National Wildlife Refuge System

Bring on the Snow

Visitors prepare for a snowshoe hike at Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge, WV.Eight juvenile cranes followed this ultralight from Wisconsin to St Marks Refuge in Florida.
Credit: Refuge volunteer Nick Hostick

January 7, 2014 - This year’s class of eight whooping cranes arrived at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Florida on Sunday following one of the longest ultralight-led migrations from Wisconsin in the project’s 13 year history.  The eight young cranes left Wisconsin on October 2, flying more than 1,000 miles.  Last year the cranes arrived before Thanksgiving.


The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP) is reintroducing the endangered cranes in eastern North America, part of the cranes’ historic range. WCEP partner Operation Migration uses two ultralight aircraft to lead juvenile cranes through Wisconsin, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia to their wintering habitat at St. Marks Refuge along Florida’s Gulf Coast.


It’s Always a Weather Thing

The final flyover was delayed several times due to bad weather. “Weather is the total determinant,” says Operation Migration pilot Brook Pennypacker. More than 1,500 people were at St. Marks Refuge to see the flyover on Saturday (January 4), but at the last minute, the air was too turbulent to continue.  Cranes fly on the vortex of lift that is provided by the ultralight. Pennypacker explains that if the air is turbulent, cranes and ultralight could hit each other; the cranes also tire more quickly. Left to their own devices, the cranes are soaring birds that ride invisible columns of warm air called thermals. These soaring birds are “much better flyers than we are!” says Pennypacker.


Young cranes remain in a top-netted pen for a few days for medical checks and permanent banding.
Credit: USFWS

The cranes are initially placed in a top-netted pen where they receive a medical check-up and permanent bands with radio transmitters. Within a week, they will be in a large open pen in a remote area of the refuge. The cranes fly in and out at will during the day, but are brought into the pen at night by handlers who are costumed so the cranes will not become accustomed to humans.  By March or early April, they will fly back north on their own.


Two older cranes from last year’s class returned to St Marks Refuge independently this year and are being watched carefully. Pennypacker says older birds often pick on the juveniles like bullying teenagers.   These two birds have known the younger cranes since they were chicks, so “hopefully they will co-exist.”


St. Marks Refuge manager Terry Peacock was disappointed that more people were not able to see the final flyover since it happened on very short notice, but “it was magical as always.”


Whooping cranes were on the verge of extinction in the 1940s. Today, there are about 600 birds in existence, about 445 of them in the wild. Aside from the WCEP cranes, the only other migratory population of whooping cranes nests at Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada and winters at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Gulf coast. A non-migratory flock of about 20 birds lives year-round in central Florida with another 33 non-migratory cranes in southern Louisiana.

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Last updated: December 27, 2013