December 1, 2003
-- Longest Single Flight Ever Made by Operation Migration --
Sixteen endangered whooping crane chicks following three ultralights flew 200 miles, traversing nearly the entire state of Georgia today.
"This is the longest flight we've ever made -- with any species," said Operation Migration's Heather Ray from just outside of Albany Georgia. "All 16 birds made the flight. We just needed to get over those mountains and the birds flew perfectly."
They are on their 1,228-mile ultralight-guided migration from Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge along Florida's central Gulf Coast.
These endangered whooping cranes, the largest birds in North America, left Necedah on October 8, 2003 following three ultralight aircraft piloted by Operation Migration pilots.
The whooping crane chicks have now traveled 950 miles during their migration. They are in Terrill County, just north of Albany, Georgia. They had flown into Georgia on Sunday morning, Nov. 30, 2003, after leaving Hiawassee Wildlife Refuge, managed by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.
The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP), an international coalition of public and private groups, is conducting this project in an effort to reintroduce this highly imperiled species in eastern North America.
"These magnificent creatures are almost home for the winter," said Sam D. Hamilton, Southeast Regional Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "It is a great day for the whooping crane and the entire partnership that is helping bring it back from the edge of extinction."
The ultralight migration project is in its third successful year with Federal and State experts teaming with Non-Profit groups with a single-minded purpose of resurrecting the cranes' historic migrating route."
"We are proud to be a partner in this exciting effort to restore this magnificent bird to Georgia's skies," said Mike Harris, Georgia Department of Natural Resource's Wildlife Resources Division's Non-game Wildlife and Natural Heritage Section Chief. "The reintroduction of the eastern migratory flock of whooping cranes in Georgia is a prime example of what can be accomplished with strong state, federal and private partnerships."
The migration follows the natural migration of the whooping crane's cousin, the sandhill crane that passes through Tennessee each fall. To follow the progress of the 2003 crane migration, go to http://bringbackthecranes.org/where/index.htm.
The whooping crane chicks involved in the WCEP reintroduction project were hatched at the U.S. Geological Survey's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland, where they were introduced to ultralights and raised in isolation from humans. The Operation Migration pilots, along with biologists from Patuxent and the International Crane Foundation, spent the summer conditioning the cranes to fly gradually longer flights behind the ultralights--the cranes' "surrogate parents."
These sixteen cranes are the third flock to make this historic, assisted migration from Wisconsin to Florida. In 2001, seven of eight whooping cranes that began the first fall migration made it to Florida safely; five of these seven birds survived the winter and made an unassisted, successful spring migration back to Wisconsin.
In 2002, the WCEP migration team conditioned a second group and guided 17 juvenile cranes to Chassahowitzka NWR. One was lost during the migration when it collided with an ultralight. Sixteen returned to Wisconsin this past spring.
The WCEP monitoring team is presently tracking the location of all of the 20 cranes from the "Class of 2001" and "Class of 2002". To date, all but two of the cranes from these previous migrations have successfully migrated to Florida and the hassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge. The last two are headed south as well: One in Tennessee -- the other in Kentucky (photo available).
To follow the progress of the wild cranes, please visit: http://www.bringbackthecranes.org/back/2003fall/01-02fl-nov17-up.htm.
The reintroduction is part of an ongoing recovery effort for the highly imperiled whooping crane, which was on the verge of extinction in the 1940s. Except for the Wisconsin-Florida birds, the continent's only other migratory population of whooping cranes winters at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Gulf Coast.
A non-migrating flock of about 100 cranes remain year-round in central Florida as part of an ongoing reintroduction study led by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. This reintroduction would not only restore the whooping crane to part of its historic range but also provide another geographically distinct migratory population that could lead to downlisting the species from endangered to threatened status by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and eventual recovery.
In 1998, an international coalition of state and federal governments and private organizations formed the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership to spearhead the migratory reintroduction project for the whooping crane, a federally listed endangered species. More than 35 private landowners have volunteered their property as stopover sites for the cranes and migration team. A temporary pen keeps the cranes safe from predators between each morning's flight, and all of the team that interacts with the cranes wear costumes to mask their human form and use adult crane puppet heads to mimic adult bird behaviors. The goal of WCEP is to establish a migrating flock of at least 125 birds including 25 adult breeding pairs, restoring the species to eastern North America.
Founding members of WCEP include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the International Crane Foundation, the International Whooping Crane Recovery Team, Operation Migration, Inc., National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, U.S. Geological Survey's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and National Wildlife Health Center, and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
Many other flyway states, provinces, private individuals and conservation groups have joined forces with and support WCEP by donating resources, funding and personnel.
For daily updates and press kits, visit the WCEP website at www.bringbackthecranes.org. Daily updates are recorded at (904) 232-2580 ext. 102.
Note: B-roll is available by calling (905) 718-1292
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Atlanta, GA 30345