By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

A series of aerial surveys have found only 209 endangered whooping cranes, but officials doubt that's a full count. Instead, they suspect the numbers might be closer to 245, counting cranes known to be outside their normal winter area.

Three flights in January at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and surrounding area, resulted in the sighting of just 193 of the birds.

Another 16 are known to be outside the typical wintering area -- including a family of three -- two adults and a juvenile -- last seen in the Nebraska area after overwintering in Kansas.

The concern, however, rests with the remaining population -- numbering only about 300 in the only naturally-migrating whooping crane flock that typically migrates through Kansas each spring and fall.

The birds spend their summers in Wood Buffalo National Park, located at the northern border of Alberta. They then fly south to Aransas, covering nearly 2,500 miles.

In the spring, the birds head back north, where they nest and raise their young.

Along the way, whooping cranes are known frequently stop at either Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Management Area near Great Bend or at Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, near Stafford.

This year, as many as five birds, including the family of three, have been calling Kansas home for the winter.

The other two include a lone juvenile and a single adult that has been sticking close to a group of sandhill cranes.

Conditions on the Texas coast have been less than ideal, the result of the ongoing drought and a subsequent dip in blue crab production, a favorite food of the cranes.

Still, Vicki Muller, a crane specialist at Aransas, said the health of the birds has been good.

"I can definitely tell you the whooping cranes we're seeing have bright white feathers and that indicates they're in good condition," she said just before the surveys were made.