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For the second year, whooping cranes follow aircraft from Wisconsin to Florida, and four veteran birds return unaided.
By ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 1, 2002
CRYSTAL RIVER -- From beyond the treeline, in the brisk morning sky, the first shape appeared. Then another, followed by a faint mechanical buzz and a flurry of wing strokes.
For the crowd of hundreds below, it was a hushed, reverent moment that lasted only minutes but left a lasting impression. "It almost stopped my heart," said 57-year-old Frank Caldwell of Homosassa.
Guided by ultralight aircraft, 16 whooping cranes flew into Citrus County Saturday, the second consecutive year that man has escorted a flock of the endangered birds to teach them to migrate.
With 15 cranes trailing one ultralight and a straggler following another, the formation appeared over Crystal River Mall at 8:05 a.m., then headed south to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, completing a 1,204-mile journey that began Oct. 13 in Wisconsin.
The sight of 15 birds following pilot Joe Duff underscored the importance of the restoration effort -- for 15 is the exact number of whooping cranes that existed in the 1940s as the species neared extinction.
About 400 are alive today, but the population remains precariously small. Researchers hope the ultralight methods will re-establish a migratory flock in eastern North America.
"Today we are witnessing wildlife history," said John Christian, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official who is helping to coordinate the reintroduction.
"It's such a difficult challenge that required courage, perseverance and determination. It reflects the human spirit.
"And it also reflects the miracle of migration. How do the cranes do it? We don't know. What we do know is that if we lead them down once, they know the way."
To be sure, this year's effort may be significant more for the four whooping cranes that made the trip from Wisconsin unassisted, members of the inaugural class led by the ultralight last year. They appear to have adopted a migratory pattern that could fortify the species.
Those cranes started showing up at Chassahowitzka in recent days, landing in the exact spot they spent last winter. They made the trip south in a matter of days, reverting to natural instinct to cruise along thermal patterns.
"It gives us confidence we're doing the right thing," Duff said.
The goal is to establish a migrating colony of at least 125 birds, including 25 breeding pairs, by 2020. In future years, young birds may be placed with those having migratory experience, eliminating the need for ultralight aircraft.
Until then, the cranes' surrogate parents will have yellow bellies and 50-horsepower engines. The cranes are well accustomed to the crafts, having been exposed to the sound while still in the egg. Once hatched, they were trained with crane-shaped puppets and then the ultralights.
How well this union of machine and bird works was on display Saturday. As Duff appeared over the trees in Crystal River, 15 cranes trailed in an almost vertical line.
"It's really a miracle," said Mary L. Burton, 68, of St. Petersburg, who woke at 4:30 a.m. to drive to Citrus County. "The cranes are so graceful."
The 16th crane broke from the flock shortly after the flight began at 7:33 a.m. in a remote field in Levy County. Because of a head wind, Duff had trouble gaining altitude so he gradually eased up.
For the unlucky cranes in the rear, this meant more work because they could not glide off the ultralight's wake. When the bird dropped out, a second ultralight making the trip moved over for an interception.
Getting the birds to land at their new home took some maneuvering, because the ultralights cannot land in the remote salt marshes of Chassahowitzka. So the pilots circled as costumed people on the ground beckoned the birds with a recorded crane call.
Duff and his counterparts seemed relieved to have finished the 49-day migration, which was one day shorter than last year.
Despite rapid progress in the past week and a half, the early stages met long delays because of wind, rain and snow.
"It just seemed to drag forever and ever," said Duff, 52. "It felt like a hard migration."
If he needed a boost, the people who attended the fly-by at the mall were willing to provide one. Duff and the others were treated like celebrities, posing for pictures and signing autographs.