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Air junkies swap tales to aid imperiled birds

The techniques used in the migration of whooping cranes to Citrus County may be adapted to help birds half a world away.

By ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 17, 2002

CRYSTAL RIVER -- Angelo d'Arrigo walked in the lobby of the Plantation Inn wearing a fleece vest, silk scarf and designer sunglasses. A silver cell phone was pressed to his ear, shrouded in sun-streaked curls, and he spoke Italian in a hushed, hurried tone.

Seated in the corner of the room was Bill Lishman, a Canadian with the bookish appearance of a scientist. He was dressed in an old sweater, rumpled chinos and sneakers.

The men had met for the first time only a few days earlier but seemed inseparable, despite their stylistic differences. Their eyes were bright and knowing as they spoke.

"These two are kindred spirits," said Claire Mirande, who arranged for the men to meet in hope that Lishman's expertise with human-led migration using ultralight aircraft -- he orchestrated the recent effort to lead whooping cranes from Wisconsin to Citrus County -- could aid an equally novel approach with hang gliders.

"We were thinking, "Wouldn't it be great if instead of flying with them, we try to fly like them?' " said Mirande, director of conservation services for the International Crane Foundation in Wisconsin. "That's where Angelo comes in."

D'Arrigo, 40, who lives in Sicily, will attempt to use his hang glider to lead between 8 and 10 Siberian cranes 2,300 miles across central Asia, from western Siberia to the Volga River Delta in Russia. From there, it will be up to the birds to reach their winter home, Iran.

He will begin the voyage in August and fly until late October. If the $250,000 experiment is successful, it will be repeated in subsequent years, the goal being to build a critically endangered population of perhaps 20 cranes to 100 or more.

Siberian cranes, Grus leucogeranus, are the third rarest of all cranes (whoopers are first) and probably the most threatened. There are three populations, those in central and western Asia on the brink of collapse and a group in eastern Asia with 3,000 birds.

At 5 feet tall, Siberian cranes are mostly white with black wing tips. They have long pinkish legs and bills, which are good for probing in mud for plant roots.

"It's a large charismatic bird that symbolizes long life and good marriages," Mirande said. But the species has fallen prey to hunting, mostly in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and habitat loss, not unlike their cousins in North America.

"Once the cranes are gone, it's a sign that something is wrong," Mirande said. "It can be pollution, changing water conditions so plants and other animals can no longer live, or overuse of wetlands."

Captive-raised Siberian cranes have successfully been introduced into the wild and adapt well. Migration, though, exacts a toll and evidence suggests many do not survive the long flights.

Since many of the birds Lishman has experimented with have returned home on their own, researchers want to take a more active role in shoring up the Siberian population.

It makes sense, they say, because young Siberians rely heavily on their parents to make sure they get food and are safe from predators.

Why not use an ultralight? The technology has limitations. Because the crafts are sensitive, pilots like to fly in the early morning, when the air is still. Cranes normally fly later in the day, when they can take advantage of thermals.

Thermals are rising columns of warm air, caused by the uneven heating of the earth or sea by the sun. Birds take advantage of these natural elevators because they can cover long distances without using much energy.

Behind the ultralight, they must flap their wings much harder and for prolonged periods. That is why the whooping cranes used in last year's experiment were limited to between 30 and 100 miles each day.

Hang gliders, however, can utilize thermals and move up and down, side to side -- mimicking the flight of birds. In the Siberian project, the goal is to travel about 250 miles per day, depending on weather conditions.

D'Arrigo is said to be a master of the domain. He has flown along with various birds of prey, all part of his "Metamorphosis" project in which he is trying to better understand how birds act.

Without the aid of instruments or motors, he said he has tried to sharpen his senses to detect air currents and thermals and then respond accordingly.

His ideas sound far-fetched, but last year he flew across the Sahara desert with an eagle named Nike -- not for the sneaker brand, but the winged goddess of victory in Greek mythology. He bought the young eagle in England and then returned to Sicily to live with it for three months on Mount Etna.

As he told the story from the Plantation Inn, d'Arrigo would fly his glider each day and bring Nike food. One day, he said, Nike began following the glider.

In scientific terms, the eagle had formed a parental bond with the glider, a phenomenon known as imprinting. It is the same process used to train whooping cranes to follow ultralights.

The Siberian crane project is the second phase of Metamorphosis. He also plans to fly an eagle over Mount Everest.

"I like to have difficult challenges," d'Arrigo said in English. His love for flight can be traced to the French Alps. He was skiing one day in 1976 when a hang glider passed overhead.

"I thought it was not possible that a man can fly without an engine. I think he's crazy," he said. A smile broke across his face and he beamed, "I wanted to try."

His strategy will be to fly about six hours each day, spiraling into each thermal to gain altitude and then coasting to the next one.

An ultralight aircraft will be close by to catch any birds that stray from the glider. The ultralight could also be used to pull the glider into flight, though the glider is equipped with a small engine, called a "mosquito." For the most part, he will rely on the sun and wind for propulsion.

Lishman is watching the project with interest. He has provided information about crane behavior that d'Arrigo can use to modify his approach. For example, spoilers can be attached to the back of the glider that would allow for the kind of abrupt landings favored by cranes.

In turn, he hopes to learn from his Italian counterpart. "What we're doing with whooping cranes works, but we can observe what he's doing and maybe improve our techniques."

As two self-described air junkies left Crystal River on a recent Friday, they paused on the grass outside the Plantation. D'Arrigo removed his shirt, the same one he wore while crossing the Sahara, and presented it to his new friend.

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