By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

A momentary rush of excitement filled the Kansas birding world Thursday morning as word spread that the first whooping crane of the year had set down at the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge.

But it was only a quick stop, Quivira officials said, and the bird was soon winging its way south once again.

The sighting -- or the anticipation of one -- was enough for the birdwatching world to spring into action, mirroring at least part of what is depicted in movie theaters nationwide.

Quivira visitor services specialist Barry Jones timed the event just right, sending out notice that the first birds of the only remaining naturally migrating flock of whooping cranes had started its 2,600-mile migration from Canada to Texas.

Generally, the birds pass through Kansas as they make the trip.

And when they arrive, dedicated birdwatchers are quick to head out to either Quivira or Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Management Area in hopes of spotting the endangered bird.

The migration nearly matches the release of the movie "The Big Year," a tale of avid birders who stop at almost nothing to complete their life lists, a compendium of species -- rare and common.

In reality, Jones said the birds -- the tallest species in North America -- are frequent but unpredictable visitors to Quivira. In a normal year, anywhere from two to five birds can be seen in the area from late October through early November.

Over the past two years, however, whooping cranes have stopped at Quivira and Cheyenne Bottoms in huge numbers, relative to their total population.

In 2009, for example, 112 cranes stopped at Quivira during the fall migration. In the spring of 2010, 76 birds were on the ground on April 1, with as many as 25 in a single group.

This year's naturally migrating whooping crane population -- with about 37 chicks fledged from 75 nests -- should number nearly 300.

Twelve young birds were captured at Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada in August and fitted with radio collars, bring the total of collared birds to 23.

The tracking is the first in 25 years, brought about because of extensive losses during migration.

Since the 1950s, 525 whooping cranes have died during migration, but only 50 carcasses have been recovered, according to Tom Stehn, who recently retired as whooping crane coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"It is imperative that we learn more about whooping crane mortality," Stehn wrote in his final report on the status of the birds.

There are three other whooping crane flocks in addition to the naturally migrating group. There are 115 in the Wisconsin to Florida ultra-light aircraft-led flock, 20 non-migratory birds in Florida and 24 in Louisiana.

Another 162 cranes are in captivity, making for a total population of 599 birds.

Jones is asking anyone seeing a whooping crane to note the time and location, and report the sighting to the refuge. Sightings can be called in to the refuge at (620) 486-2393.

More on the whooping cranes at Quivira can be found on the refuge website at www.fws.gov/quivira.