Field Notes
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Field Notes Entry   
Fourth Group of Endangered Whooping Cranes Departs on Ultralight-guided Flight to Florida
Midwest Region, October 13, 2004
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Building on the success of three migrations led by Operation Migration Inc., a fourth generation of endangered whooping cranes began a similar migration on Oct. 13 from the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin.

At 8:48 a.m., guided by three ultralight aircraft, 14 juvenile whooping cranes began the first leg of their 1,228-mile journey to their wintering habitat at the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge along Florida's Gulf Coast. They flew for 25 miles before reaching their first stopover in southern Juneau County, Wisconsin.

Of the 14 birds that took off from Necedah, seven flew all the way to the stopover behind the ultralights. The remaining seven cranes were placed in special travelling crates and transported to the first stopover site. Pilots believe the 14 birds will more likely follow the ultralight aircraft as a group as the migration progresses.

?We?re fairly confident that now that these birds are away from the familiarity of Necedah refuge, they?ll more consistently follow the ultralight aircraft,? said Joe Duff, Co-founder of Operation Migration and the lead ultralight pilot.

The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP), an international coalition of public and private groups, is organizing the effort to reintroduce this highly imperilled species in eastern North America, which was a part of its historic range.

"As we see a new class of whooping cranes off on their first journey south, we are building on three years of success with this unprecedented project," said John Christian of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a founding member of WCEP and the agency that oversees the National Wildlife Refuge System. "We are also anticipating that the first three groups of cranes will make the migration this year unaided by ultralights--signalling further success for this unparalleled reintroduction effort."

In 2001, project partner Operation Migration's pilots led the first whooping crane chicks, conditioned to follow their ultralight surrogates south from Necedah NWR to Chassahowitzka NWR on Florida's Gulf Coast. In 2002 and 2003 WCEP biologists and pilots conditioned and guided additional groups of juvenile cranes to Chassahowitzka NWR. There are now 35 migratory whooping cranes in the wild in eastern North America.

WCEP 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 600 feet; try to remain in your vehicle; do not approach in a vehicle within 600 feet or, if on a public road, within 300 feet. 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 whooping cranes.

The whooping crane chicks that take part in the reintroduction project are hatched at the U.S. Geological Survey's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland. There, the young cranes are introduced to ultralight aircraft and raised in isolation from humans. To ensure the impressionable cranes remain wild, project biologists and pilots adhere to a strict no-talking rule, broadcast recorded crane calls and wear costumes designed to mask the human form whenever they are around the cranes.

New classes of cranes are transported 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 at the refuge throughout the summer until the young cranes are deemed ready to follow the aircraft along the migration route.

Graduated classes of whoopers spend much of their time during the summer on or near the Necedah and Horicon national wildlife refuges, both of which are in central Wisconsin. They also use state and private lands. It is not unusual for yearling cranes to wander, especially if they are not associating with any male flockmates, which typically select the future breeding territory.

Project staff from the International Crane Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service track and monitor southbound cranes in an effort to learn as much as possible about their unassisted journeys and the habitat choices they make along the way. ICF and FWS biologists actively track the cranes as they make their way north, and continue to monitor the birds, along with Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources biologists, while the whooping cranes are in their summer locations.

Whooping cranes were on the verge of extinction in the 1940s. Today, there are only about 300 birds in the wild. Aside from the 35 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. A non-migrating flock of approximately 90 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.

Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership founding members include 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 WCEP by donating resources, funding and personnel. More than 60 percent of the project's estimated $1.8 million budget comes from private sources in the form of grants, public donations and corporate sponsors.

Contact Info: Larry Dean, 612-713-5312, Larry_Dean@fws.gov
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