the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge will soon be awash in birdwatchers.

It's already awash in the attention-grabbing and highly endangered whooping cranes.

"Right now we have 74," Melanie Olds, a technician at the refuge said Thursday.

Just as quickly, she corrected herself, "76, sorry,"

With just 263 birds in the only naturally migrating flock in the nation, Quvira now can account for a huge chunk of them.

"Seventy-six is what our total is," said Barry Jones, who is keeping close tabs on the birds' presence.

With so many, and the birds scattered about the refuge, it's been difficult to keep track of them all.

"The birds have been using several areas of the refuge," Jones said. "That's what our total was for the day."

Spring time is typically not the best whooping crane-watching time, as the birds typically make a quick dash north from Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in the southern tip of Texas to breeding grounds in Canada.

But even in the fall, Quivira might only expect to see two to five birds. Generally, however, they stick around longer in the fall than in the spring.

"Last fall, everything we expected of them went totally out the window," Jones said.

Last fall, Quivira had a high of 18 birds on the refuge, attracting a crush of birdwatchers.

To be fair, the Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area attracted a crush of birds as well, and birdwatchers.

"I don't know what to think," Jones said of the unusual migration pattern that is currently being seen at Quivira.

Jones said the birds have been moving around the refuge, using different areas.

"They're in four different areas," he said. "Mostly the big salt marsh."

Fifty of the 76 birds on the refuge have taken up short-term residency in the big salt marsh, popular to birders.

Birders like the site because an observation tower lets them look over the broad expanse of the area.

"It's really interesting," Jones said of watching and keeping track of the birds. "It was a lot of fun last night. We were just thrilled and going crazy over the fact we had 46.

"This morning, our jaws just dropped."

No one knows how long the birds will stick around, but with high winds Thursday and rain in the forecast today, there's a chance they might hang around a bit.

"They like having a tail wind," Jones said of the birds. "I don't know if they want that much of a tail wind."

So the birds might stay longer than normal.

As a word of caution, Jones said it's generally best to stay at least a half-mile away from the birds, to ensure they are not spooked. The two main sites being used by the birds provide that sort of buffer, he said, provided no one starts wading out into the water.

Jones is also figuring birdwatchers will start streaming in.

"People are just becoming aware of it," he said of the arrival of the birds. "Whooping cranes are very popular birds."

A stuffed whooping crane is on display in the Quivira vistor's center, open from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.

"Looking out," he said, "a couple visitors just stopped in."