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Ultralight in flight. Photo by Heather Ray, Operation Migration.

Ultralight migration leads 20 endangered whooping cranes over the skies of Tennessee

Twenty juvenile whooping cranes reached Carroll County, Tennessee on December 5, 2009, on their ultralight-guided migration from Necedah National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in central Wisconsin to Chassahowitzka and St. Marks National Wildlife Refuges along Floridas Gulf Coast. To date, weather conditions have kept the migration from moving to the next stop in Hardin County.

These majestic birds, the tallest in North America, left Necedah refuge on October 23, following Operation Migration’s four ultralight aircraft. Tennessee is one of the seven states the ultralight-guided migration will fly over before reaching Florida.

The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP), an international coalition of public and private groups conducting this project, is now in its ninth year, in an effort to reintroduce this endangered species in eastern North America.

“Two of our refuges in the Southeast, St. Marks and Chassahowitzka serve as a crucial base of winter operations for these great birds,” said Cindy Dohner, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Southeast Regional Director. “I hope all Americans and all those interested in saving species for future generation can appreciate the monumental task this truly is.”

There are now 77 migratory whooping cranes in the wild in eastern North America – including the first whooping crane chick to hatch in the wild in Wisconsin in more than a century.

Each fall, pilots from Operation Migration (OM), a WCEP founding partner, leads a new generation of whooping cranes behind their ultralight aircraft to wintering grounds in Florida. Unaided, the cranes will make the return migration to the Upper Midwest in the spring.

“This is our ninth season leading a generation of endangered whooping cranes south to teach them a migration route, and it is proving to be as challenging as each one before,” said Operation Migration CEO Joe Duff. “While we only need about 23 to 25 days of flying weather in total to complete the journey, each succeeding year it has taken longer to get those flyable days. Although off to a slow start this year, were still hopeful of shaving some days off 2008s eighty-eight day migration timeline.”

The ultra-led flock from Necedah NWR passed through Wisconsin, Illinois, Kentucky, and passes through Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia to reach the final destinations in Florida. Because the ability to fly with the birds is entirely weather dependent, the duration of the migration is unknown. To help speed the migration and improve safety for the birds and the pilots, a new route was developed last year that takes the team around the Appalachian Mountains rather than over them.

In addition to the 20 ultralight-led birds, biologists from the International Crane Foundation (ICF) and the Service reared nine whooping cranes at Necedah NWR. The birds were 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.

Most of the reintroduced whooping cranes spend the summer in central Wisconsin, where they use areas on the Necedah NWR, as well as various state and private lands. Reintroduced whooping cranes have also spent time in Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Michigan and other upper Midwest states.

In the spring and fall, project staff from ICF and the Service track and monitor the released cranes in an effort to learn as much as possible about their unassisted migrations and the habitat choices they make along the way. The birds are monitored during the winter in Florida by WCEP project staff. ICF and Service biologists continue to monitor the birds while they are in their summer locations.

The Whooping Crane Recovery Team has established a target number for this reintroduction. Once there are at least 125 individuals, including 25 breeding pairs, migrating in this eastern corridor the population could be considered self sustaining.

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 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 Coast.

A non-migrating flock of approximately 30 birds lives year-round in central Florida. The remaining 150 whooping cranes are in captivity in zoos and breeding facilities around North America.

Whooping cranes, named for their loud and penetrating unison calls, live and breed in wetland areas, where they feed on crabs, clams, frogs and seeds. 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 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.

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 estimated $1.6 million annual budget comes from private sources in the form of grants, public donations and corporate sponsorship.

A Wisconsin Whooping Crane Management Plan that describes project goals and management and monitoring strategies shared and implemented by the partners is online at:


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