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Historic Ultralight Migration Leads Majestic Whooping Cranes to the Skies of Florida - Almost Home!


December 6, 2003

Heather Ray, Operation Migration, Inc. on-site with migration - 905-718-1292 (cell)
Chuck Underwood, USFWS North Florida Office, 904-910-6254 (cell), 904-232-2580 ext. 109
Rachel F. Levin, USFWS Midwest, 612-713-5311, 612-309-5760 (cell)
Joan Garland, International Crane Foundation, 608-356-9462 x142 or 608-381-1262 (cell)

Sixteen endangered whooping crane chicks following three ultralights have almost made it to their winter home today as they crossed the Georgia-Florida border and are now in Hamilton County, FL. They are heading for Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge along Florida's central Gulf Coast. They have traveled 1,052.6 miles of their 1,228-mile fall migration, flying 98.5 miles today.

"This 2003 ultralight migration has been slowed by wind, rain and cold since it began on October 16. Last year’s ultralight-led flock reached Chassahowitzka by November 30, 2002, after leaving Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin on October 13, 2002," said Sam D. Hamilton, Southeast Regional Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "However, thanks to the dedication, skill and patience of everyone involved in the project, this year’s flock will reach Chassahowitzka safely."

The whooping crane chicks are being guided by ultralight aircraft piloted by Operation Migration Inc. pilots. On November 30, the cranes crossed the Georgia border. On December 1, the pilots guided the crane chicks on the longest sustained flight in miles and time ever accomplished by Operation Migration. They flew 200 miles, with a tailwind, in a little over 3 hours.

"The innovative approach and the resources that the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership is using in this project have captured the hearts of everyone who loves wildlife. We're proud that our state is part of it," said Tim Breault, assistant director, Division of Wildlife, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "This project is designed to bolster the population of migratory whooping cranes, and that's a welcome addition to our efforts to bolster the nonmigratory population of whoopers here in Florida."

The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP), an international coalition of public and private groups, is conducting this migration project in an effort to reintroduce this highly imperiled species in eastern North America. The ultralight migration project is in its third successful year with Federal and State experts teaming with Nonprofit groups with a single-minded purpose of resurrecting the cranes’ historic migrating route. To follow the progress of the 2003 crane migration as the birds near Chassahowitzka, go to Daily updates are recorded at (904) 232-2580, ext. 124.

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 2O cranes from the "Class of 2001" and "Class of 2002". To date, 18 of the cranes from these previous migrations have successfully migrated to Florida and the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge. The other two are headed south as well: their last confirmed location was in Tennessee.

To follow the progress of the wild cranes, please visit:

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.

Media advisory: We anticipate the migration team and birds will arrive at their Chassahowitzka NWR destination sometime this week. This could be as early as Monday, but is very much weather dependent. We will send out a media advisory the day prior to our anticipated arrival, and will update our daily phone message accordingly (904-232-2580 ext. 124) as well. As in the past, we plan to give the Citrus County residents an opportunity to see the cranes and planes as they make the last few miles to the refuge. A fly-by event will be offered at the Crystal River Mall. For planning purposes, media wishing to cover this event would need to be in place no later than 7:30 a.m. the day of arrival. The full migration crew will come to the mall once the birds are safely at their winter home on the refuge, and be available for media interviews at that time. We anticipate this would be approximately 45-60 minutes after the mall fly-by. If you have any specific questions beyond what's been provided above please give any of the contacts listed a call. However, please do not call and ask "when are the cranes and planes arriving" as that information will be released via an advisory and on the phone message as soon as we know. -- Chuck Underwood



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