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Whoopers prepare for a long journey

The annual migration, led by an ultralight, should before long fill the skies over Citrus.

By BARBARA BEHRENDT
Published October 5, 2006


CRYSTAL RIVER - If the weather cooperates and the birds are willing, the whooping cranes of the Class of 2006 are slated for departure from Wisconsin today.

In recent weeks, the staff of Operation Migration has been working actively with the 18 young cranes, teaching them to follow the ultralight aircraft that will eventually lead them 1,250 miles south to Central Florida.

This will be the sixth consecutive year for the ultralight-led migration of whooping cranes.

Depending on conditions and the cooperation of the rare young birds, the whooping cranes could arrive in the area by mid November or later. The plan is to offer a public viewing again this year through a fly-by at the Dunnellon Airport as the birds descend to a temporary holding area at the Halpata Tastanaki Preserve. That 8,110-acre, state-controlled site is located in Marion County.

Then, when the coast is clear of adult birds from previous migrations, the birds likely will be led the extra 26 miles to the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, their official winter home.

The partners in the whooping crane project created that extra stop last year because in the past several years, older birds from previous migrations had beaten the young birds to Chassahowitzka. There they bullied the youngsters. Whooping cranes are very territorial, the experts say.

But it is not known whether the now-adult birds which first stopped at the Halpata Tastanaki Preserve in 2005 will return there when they make their own unassisted migration this fall.

That could mean the preserve is already occupied by whooping cranes when the youngsters arrive and may require yet another change in plan, reported Chris Danilko, office manager of Operation Migration.

The cranes were set to leave about a week earlier than in previous years, mostly because the chicks this year are closer in age and development than previous crane groups, she said.

There has traditionally been much interest all along the migration route on the progress the birds are making.

One change this year is for the avid "craniacs," as the crane enthusiasts call themselves. Operation Migration has arranged an even more immediate way to learn how the birds are progressing.

Members of Operation Migration who sign up for the service will get short, morning e-mails telling them whether the birds have flown or whether weather has grounded them. The service has been made possible by a new partnership with Duke Energy.

Later in the day, another e-mail will appear announcing that a more detailed report of the day's activities has been posted in the "field report" at www.operationmigration.org.

For this year's migration, all eyes will be on one special member of the Class of 2006: the first crane in the ultralight-led migration that was retrieved from the wild. This is the first offspring from whooping cranes from a previous human-led migration. The two laid two eggs this spring but abandoned the nest.

They were hatched at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland along with the other chicks that are part of the Class of 2006. One of those two chicks hatched from the wild eggs did not make it.

There is also much interest this year in another pair of cranes from a previous migration. That pair produced two eggs that hatched in the wild. For weeks the Operation Migration team shot pictures of the so-called "first family" and observed them from a distance.

The hope is that these adult birds would lead their own chicks to Florida, a first step to someday putting the ultralights out of business.

Then several weeks ago, one of the young chicks disappeared.

Since that time, Operation Migration has conducted a detailed search for the missing chick without turning up any evidence that a predator had gotten it. In other cases of missing whooping cranes, remains are almost always found, Danilko said.

Some speculate the bigger of the two chicks, which had already shown an independent streak, might have gone off on its own to forage or also could have joined with a flock of sandhill cranes in the area, which are more social than whooping cranes.

Danilko said there has been much focus on the first family this year as the migration reaches another milestone.

"If the chick is gone, that would be terribly sad, but we still have another chick, and we warned people from the very beginning that it was extremely rare for two chicks to survive in the wild," she said. "There will be another year."

Still, she said, watching from a distance is difficult sometimes.

"Because we do want to keep them so wild, we have to take a step back, and what nature does, nature does."

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

[Last modified October 5, 2006, 07:34:16]


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