Ultralight-led Whooping Cranes Arrive at Florida Wintering Grounds
Seven whooping cranes fly over Dunnellon airport, Fl Jan 22, 2009. The cranes then flew to their wintering site on Jan 23, 2009. Credit: John McCormack (click on photo for larger image)
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
January 23, 2009
Ivan Vicente, 352-563-2088
Joan Garland, 608-381-1262
Dan Peterson, 608-565-4412
Tom MacKenzie, 404-679-7291
Fourteen endangered whooping cranes and their surrogate parents, four ultralight aircraft, have arrived at their wintering grounds in Florida after a trek of more than 1,200 miles through seven states.
Seven of the cranes arrived at their wintering location on the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Wakulla County, Florida on January 17. The other seven ultralight-led birds arrived on their wintering grounds at the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Citrus County today.
Crowd gathers to watch flyover of ultralight-led whooping cranes at Dunnellon airport on Jan 22, 2009.
The cranes arrived arrived on their wintering grounds at the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge
in Citrus Count on Jan 23, 2009. Credit: John McCormack (click on photo for larger image)
These fourteen cranes from the “Class of 2008” are the eighth group guided by ultralights to Florida from Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in central Wisconsin. The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, an international coalition of public and private organizations, is conducting the reintroduction project in an effort to restore this endangered species to part of its historic range in eastern North America.
"This Class of 2008 brings another exciting year for this great partnership and it gets us one step closer to seeing the recovery of this magnificent species,” said Keith Ramos, Acting Refuge Manager at Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge. “The staff at Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge worked hard to make sure that everything was ready for the arrival of the birds. We are very excited to be a part of this project and to be able to share our excitement with our new partners at the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge."
“St. Marks has been anticipating the birds’ arrival for months, and the outpouring of community support around Wakulla and Leon counties has been phenomenal,” said Terry Peacock, Refuge Manager at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. “We are thankful for the help of all of our volunteers who have assisted with pen set-up and helped with other preparations around the refuge.”
This is the first year the cranes will winter at two separate locations. The decision to split the cohort comes after the loss in February 2007 of 17 of the 18 Class of 2006 whooping cranes in a severe storm at Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge. The partnership hopes the two wintering locations will help reduce the risk of another catastrophic loss.
In addition to the 14 birds led south by Operation Migration’s ultralights, five cranes made their first southward migration this fall as part of Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership’s Direct Autumn Release program. Biologists from the International Crane Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reared the cranes at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge and released them in the company of older cranes from whom the young birds learned the migration route. An additional whooping crane, which had been removed from the ultralight-led cohort due to aggressive behavior, was released on the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge using Direct Autumn Release methods. This juvenile crane and one of the Direct Autumn Release birds arrived in Alachua County, Florida in late December. The other four birds are currently in Tennessee. This is the fourth year Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership has used this Direct Autumn Release method.
Ultralight lands to talk with the crowd about finishing the 1,200 mile journey, Jan 22, 2009. The cranes flew their last leg on Jan 23, 2009, arriving at Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: John McCormack (click on photo for larger image)
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 at 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.
In 2001, project partner Operation Migration’s pilots led the first whooping crane chicks, conditioned to follow their ultralight aircraft surrogates, south from Necedah National Wildlife Refuge to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge. Each subsequent year, Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership biologists and pilots have conditioned and guided additional groups of juvenile cranes to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge. Having been shown the way once, the young birds self initiate their return migration in the spring, and in subsequent years, continue to migrate on their own.
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 and wintering grounds.
Most graduated classes of whooping cranes spend the summer in central Wisconsin, where they use areas on or near the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, as well as other public and private lands.
Whooping cranes were on the verge of extinction in the 1940s. Today, there are only about 525 birds in existence, 375 of them in the wild. Aside from the 73 birds reintroduced by the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, 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. A non-migrating flock of approximately 30 birds lives year-round in the central Florida Kissimmee region.
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.
The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership asks anyone who encounters a whooping crane in the wild to please give them the respect and distance they need. Do not approach birds on foot within 200 yards; remain in your vehicle; do not approach in a vehicle within 100 yards. Also, please remain concealed and do not speak loudly enough that the birds can hear you. Finally, do not trespass on private property in an attempt to view or photograph whooping cranes.
Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership founding members are the International Crane Foundation, Operation Migration, Inc., Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and National Wildlife Health Center, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin, and the International Whooping Crane Recovery Team.
Many other flyway states, provinces, private individuals, and conservation groups have joined forces with and support the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership by donating resources, funding and personnel. More than 60 percent of the project’s budget comes from private sources in the form of grants, public donations and corporate sponsors.
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
For more information on the project, its partners and how you can help, visit the WCEP website at http://www.bringbackthecranes.org.