Winged wonders thriving

A pair of whooping cranes feed in ACE Basin shallows in the winter of 2006-07

Anne Matthews couldn't quite trust her eyes at first. As a child, she had seen bald eagles on Lake Moultrie. She didn't expect to see them routinely when she moved to Pimlico on the Cooper River two years ago.

But wildlife biologists now characterize the bald eagle as conspicuous in South Carolina. At least 600, maybe a lot more, live in the state, mostly in the Lowcountry. An annual count is under way; last year the numbers improved by nearly 100 birds from 2007.

The eagle is one of two stunning bird species now at home in the Lowcountry, along with the nearly extinct whooping crane. Two pairs of the statuesque cranes are now wintering in the ACE Basin in Colleton County, among them a female who might be the best chance for South Carolina to see its first chick in a century and a half.

The eagles are more visible in the winter and spotted more often.

"People don't believe it when you think you've seen a bald eagle, so I discounted it (at first)," Matthews said. But the treetop figures with the stark white heads were unmistakable when they swooped. "They're just massive. They're downright scary. They seem like they could pick you up."

The national symbol — nearly wiped out in the lower 48 states by pesticide poisoning — has rebounded in the state from as few as 13 breeding pairs in the 1960s to more than 200 today.

Once considered easily spooked, they are getting more and more accustomed to people and developed habitats — almost too accustomed. The International Center for Birds of Prey in Awendaw released its 100th treated bald eagle earlier this year, director Jim Elliott said. The center now has three in rehab, including one poisoned by lead and one that was caught in barbed wire.

In the wild, the raptors awe. Their wings stretch 8 feet wide. Their keen eyes can spot a fish within three square miles while flying at 1,000 feet. And they can fly at highway speeds.

As heart-stopping as spotting an eagle is, spotting a whooping crane in the Lowcountry is almost fantastic. Hunted nearly out of existence, they hadn't been seen in the state since 1850.

A reintroduced pair landed in 2004. The female now in the ACE Basin was the first wild hatch of the Eastern flock reintroduced to Florida. She has paired with a male who winters in the basin.

"The fact that she paired up with this male is exciting; she may keep coming back to South Carolina," said Joan Garland, of the International Crane Foundation.

The 5-foot-tall crane is the tallest bird in America. The crane is named for the hair-raising call flocks make in the wild and is known for its elegant bobbing and weaving courtship waltz.

The birds were reintroduced in the East in the 1990s with quixotic, ultralight plane-led migrations to Florida from their Midwest summer breeding grounds.

Fewer than 75 whooping cranes now winter in the wild in the Southeast, mostly in Florida. On Monday, another 14 were in Alabama, trailing an ultralight on their first migration.

The cranes seem to be taking to the Lowcountry. The other ACE Basin pair, returning for their second year, amazed observers by streaking 1,000 miles straight from Wisconsin in only five days.