Ultralight-led Whooping Cranes Arrive at Florida Wintering Grounds
Seventeen endangered whooping cranes and their surrogate parents (four ultralight aircraft) today reached Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in Citrus County, Florida, where they will get acclimated to their new wintering habitat. The young cranes traveled 1,261 miles through seven states.
These whooping cranes -- the "Class of 2007"--are the seventh group to be guided by ultralights to Florida from Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in central Wisconsin. The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP), an international coalition of public and private organizations, is conducting the reintroduction project in an effort to return this endangered species to its historic range in eastern North America. When the Class of 2007 birds make their spring migration, there will be 76 migrating whooping cranes in the wild in eastern North America.
This migration has been one of the most challenging so far," said Jim Kraus, manager of Chassahowitzka NWR. "The Operation Migration team has done a remarkable job in getting the cranes to Florida."
At 97 days, this was the longest ultralight-led migration since WCEP began reintroducing whooping cranes. Unsuitable flying weather caused delays at nearly every stopover along the migration route. WCEP biologists say that the lengthy trip and late arrival will not affect the birds' ability to make their unassisted migration northward this spring.
In addition to the 17 ultralight-led birds, seven cranes made their first southward migration this fall as part of WCEP's Direct Autumn Release program. Biologists from the International Crane Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reared the seven cranes at Necedah NWR and released them in the company of older cranes in hopes that the young birds would learn the migration route. These seven birds are currently at several locations in Tennessee.
In 2001, Operation Migration's pilots led the first whooping crane chicks, conditioned to follow their ultralight surrogates, from Necedah NWR to Chassahowitzka NWR. Each subsequent year, biologists and pilots have conditioned and guided additional groups of juvenile cranes to Chassahowitzka.
Whooping cranes that take part in the ultralight and Direct Autumn Release reintroductions are hatched at the U.S. Geological Survey's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Md., and the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wis. Chicks are raised under a strict isolation protocol and to ensure the birds remain wild, handlers adhere to a no-talking rule and wear costumes designed to mask the human form.
New classes of cranes are brought to Necedah NWR each June to begin a summer of conditioning behind the ultralights to prepare them for their fall migration. Pilots lead the birds on gradually longer training flights throughout the summer until the young cranes are deemed ready to follow the aircraft along the migration route.
Most graduated classes of whoopers spend the summer in central Wisconsin, where they use areas on or near the Necedah NWR, as well as other public and private lands.
In the spring and fall, project staff from the International Crane Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service track and monitor the released cranes in an effort to learn as much as possible about their unassisted journeys and the habitat choices they make both along the way and on their summering ground.
Whooping cranes were on the verge of extinction in the 1940s. Today, there are only about 500 birds in existence, 350 of them in the wild. Aside from the 76 Wisconsin-Florida birds, the only other migrating population of whooping cranes nests at the Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories of Canada and winters at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Gulf Coast.
This year the Wood Buffalo-Aransas flock reached a record size, as biologists counted 266 individuals on the Aransas wintering grounds.
A non-migrating flock of approximately 41 birds lives year-round in the central Florida Kissimmee region. The remaining 150 whooping cranes are in captivity in zoos and breeding facilities around North America.
Whooping cranes, named for their loud and penetrating unison calls, live and breed in wetland areas, where they feed on crabs, clams, frogs and aquatic plants. They are distinctive animals, standing five feet tall, with white bodies, black wing tips and red crowns on their heads.
Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership founding members are the International Crane, Foundation, Operation Migration, Inc., Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and National Wildlife Health Center, International Whooping Crane Recovery Team, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin.
Many other flyway states, provinces, private individuals and conservation groups have joined forces with and support WCEP by donating resources, funding and personnel. More than 60 percent of the project's estimated $1.8 million annual budget comes from private sources in the form of grants, public donations and corporate sponsors.
For more information on the project, its partners and how you can help, visit the WCEP website at http://www.bringbackthecranes.org.
A Wisconsin Whooping Crane Management Plan that describes project goals and management and monitoring strategies shared and implemented by the partners is online at: http://dnr.wi.gov/org/land/er/birds/wcrane/wcraneplan.htm.
Educators and students are encouraged to visit Journey North for information
and curriculum materials related to the whooping crane project: http://www.learner.org/jnorth/crane/index.html.
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