Endangered Whooping Cranes Now In Alabama On Aircraft-Guided Flight To Florida

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Eight young whooping cranes that began their aircraft-led migration on Oct. 2, from the White River Marsh State Wildlife Area in Green Lake County, Wi., on Thursday made it to Winston County, Al.  

Only two cranes reluctantly followed their surrogate leaders flying the ultralights.  The remaining six either flew just a few minutes before returning to their holding pen in Tennessee to be trucked into Alabama.

“Migration has been slow this year, but only because of the weather,” said Joe Duff, CEO of Operation Migration and leader of the ultralight team.  “We’re still feeling positive about it, and it’s not really surprising the birds didn’t behave today after sitting around for two weeks in one spot.”

On Thursday, they flew 67 miles and have flown at total of 693 miles, having spent about two weeks in Hardin County, Tn., on hold due to weather. 

This is the 13th group of birds to take part in a project led by the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP), an international coalition of public and private groups that is reintroducing this highly imperilled species in eastern North America, part of its historic range.

WCEP partner Operation Migration is using two ultralight aircraft to lead the juvenile cranes through Wisconsin, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia to reach the birds’ wintering habitat at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) along Florida's GulfCoast.

Another release method is also being used.

In addition to the eight cranes being led south by the crane-costumed pilots in ultralights, nine juvenile cranes were released Oct. 24, at Horicon National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in Dodge County, Wi.

The chicks were hatched and raised by costumed biologists with project partner International Crane Foundation and released using the Direct Autumn Release (DAR) method, whereby they are released in the company of older cranes from whom the young birds hopefully learn the migration route south.  

Of those nine cranes, one separated from the group and departed south with sandhills and is currently at Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency’s Hiawassee Refuge, near Chattanooga.

Four of these juvenile cranes were found dead separately in the release area due to predation and most recently, possibly pneumonia.  Biologists were concerned about these birds were not starting to migrate as they have in previous years releases and were in the process of preparing to capture the remaining birds and move them south via air transport. 

Fortunately, the three of the late-starters began their migration yesterday, albeit it later than normal, and are heading south.  The last one is currently being captured, will be placed in a transport carrier to be loaded aboard a donated flight south.  That last bird is expected to be released at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, Al., which would be a natural stop-over point in a southern migration route.  Many cranes are at the refuge currently. 

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.

The 13 aircraft-led and DAR chicks are joining one wild-hatched chick in the 2013 cohort. The wild-raised chick will follow its parents on migration. In addition to the 17 juvenile cranes, about 100 whooping cranes are currently in the eastern migratory population.

The public is invited to follow the aircraft-guided Whooping cranes on Operation Migration’s live CraneCam, which broadcasts daily during flights and while the cranes are at each stopover location along the route to Florida. Visit: http://www.ustream.tv/migratingcranes to watch the video stream or http://operationmigration.org/InTheField for daily website postings.

Whooping cranes were on the verge of extinction in the 1940s. Today, there are only about 600 birds in existence, about 445 of those in the wild. Aside from the WCEP birds, the only other migratory population of whooping cranes nests at WoodBuffaloNational Park in northern Alberta, Canada and winters at Aransas NWR on the TexasGulfCoast. A non-migratory flock of approximately 20 birds lives year-round in the central Florida Kissimmee region, and an additional 23 non-migratory cranes live in southern Louisiana and another 10 chicks just arrived yesterday to continue to bolster that population, but have not yet been released from their orientation pen.

WCEP asks anyone who encounters a whooping crane in the wild to please give them the respect and distance they need. Do not attempt to feed them, or approach birds on foot within 200 yards; remain in your vehicle.  Do not approach in a vehicle any closer than 100 yards.  Also, please remain concealed and do not speak loudly enough that the birds can hear you.  Finally, please do not trespass on private property in an attempt to view or photograph 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.

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