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Two juvenile Whooping cranes released from their holding pen fly around on Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, Decatur, AL. Photo by Bill Gates, USFWS.

Ultralight-led whooping cranes released at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge

The nine whooping cranes led by ultralight aircraft have been released from a holding pen at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge after Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership biologists attached marking bands and transmitters to help track their movements.

“So far the cranes are foraging and hanging around close to the pen and moving into the flooded fields,” said Bill Gates, Biologist at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, near Decatur and Huntsville, Ala. “We plan to leave the gate to the pen open, so if they need to come back here they can.”

Gates said most of the cranes came out of the pen this morning and were foraging nearby.

Operation Migration’s Brooke Penneypacker, in whooping crane attire, was encouraging them to fly, and several have taken wing on short flights.

Eva Szyszkoski, from the International Crane Foundation, hopes the young cranes will link up with sandhill cranes and three whooping cranes about 400-500 yards from the pen site. She has been tracking the whooping cranes on this project for the past five years. There are four other whooping cranes also at the refuge in other areas.

The original plan when the migration began on October 9, 2011, was to have the pilots of Operation Migration guide the cranes to St. Marks and Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuges in Florida. While it is sometimes difficult to interpret why birds do what they do, they did not follow the ultralights further south from Alabama, where they had waited as weather and issues with the FAA grounded them for over a month. The FAA later provided a waiver for the pilots, but weather, then the cranes, did not cooperate.

The Partnership determined transporting and releasing the cranes at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge would be best for the cranes.

As the class of 2011-12 whooping cranes edges closer to meet their fellow whooping cranes from previous migrations, thousands of sandhill cranes have already left the refuge, two weeks earlier than usual. About 11,000 sandhill cranes and seven whooping cranes wintered at Wheeler this year, according to Dwight Cooley, refuge manager.

In another interesting twist this year, one crane had broken away from the ultralight-led migration in the first few days and was later discovered in the company of sandhill cranes. Its transmitter failed, preventing easy detection. It was later spotted in north Georgia, and finally in Florida. Biologists hope to capture this crane and replace the transmitter and attach color bands for identification purposes.

Besides the ultralight-led migration, the partnership uses the “Direct Autumn Release” method, that places young chicks in the company of seasoned birds in Wisconsin. They then learn the migration route, as well as vital survival skills, from those older, and hopefully wiser cranes. Two “DAR” birds wintered at Wheeler NWR this year.

Now that these nine cranes have been released, the total eastern population is 112 whooping cranes. Estimated distribution as of Mid-January 2012 included 39 whooping cranes in Indiana, six in Illinois, seven in Georgia, seven in Alabama, two in South Carolina, two in North Carolina, six in Tennessee, one in Missouri, 12 in Florida, 14 at unknown locations, one with no recent report, and six long term missing. Florida has about 20 in a non-migratory flock. Louisiana has a project underway for a non-migratory flock of about 20 whooping cranes. The western flock has about 300 cranes, and about 130 are in captivity.


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