Ultralight led arrivals

Ultralight-led Whooping Cranes Arrive at First Wintering Destination in Florida


December 16, 2010

Ultra Light surrogate for Whooping CranesFive endangered whooping cranes and their surrogate parents, three ultralight aircraft, arrived yesterday at their wintering grounds in Florida after a trek of more than 1,000 miles through seven states.   

Five of the 10 “Class of 2010” ultralight-led cranes arrived yesterday at the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in Wakulla County, Florida.  The other five ultralight-led whooping cranes will continue to their final destination at the Chassahowitzka NWR in Citrus County, Florida.   

These 10 cranes are the 10th group to be guided by ultralights to Florida from Necedah NWR in central Wisconsin.  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 historic range in eastern North America.  

“St. Marks has been anticipating the birds’ arrival for months, and the outpouring of community support around Wakulla and Leon counties has been phenomenal,” said Terry Peacock, Refuge Manager at St. Marks NWR. “We are thankful for the help of all of our volunteers who have assisted with preparations around the refuge.”  

In addition to the 10 birds led south by project partner Operation Migration’s ultralights, 10 cranes are making their first southward migration 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 will learn the migration route.  The DAR and ultralight-led chicks this year are joining two wild-hatched chicks in the 2010 cohort.   

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 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.   

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 114 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 20 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.