On Sunday, May 8, Marc Monaghan was in Washington Park looking for dog walkers to photograph. As he wandered past Lorado Taft’s Fountain of Time he saw a big white bird with a long beak and a flash of red on its forehead standing in the lagoon.

Monaghan, the 56-year-old dean of students at the University of Chicago Lab School’s middle school and a photographer for the Hyde Park Herald, was pretty sure the bird was a whooping crane, North America’s tallest bird and one of its rarest. “I’m a bit of a birder,” he says. “I mean, I own a set of binoculars and a bird book. I’m sort of like a social drinker–I don’t go out on bird counts, but I do know they exist.”

He saw colored bands on the bird’s legs and figured it must have escaped from a zoo–the only wild flock, with some 200 of the five-to-six-foot birds, migrates between Texas and Alberta. Still, the bird was unusual, so he started taking pictures. “I photographed it for 45 minutes,” he says, “found some people walking dogs, then came back and photographed it some more.”

Whooping cranes are notoriously shy, but this one seemed less perturbed by Monaghan than by a Canada goose that evidently thought it owned the lagoon–it kept hissing at the crane. Then a fight broke out between two men in the street next to the lagoon. “It was some stupid guy-car thing,” Monaghan says. “They had to be separated, then the guys got back in their cars.” But now he was worried that the bird was going to get hurt.

He went home and called the neighborhood birding expert but got no answer. He tried the police. “They got interested,” he says. “Finally they got me the number for the first-aid station at the Lincoln Park Zoo. That’s when I gave up.”

In the evening Monaghan phoned his friend David Graber, a naturalist at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in California, and said he thought he’d spotted a whooping crane. Graber told him a network of conservation organizations, in partnership with several government agencies, had been working since 2001 to create an eastern flock of the endangered birds, teaching them to migrate between national wildlife refuges in Wisconsin and Florida by leading them with an ultralight aircraft–a strategy made famous by the movie Fly Away Home.

Monaghan remembered that a few years back he’d taken his eighth graders on a trip to Baraboo, Wisconsin, where they’d visited the International Crane Foundation. He went to the ICF Web site and saw that it was one of the partners in the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, the group trying to establish the new flock. He found a link that said “Report a Crane Sighting” and sent a description of the bird. “Let me know if this really is a whooping crane,” he wrote. “It’s in an urban area with lots of cats and dogs and a few not-so-nice people.”

Anne Lacy promptly wrote back that he’d probably seen a sandhill crane. Sandhills, which are smaller and darker than whoopers, were once endangered too. But they’ve bounced back and are now fairly common in the northern midwest.

Monaghan e-mailed one of his photos to Lacy. “Fantastic!” she fired back. “I love the digital age!” She said the bird was indeed a whooping crane, then swore him to secrecy: “Our main concern now is too many overeager folks getting too close and really bothering this bird.”

ICF staff could tell from Monaghan’s photos that the bird he’d found was number 18-04, a male raised the previous summer at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in central Wisconsin. The nearly 50 birds in the eastern flock are all hatched from eggs taken from the western flock. The chicks have as little contact with people as possible–the scientists who approach them wear white crane costumes and feed them using hand puppets that look like cranes. The fledglings are also raised separate from the older birds, then led south in the fall by an ultralight to teach them the migration route. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the whole process costs around $160,000 per bird.

Last summer 18-04 damaged some feathers and couldn’t go with the other first-year birds behind the ultralight, so WCEP staff took a chance and introduced it to the older birds, hoping it would fly south with them when they left a couple weeks later. It did, and when it showed up in Florida the staff started calling it a rock star. This fall they plan to let a quarter of the fledglings try to make the trip south with the main flock instead of the ultralight.

This spring 18-04 was the last crane to leave Florida, taking off alone on April 18. It was spotted in northern Indiana on April 30, but no one saw it again until Monaghan did a week later. That was the first visit a whooping crane had made to Chicago in over a century.

Once Monaghan knew how remarkable the bird he’d seen was, he was uneasy about publishing any of his pictures in the Herald while the crane was still in Hyde Park. “I had an ethical struggle about that,” he says. “Did this bird need less or more attention?”

ICF tried to ensure that as few people as possible learned that 18-04 was in the city. A staffer contacted Chuck Westcott of the Chicago Ornithological Society and asked if some of the group’s members would keep an eye on the crane without putting the word out to other birders. Painfully aware of what he’d be denying his fellow birders, Westcott agreed. Meanwhile WCEP staff debated whether they should go to Chicago and capture the young bird in an attempt to spare it possible injury or let nature take its course.

On Monday evening, the day after Monaghan first saw 18-04, Westcott e-mailed ICF that the bird was still in the lagoon near 60th and Cottage Grove and that it “looked to be healthy but apprehensive of the observer.” It was still there the following morning. “While two observers were watching the crane they spotted a King Rail walking along the shoreline,” Westcott e-mailed ICF. “This is a seldom seen bird in these parts. We decided not to post the rail sighting on the internet, as it might bring out some birders who would most likely see the whooper and set off a mad rush.” He said other birders had seen the rail and posted an announcement online a little later, but they didn’t seem to have spotted the far larger crane.

Tuesday night Westcott e-mailed that four ornithological society birders had failed to find the crane that evening. Monaghan had gone looking for the bird that afternoon, but he hadn’t seen it either.

On Wednesday ICF heard that a single whooping crane had been spotted flying north of the city by two reliable Evanston birders, though it had been headed south at the time. A day later a WCEP tracker caught up with 18-04 in southern Wisconsin, and the following Monday it was back at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge–the first whooper to have learned the eastern migration route without human help.

On Wednesday, the same day ICF learned that 18-04 had left Chicago, one of Monaghan’s pictures appeared in the Hyde Park Herald.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marc Monaghan, Lloyd DeGrane.