By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

Kansas is suddenly awash in whooping cranes.

Thirty-two adult and juvenile highly endangered whooping cranes have stopped off at two locations at Cheyenne Bottoms and at the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge.

With stiff southerly winds blowing Thursday, officials expected the tallest birds in North America to remain in the wetlands areas for some time. Frequently, the birds will stop only briefly, but strong winds often delay the migration south for the winter.

Word of the whoopers spread quickly, attracting the attention of birdwatchers and biologists.

Hoisington physician Dan B. Witt was among those rushing over to try to photograph the birds.

The birds were about 400 yards from shore, he said, but even that is closer than he's seen them before.

"This is the first ones that I have seen at a reasonable distance," he said.

The appearance of the birds also prompted changes in hunting at both Cheyenne Bottoms and at Quivira.

Because the 13 birds located at Cheyenne Bottoms have taken up residency in a refuge pool where hunting is already prohibited, other areas at the wildlife area are still open, according to Charlie Swank, a wildlife biologist for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.

Hunters in the goose hunting zone at the south end of the wildlife area no longer can take snow geese or sandhill cranes -- a season that won't open until Wednesday. Hunters can continue to shoot Canada and white-fronted geese and ducks, Swank said.

Five additional whooping cranes were spotted north of Cheyenne Bottoms, on marshy land owned by the Nature Conservancy, but no hunting is allowed there.

At Quivira, the entire refuge has been closed to hunting, according Melanie Olds, a technician there.

Quivira has 14 whooping cranes, 11 adults and three juveniles.

It's been a tougher than normal life for whooping cranes, which annually migrate 2,500 miles from Texas to Canada where they nest. In the fall, they head back south, wintering in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

This year, only 22 chicks hatched from 62 nests, well below average for the year.

Last winter, conditions at Aransas were hurt as a result of drought, making blue crabs unavailable to the birds.

A record 23 whooping cranes didn't survive the winter, and many of those returning to Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada were in poor condition.

With this year's hatch, the only naturally migrating flock stands at 265 birds.

There is an eastern flock of whoopers in the eastern United States, but an ultra-light aircraft leads the way from Wisconsin to Florida.

Whooping cranes often pass through Kansas as they migrate from Canada to Texas, often staying for considerable periods of time during the fall migration. In the spring, the birds rarely stick around long.

The birds have been staging for the annual fall flight, and some left Canada last week.

The birds in the marshy areas around Cheyenne Bottoms and Quivira were first confirmed Wednesday.

The Quivira birds arrived Wednesday afternoon, Olds said, prompting the closure of the refuge to hunting.

While refuge officials don't want the birds disturbed, the birds attract plenty of attention.

"We know people want to come out and see them," Olds said.

Spotting the birds on the land owned by the Nature Conservancy is a more difficult task, according to Rob Penner, who manages the TNC site.

Those birds, he said, are about a mile away from a recently constructed observation site and about that far from the nearest road.

"There's probably 50,000 geese on our property," Penner said, "so they're among them."

Both Penner and Swank agreed that with a stiff southerly wind blowing Thursday, the birds won't be in a rush to head south.

"I don't expect them to leave," Swank said.

"It's a good south wind, so I'm guessing they'll be here a while," Penner said.