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Fifth Generation of Ultralight-led Whooping Cranes Reaches Florida Wintering Grounds

Nineteen endangered whooping cranes and their surrogate parents—four ultralight aircraft—reached Florida’s Gulf coast today after a 61-day trek of more than 1,100 miles through seven states.

At 9:30 a.m. Eastern, the cranes and ultralights arrived at their final destination in Marion County, first flying over a crowd of more than 800 enthusiastic spectators gathered for the occasion at the Dunnellon Municipal Airport.

These cranes are the fifth group to be guided by ultralights to Florida from Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in central Wisconsin. The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP), an international coalition of public and private organizations, is conducting this ultralight-led reintroduction project in an effort to return this highly imperiled species to its historic range in eastern North America.

With the conclusion of this year’s ultralight-led migration, there are now 64 whooping cranes in the wild in eastern North America.

This year, the young cranes ended their first migration at a different location than in previous years. Instead of being “dropped off” by the ultralight pilots at the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Citrus County, the juvenile birds will instead spend the next few weeks at an isolated location in Marion County.

WCEP project managers believe this change will prevent wild cranes from harassing juveniles at the Chassahowitzka site, to which older birds tend to return when they arrive in Florida.

Holding the new arrivals off-site for a period of time might allow the older birds the opportunity to visit Chassahowitzka site, realize no food or fresh water is available, and then naturally disperse inland. Once the older birds clear the area the new arrivals could then be moved into the site.

“With success comes new challenges, and the whooping crane migratory reintroduction is no different,” said Chassahowitzka NWR manager Jim Kraus.

Staff from the Southwest Florida Water Management District and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prepared a 600-acre site within the 8,200-acre Halpata Tastanaki Preserve in Marion County as a holding pen location for the new whooping cranes.

With assistance from Disney Animal Kingdom, the Jacksonville Zoo and other volunteers, a two-acre open pen and a half-acre top-netted pen have been constructed to provide a safe temporary home for the project whooping cranes while they wait for their older relatives to clear their winter home.

The project area at the preserve is closed to the public during the project birds’ stay in order to continue the isolation process used to help the birds adapt to the wild and stay that way.

Refuge staff, Friends members and volunteers also partnered this year with the Dunnellon/Marion County Airport and the Yankee Air Force to conduct this year’s arrival flyover event at the airport.

In 2001, project partner Operation Migration’s pilots led the first whooping crane chicks, conditioned to follow their ultralight surrogates south from Necedah NWR to Chassahowitzka NWR on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Each subsequent year, WCEP biologists and pilots have conditioned and guided additional groups of juvenile cranes to Chassahowitzka NWR.

This year’s class of ultralight-led whooping cranes departed from Necedah NWR on Oct. 14.

In addition to the chicks migrating behind ultralights, WCEP biologists also released four additional chicks this fall into the company of older birds at Necedah in the hopes that the chicks would learn the migration route from adult whoopers.

WCEP is using this “direct autumn release” technique to complement the known success of the ultralight-led migrations. Chicks for direct autumn release will be reared in the field and then released with older birds after fledging, or developing their flight feathers. This method of reintroduction has been extensively tested and proven previously successful with sandhill cranes.

As of December 10, these birds were in Tennessee, well on their way to their Florida wintering grounds.

The whooping crane chicks that take part in the reintroduction project are hatched at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland. There, the young cranes are introduced to ultralight aircraft and raised in isolation from humans. To ensure the impressionable cranes remain wild, project biologists and pilots adhere to a strict no-talking rule, broadcast recorded crane calls and wear costumes designed to mask the human form whenever they are around the cranes.

New classes of cranes are transported to Necedah NWR each June to begin a summer of conditioning behind the ultralights to prepare them for their fall migration. Pilots lead the birds on gradually longer training flights at the refuge throughout the summer until the young cranes are deemed ready to follow the aircraft along the migration route.

Graduated classes of whoopers spend much of their time during the summer on or near the Necedah NWR in central Wisconsin. During 2005, they also used more than 17 state and private wetland areas in central and southern Wisconsin.

Project staff from the International Crane Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service track and monitor southbound cranes in an effort to learn as much as possible about their unassisted journeys and the habitat choices they make along the way. ICF and FWS biologists actively track the cranes as they make their way north, and continue to monitor the birds, along with Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources biologists, while the whooping cranes are in their summer locations.

Whooping cranes were on the verge of extinction in the 1940s. Today, there are only about 300 birds in the wild. Aside from the 64 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 Gulf Coast. A non-migrating flock of approximately 90 birds lives year-round in the central Florida Kissimmee region.

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.

More than 60 percent of the project’s estimated $1.8 million per year budget comes from private sources in the form of grants, donations and corporate sponsors.

Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership founding members are the International Crane, FoundationOperation Migration, Inc.,Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources U.S. Fish and Wildlife ServiceU.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and National Wildlife Health Center, International Whooping Crane Recovery Team, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin. Many other flyway states, provinces, private individuals and conservation groups have joined forces with and support WCEP by donating resources, funding and personnel.

-WCEP-

Educators and students are encouraged to visit Journey North for information and curriculum materials related to the whooping crane project: http://www.learner.org/jnorth/crane/index.html