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Lighthouse at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Steve Hillebrand, USFWS.

Ultralight-led whooping cranes arrive at final wintering destination in Florida

Ten endangered whooping cranes arrived yesterday on their wintering grounds at the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in Citrus County, Florida. The other 10 “Class of 2009” ultralight-led cranes reached their final wintering destination at St. Marks NWR in Wakulla County, Florida on January 13.

These 20 cranes are the ninth group to be guided by ultralight aircraft more than 1,200 miles from Necedah NWR in central Wisconsin to the Gulf coast of Florida. The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP), an international coalition of public and private organizations, is conducting the reintroduction project in an effort to restore this endangered species to part of its historical range in eastern North America. At 89 days, this was the second longest ultralight-led migration since WCEP began reintroducing whooping cranes. Unsuitable flying weather caused delays along the migration route.

“This Class of 2009 brings another exciting year for this great partnership, and it gets us one step closer to seeing the recovery of this magnificent species,” said Michael Lusk, Refuge Manager at Chassahowitzka NWR. “The staff at Chassahowitzka NWR worked hard to make sure that everything was ready for the arrival of the birds. We are very excited to be a part of this project and to be able to share our excitement with our partners at the St. Marks NWR.”

This is the second year the cranes have wintered at two separate locations. The decision to split the flock 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 addition to the 20 birds led south by project partner Operation Migration’s ultralights, nine cranes made their first southward migration this fall as part of WCEP’s Direct Autumn Release (DAR) program. Biologists from the International Crane Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reared the cranes at Necedah NWR and released them in the company of older cranes from whom the young birds learned the migration route. One of the DAR birds arrived in Lake County, Florida earlier this month. Seven of the cranes migrated to Tennessee and one is located in Indiana. All of the DAR birds are in the company of older whooping cranes. This is the fifth year WCEP has used this DAR method.

Whooping cranes that take part in the ultralight and DAR 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 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 550 birds in existence, approximately 375 of them in the wild. Aside from the 85 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:

For more information on the project and its partners, visit the WCEP website at:


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