By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

Observers will be on special alert in about 60 days when a dwindling flock of highly endangered whooping cranes start heading south for the winter.

Ken Kinman in Hays will be among those keeping close tabs on the progress of the birds, which migrate through Kansas in the fall and spring, frequently stopping off at either Quivira, Cheyenne Bottoms or Kirwin.

By Kinman's calculation, if everything stays exactly as it is, the only naturally migrating flock of whooping cranes will increase by one bird.

That's a huge if, however.

Actually, it's virtually impossible.

Of the 52 chicks that hatched this spring in Canada, only 22 have survived, Kinman wrote in a posting on an electronic listserv frequented by birding aficionados across Kansas and in several other states.

"Just more bad news," he observed.

"If every one of those chicks survive the migration to Texas this fall and if every adult that left Aransas last fall returns as well, the maximum number of whooping cranes would be 271," Kinman wrote.

That's unlikely, he said.

"So the question now is how far below the record 270 will the Texas whooper population fall come the end of December 2009?" he asked. "Perhaps a realistic number might be 250, and if we are lucky maybe, just maybe, they will exceed the 270 record at the end of 2010. Depends on how good or bad conditions are in Texas this winter."

The Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, where the cranes go when they leave Canada, are apparently still less than ideal. Drought last year forced U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials to feed the whoopers, rather than let them naturally feed on blue crab.

Kinman is hoping that rain will come before the whoopers start migrating in November.

Bad weather at both summer and winter sites is behind the expected drop in population.

"The reason they lost so many chicks is it was wet and cold," Kinman said.

Kinman has long held an interest in whooping cranes and has suggested that the state push back its sandhill crane season by a week or two to allow the endangered cranes to pass through Kansas before shooting starts.

While there are big differences in whoopers and sandhill cranes, they are similar in appearance.

Two whooping cranes were killed in 2004 near Quivira by sandhill crane hunters. That's something Kinman hopes to avoid.

Despite his continuing objection, this year's sandhill crane season is set for Nov. 11.