Not even a partial nationwide governmental shutdown, which shuttered the doors of the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge’s visitors center and observation building, could stop bird watchers and nature lovers from celebrating whooping cranes — the endangered 5-foot-tall birds that call north Alabama their winter home.

“They are such beautiful birds. Other than the fact they are so beautiful and stick out really well in the landscape, they are such complex creatures,” said Lexi Eiler with the International Crane Foundation. “They dance with their mates and they dance to defend their territories. They are just really impressive birds.”

In celebration of the thousands of Sandhill cranes and 13 whooping cranes currently on the refuge, the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge Association organized the Festival of the Cranes six years ago. If past events serve as any indication, more than 5,000 people from a dozen states will attend the annual two-day festival scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, which will feature a Grammy Award-winning musician, storytellers, a larger-than-life interactive puppet experience by Jim Henson’s daughter, art exhibits and a documentary about whooping cranes by Ted Turner’s son.

“The whooping cranes are what make this festival special," said Teresa Adams, supervisory park ranger at Wheeler. "They are one of the most endangered birds. We are so lucky around here. Really, to be able to look at those birds and do it from the observation building with a scope is just incredible. It is such a rare opportunity."

The whoopers, a term used by bird watchers, first appeared in north Alabama in 2004 to the surprise of researchers and the bird-watching community. Biologists planned for the whooping cranes, which numbered 15 in 1941, to winter in Florida with its salt marshes and blue crabs — a habitat and diet similar to the whoopers that wintered and thrived at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas.

The whooping cranes had other plans.

“The population at Wheeler is one of the biggest wintering congregations of whooping cranes in the Eastern Flyway. There are 849 whooping cranes in existence today split into three populations. There are about 101 birds in the Eastern migratory population, which includes Alabama,” Eiler said.

To raise awareness about the rare whooping cranes, local refuge officials and the Friends of Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge organization envisioned the Festival of the Cranes.

“We are always looking for ways to get the community involved and recognize the intrinsic value of the refuge," said Susan Estes, a member of the friends group. "When the whooping cranes came, we said, ‘Hey, this is major.’ This is an opportunity to engage the public and inform them about the refuge and the birds."

Through the Festival of the Cranes, organizers aimed to educate visitors by featuring nationally-known speakers, holding workshops and providing activities for children.

“We knew it could be a great pull to Decatur," Adams said. "The fact that we have this many whooping cranes that spend the winter here is real special. From the very beginning, we wanted this to be a community event and not just a refuge event."

Along with bird watchers from across the United States, the festival caught the attention of the nonprofit International Crane Foundation.

“My favorite thing about the festival is it’s a platform that allows different kinds of people who would not usually be interested in crane conservation to get exposed to what Wheeler is doing,” said Eiler, whose background lies in endangered species conservation. “Through my past experiences, I’ve seen the need for education to be part of conservation. You can do whatever you want to help these birds, but if you don’t get other people to care about them there’s only so much you can do.”

When the whooping cranes started migrating to north Alabama in November, so did Eiler. She attended festivals, talked with environmental groups and led programs at the Decatur Public Library.

“I hang out and I talk to as many people as possible that will listen to me about whooping cranes. The festival is the crown jewel of all the outreach festivities. It’s such a cool event and the refuge association has done a great job of growing that event,” Eiler said.

Events at the refuge’s visitors center include nature walks, photography workshops, children’s activities, flute concerts and presentations by a Teddy Roosevelt re-enactor. President of the United States from 1901-1909, Roosevelt established the country’s first national refuge.

Outside of the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, special events include a concert by Grammy Award winner John Paul White, an elaborate puppet show created by Jim Henson’s daughter Heather Henson and presentations by Auburn University’s Southeastern Raptor Center at the Princess Theatre, a documentary on whooping cranes by Ted Turner’s son Rhett Turner and a juried art show at the Alabama Center for the Arts and a crane journal workshop at the Carnegie Visual Arts Center.

“Having endangered whooping cranes and thousands and thousands of Sandhill cranes is such a special thing. We need to highlight and appreciate and protect this,” Adams said.

Festival of the Cranes

When: Saturday and Sunday with special events taking place Thursday and Friday

Where: Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, Princess Theatre, Alabama Center for the Arts, Carnegie Visual Arts Center.

Parking: Park in downtown Decatur. A shuttle will run from the Princess Theatre to Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Cost is $2 roundtrip.

Schedule: All events will take place at the refuge unless noted otherwise.

Thursday

“Journey of the Whooping Crane,” a documentary film by Rhett Turner, 6 p.m., Alabama Center for the Arts. Free. To reserve a seat, visit the Festival of the Cranes Facebook page.

Friday

John Paul White in Concert, 7 p.m., Princess Theatre Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets start at $25. princesstheatre.org.

Saturday

Breakfast and early morning birding walk, 6:30 a.m. Wear comfortable shoes, bring binoculars and cameras. $5.

Birding 101, 8 a.m., led by Alabama Ornithological Society/Tennessee Valley Audubon Society. Free.

Photography workshop with David Akoubian, 9 a.m. Free.

Children’s activities, 9-10:30 a.m. and 1:30-3 p.m. Create a crane mask, crane puppet and crane origami.

Creating nature from paper, 9-11 a.m., at the Alabama Center for the Arts. Hands-on art activity. Limited to 20 people. Learn to fold origami cranes and sculpt flowers. Free.

Juried Festival of the Cranes exhibit, 9 a.m.-3 p.m., at the Alabama Center for the Arts. Free.

Crane journal workshop, 10 a.m.-3 p.m., at the Carnegie Visual Arts Center with artist Doug Baulos. Participants will create and experiment with handmade paper to create a book examining whooping cranes. The come-and-go workshop is recommended for ages 12 and older. Free.

“Night After Night O’Moon,” 10 a.m.-4 p.m., at the Carnegie Visual Arts Center. Ecological installation by Doug Baulos. Free.

President Theodore Roosevelt portrayed by Joe Wiegand, 10:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. Free.

Discovering Alabama Whooping Cranes, noon. Free.

Auburn University’s Southeastern Raptor Center, 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., at the Princess Theatre. Free.

Concert by flutist Michael Graham Allen, 1:30 p.m. Free.

“Celebration of Flight” by IBEX Puppetry, 6 p.m., at the Princess Theatre. Tickets start at $5.

Sunday

Nature walk led by Joe Wiegand as President Theodore Roosevelt, 7 a.m. Free.

Photography workshop with David Akoubian, 9 a.m. Free.

Concert by Michael Graham Allen, 9 a.m. Free.

President Theodore Roosevelt portrayed by Joe Wiegand, 10:30 a.m. Free.

Children’s activities, 1:30 p.m. Free.

Discovering Alabama Whooping Cranes, 1:30 p.m. Free.

“Night After Night O’Moon,” 11 a.m.-3 p.m., Carnegie Visual Arts Center. Free.

Auburn University’s Southeastern Raptor Center, 1:30 p.m., Princess Theatre. Free.

cgodbey@decaturdaily.com or 256-340-2441. Twitter @DecaturLiving.

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