Ninth group of endangered whooping cranes depart on ultralight-guided flight to Florida
Twenty young whooping cranes have begun their ultralight-led migration from central Wisconsin’s Necedah National Wildlife Refuge (NWR). This is the ninth group of birds to take part in a landmark project led by the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP), an international coalition of public and private groups that is reintroducing this highly imperiled species in eastern North America, part of its historical range. There are now approximately 77 whooping cranes in the wild in eastern North America thanks to WCEP’s efforts.
Four ultralight aircraft and the juvenile cranes will travel through Wisconsin, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia to reach the birds’ wintering habitats at Chassahowitzka and St. Marks National Wildlife Refuges along Floridas Gulf Coast.
“Although this will be our ninth ultralight-led migration with whooping cranes, each year inevitably presents new challenges,” said Joe Duff, senior ultralight pilot and CEO of Operation Migration, the WCEP partner that leads the ultralight migration. “With 20 birds this year, we have one of the largest cohorts ever, and there are 1,285 miles ahead of us with no guarantees. We have done everything we can to prepare them, now we need favorable winds and a little luck. It took the combined efforts of many people to bring this project to this stage.”
In addition to the 20 birds being led south by ultralights, biologists from the International Crane Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reared nine whooping cranes at Necedah NWR. The birds will be released in the company of older cranes from whom the young birds will learn the migration route. This is the fifth year WCEP has used this Direct Autumn Release method.
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, Operation Migration’s pilots led the first whooping crane chicks, conditioned to follow their ultralight aircraft surrogates, south from Necedah NWR to Chassahowitzka NWR. Each subsequent year, WCEP biologists and pilots have conditioned and guided additional groups of juvenile cranes to Chassahowitzka NWR. Once led south, the cranes are able to migrate on their own, without assistance, in following years.
In 2008, in addition to wintering at Chassahowitzka NWR, half of the ultralight-led cranes spent the winter at St. Marks NWR along Florida’s Gulf Coast. The decision to split the cohort came after the loss in February 2007 of 17 of the 18 Class of 2006 whooping cranes in a severe storm at Chassahowitzka NWR. WCEP hopes the two wintering locations will help reduce the risk of another catastrophic loss.
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 NWR, as well as other public and private lands.
Whooping cranes were on the verge of extinction in the 1940s. Today, there are only about 500 birds in existence, 350 of them in the wild. Aside from the 77 birds reintroduced by WCEP, 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 NWR 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.
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 200 yards; try to 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 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 WCEP 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.
To report whooping crane sightings, visit the WCEP whooping crane observation webpage at: http://www.fws.gov/midwest/whoopingcrane/sightings/sightingform.cfm.
For more information on the project, its partners and how you can help, visit the WCEP website at: http://www.bringbackthecranes.org.
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