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New class of cranes turns heads

A crowd gathers at the Dunnellon Airport to watch the end of a 51-day migration of rare cranes behind ultralight aircraft. The last leg had rocky moments.

Published December 14, 2005

[Times photo: Stephen J. Coddington]
Stacie Castelda talks to people watching for the rare cranes to fly over Dunnellon Airport on Tuesday. Castelda, a tracking intern with the International Crane Foundation, says the whooping crane costume she is wearing is used to interact with the cranes so the birds will not be come accustomed to humans.

DUNNELLON - The anticipation had been building for more than an hour Tuesday morning as hundreds of bundled-up people hauling lawn chairs and binoculars streamed into the Dunnellon Airport awaiting some very special snowbirds.

The people clutched steaming coffee cups and set up their long-lens cameras and spotting scopes on tripods. They spoke in hushed tones about the magic of past arrivals and significant milestones.

Donald Johnson of Morriston in Levy County had settled on a nearby table, shielded from the cool breeze. "My wife likes birds," he said. "Here I am."

And sure enough, as soon as the first few people began to point at the horizon and utter, "There they are," Johnson's wife, Paulette, hustled away to join the front lineup of bird watchers - leaving her binoculars behind and her husband chasing after her.

Just above the tree line, the tiny dots appeared, growing as each moment passed. And as they drew closer to the crowd, even tinier dots appeared in formation behind them.

After a grueling 51-day migration with the largest group of birds to date, the 19 whooping crane hatchlings of the "class of 2005" had arrived at their winter holding site, successful in learning a migration route behind a mechanical flock of ultralight aircraft that had led them from Wisconsin.

The final leg, from Gilchrist County to Marion County, had a few rocky moments. While pilots would later recount the smooth sailing up high, once the craft with birds following began to descend, the air got choppy and birds fell away from one ultralight to be picked up by another.

By the time they flew over the open field at Dunnellon Airport just after 9 a.m., one bird, dubbed 516, had landed off in the distance. The same bird had been tangled in the wires of an ultralight earlier in the migration but had recovered to fly with the flock. It seems that on the big day, 516 got tired and "just wanted to land," according to pilot Joe Duff.

While the other ultralights dropped off their charges in the nearby preserve, Duff, wearing his full crane costume, helped urge the wayward crane into a crate off in the distance so it could be reunited with its flock. The crane costumes and crane puppets are used throughout the rearing and training process to keep the birds from imprinting on humans.

While Duff was corralling the lone flight dropout, most of the crowd focused on the other pilots who were returning to the airport from the nearby preserve with their ultralights to answer questions.

By the time all the birds were safely in their new pen, officials with Operation Migration and the numerous other agencies that make up the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership were declaring a successful completion to the fifth annual whooping crane migration, even if the birds did not yet ultimately land at the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge where the previous migrations ended.

This year the partnership chose instead to fly the birds to what could be a temporary winter home at the Halpata Tastanaki Preserve, an 8,110-acre state-owned refuge that had been equipped with a protected pen for the endangered cranes.

The change of location was planned because, for the past several years, young birds flown directly to Chassahowitzka have been attacked and had their food stolen by older cranes from past migrations. If the older birds that have landed at Chassahowitzka this year leave that pen site in the coming weeks, the Operation Migration partners may again take to the air to lead this year's group into Chassahowitzka.

Because the cranes are kept out of the public eye for most of their lives, the public flyover has become a popular annual event.

Several organizers and observers noted that moving it to the Dunnellon Airport from the Crystal River Mall may have cut the numbers some; still, hundreds of people attended. They browsed tables of fliers and merchandise. Sweat shirts adorned with pictures of previous cranes in formation behind ultralights flew off the tables, especially before the sun rose and began brightening and warming the air.

Another popular item was the plush whooping crane doll. Many were sitting on viewers' heads or poking out of camera bags in the crowd before the actual birds arrived.

Liz Condie, chief operating officer of Operation Migration, kept the crowd informed of how far out the ultralights were. With each passing report, people became more eager. As the craft drifted into view and each had a different number of birds in formation behind, one man explained to the young boy on his shoulders: "The birds think the plane is their mommy."

Homosassa resident Ron Miller was thrilled to see another flyover by the whooping cranes. He has been a regular viewer for years. "It's amazing what they have done with this," he said.

Another avid Citrus County birdwatcher, Dick Blewett, said he never tires of seeing the rare birds. "It was great. I was really impressed," he said.

As the viewers gathered around each pilot as he landed, stripped off the crane suit and tied down the craft, the crowd would thank and applaud the efforts of the flier. Then each, Duff, Brooke Pennypacker, Chris Gulikson and Richard vanHeuvelen, answered questions about the migration, the reintroduction project and themselves.

"I think I speak for everyone involved when I say we're certainly glad we are here and everybody is safe. This was a very large cohort of birds," Condie said after the flyover. "It's been pretty wonderful. I've alternated from being exhilarated to being exhausted to always really tearing up. . . .

"How many people get to be involved in something this historic, where you get to make this contribution to saving a species," said Condie, who experienced her first arrival flyover Tuesday.

With another year of the migration behind them, Condie said that the crane partners are looking to a day when another phase of the reintroduction will begin.

"We're looking forward to when our birds will have chicks of their own and they will teach them to migrate," she said. "I guess then we'll sort of feel like grandparents."

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at 564-3621 or

[Last modified December 14, 2005, 00:14:15]

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