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Fingers crossed for future of cranes

Operation Migration hopes two chicks will be able to find their way to Florida on their own when winter comes.

By BARBARA BEHRENDT
Published August 7, 2006


CRYSTAL RIVER - Ever since the first batch of rare whooping crane chicks ascended into the cool Wisconsin sky behind ultralights to learn a migration route to Florida, the reintroduction project has been a nail-biter.

Organizers worried about the long flight south, how the chicks would fare in their winter home in Chassahowitzka and whether they would make it back to Wisconsin on their own the next year.

Not since that maiden voyage in late 2001 and early 2002 have there been more reasons for the crane project partners to be more nervous.

This year's cause for concern boils down to three little whooping cranes, the most precious to date.

They are the first members of the second generation.

All eyes rest on these three to determine the final success of the countless hours of work to reintroduce a migratory whooping crane population to the eastern United States.

That flock has grown to 63 individuals, 61 adults and two of the three second-generation chicks.

The third second-generation chick was hatched in captivity and is in flight training behind ultralights at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin.

The other two are completely outside the control of the staff of Operation Migration.

Hatched June 22, these two birds are the first whooping cranes born in the wild in the Midwest in a century. Their parents, two cranes that learned the migration route behind ultralights in 2002, lost their first eggs of the season but nested again and those eggs hatched.

The father and mother cranes are so far doing a good job raising their first offspring, according to Liz Condie, chief operating officer for Operation Migration, who spends a good deal of her time with her fingers crossed.

It is hard for crane project partners to keep track of the wild "first family," as they are called. They make every effort to keep the birds wild and that means they try to stay hundreds of yards away from them at all times, using binoculars and long camera lenses to make their daily checks.

Watching and hoping is all they can do.

"We've not gotten off the edge of our chair. Nobody has any fingernails left and our stomachs are in knots every day" hoping that the gangly crane chicks are okay, Condie said.

The vast expanse of the Necedah refuge is a dangerous place. Just a week ago another older crane was found dead, possibly killed by a predator.

Every day the young birds get closer to fledging, when they discover their wings can take them into the air and away from the clutches of most predators.

The two wild chicks, which stand about 2 ½ feet tall, half the height they will reach as adults, should be ready to take to the air in the next couple of weeks.

"Every day is one more day," Condie said.

While much of the Necedah refuge has been experiencing drought-like conditions, the territory where the "first family" has staked its claim still has plenty of water, Condie said.

Whooping cranes frequently have two chicks at a time but both don't always survive. They tend to be aggressive to each other in the early days, possibly out of their survival instinct.

But if the two eggs hatch close together and the parents split duties, two can thrive, Condie said.

The hope is that, when the weather chills late this fall, the wild chicks will become the first migratory cranes in the eastern United States to learn the migration route naturally - without the use of ultralights, crane costumes or humans.

Eventually the two birds, dubbed "Wild 601" and "Wild 602," will be banded.

Officials are still discussing details of that and whether they will be fitted with radio transmitters such as those worn by their parents.

Condie said that with so much out of human hands with the "first family," she expects that much of the human attention will be directed to crane No. 602, only without the designation "wild" as part of its name.

Not-so-wild 602 was one of two chicks hatched at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, the same place where other cranes that follow the ultralights hatch each year.

Those eggs came from the abandoned nest of another pair of cranes from previous ultralight-led migrations.

Not-so-wild 602's twin hatched but had to be put to sleep because of a medical problem with its leg. That leaves not-so-wild 602 as the first crane in the second generation of the program because its wild cousins hatched several weeks later.

Condie said that the crane program supporters are getting plenty of questions about "little 602."

That bird and 17 others are in flight training in preparation for the early October departure for Florida.

While the system of training the cranes to follow the aircraft gets tweaked a bit each year, Condie said, she expected to see no big changes this fall because it has worked. Still, the pressure will be there to see how the second generation fares.

"It's a first. It's a landmark. It's a milestone," she said.

For information, check out www.operationmigration.org.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at 352 564-3621 or behrendt@sptimes.com.

[Last modified August 6, 2006, 21:06:40]


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