Tenth Group of Endangered Whooping Cranes Depart on Ultralight-guided Flight to Florida
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
October 11, 2010
Joan Garland, 608-381-1262
Photo by Mark Chenoweth
Eleven young whooping cranes yesterday began their ultralight-led migration from central Wisconsin’s Necedah National Wildlife Refuge (NWR). This is the tenth 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 historic range. There are now approximately 96 whooping cranes in the wild in eastern North America thanks to WCEP’s efforts.
Three 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 Florida's Gulf Coast.
“Safeguarding an endangered species does not come with guarantees. More than simply an experiment in wildlife reintroduction, it is a struggle against all odds,” said Joe Duff, senior ultralight pilot and CEO of Operation Migration, the WCEP partner that leads the ultralight migration. “There are many parties in this campaign including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, International Crane Foundation and many others. Operation Migration is honored to help lead this effort.”
In addition to the 11 birds being led south by ultralights, biologists from the International Crane Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reared 11 whooping cranes at Necedah NWR. The birds will be released later this fall in the company of older cranes from whom the young birds will learn the migration route. This is the sixth year WCEP has used this Direct Autumn Release (DAR) method. The ultralight-led and DAR chicks are this year joining two wild-hatched chicks in the 2010 cohort.
Seven chicks initially hatched this year in the wild, the largest number to hatch in WCEP project history. Wild-hatched chicks face a precarious existence in the first weeks of their lives, and natural loss of chicks due to predation is common. The survival rate for WCEP with these two chicks is within the range of survival rates for wild sandhill crane chicks in south-central Wisconsin currently being studied by the International Crane Foundation.
The two wild whooping crane chicks are the result of renesting. Earlier this spring, nine breeding pairs of whooping cranes built nests and laid eggs, but all nine pairs abandoned those first nests. The nest abandonments earlier this spring are similar to what has been observed in previous years. WCEP is investigating the cause of the abandonments through analysis of data collected throughout the nesting period on crane behavior and black fly abundance and distribution.
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 in Florida. Each subsequent year, WCEP biologists and pilots have conditioned and guided additional groups of juvenile cranes to Florida. Having been shown the way once, the young birds initiate their return migration in the spring, and in subsequent years, continue to migrate on their own. In 2008, St. Marks NWR along Florida’s Gulf Coast was added as an additional wintering site for the juvenile cranes.
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 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 of the whooping cranes released in previous years spend the summer in central Wisconsin, where they use areas on or near 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 570 birds in existence, approximately 400 of them in the wild. Aside from the 96 released WCEP birds, the only other migrating population of whooping cranes nests at Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Alberta, Canada and winters at Aransas NWR on the Texas Gulf Coast. A non-migrating flock of approximately 25 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; 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 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
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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