Weather means flight delay for cranes

But a migration official says the birds will make it, even if it's in January.

Published October 28, 2006

CRYSTAL RIVER - Blustery weather in the Midwest has forced this year's migrating whooping cranes into a holding pattern.

Though the 18 young cranes left their summer home at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge earlier than usual on Oct. 5, they have managed to cover only 131 miles of their 1,200-mile journey to the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge. Since Tuesday, the birds have been staying in Winnebago, Ill.

Because the endangered birds learn the migration route to Florida behind ultralight aircraft, the wind speeds and directions must work both for the ultralights and for the inexperienced birds.

"We would have liked to have been a little bit further down the road by this time," said Operation Migration office manager Chris Danilko.

She joked that she and chief operating officer Liz Condie have devised a new migration strategy during the extended down time.

"Instead of teaching the cranes how to fly south, we were thinking we would spend the winter in Florida and teach them how to fly north," she said.

Danilko said there has never been a year when the cranes haven't made it to Florida eventually. She said the team anticipates they will make it again, "even if it means in January."

Long delays do cause concerns. After a stay in Sauk County, for example, the next day, the cranes scattered once in the air, sending the team members scrambling to reassemble the flock.

"That day we had the crane rodeo, they had gotten un-used to flying with the ultralight," Danilko said.

The birds might also get out of shape if they stay grounded too long. The ultralight-led migration forces the young birds to develop even stronger flight muscles than wild birds.

"We're making them fly in an unnatural way," she said. "Normally they would be soaring far up on thermals and not flapping their wings all the way" which they must do when following the aircraft.

Not flying for an extended period could cause the birds to fall into the crane equivalent of "couch potato" syndrome.

The human members of the whooping crane migration team also suffer from long stopovers. They are welcomed by host families along the way, who entertain them and provide care for both the cranes and the ultralights at stopovers. But sometimes, team members must turn to something that Danilko provides each of them - a "boredom box."

The kit includes playing cards, crossword puzzles and Silly Putty, among other diversions, to help them pass the long hours waiting for a weather break, she said.

This is the sixth year of the ultralight-led crane migration, the effort by a partnership of organizations to establish a viable migratory whooping crane flock in the eastern United States.

While ultralights lead the cranes to their winter home, in spring they fly back to Wisconsin on their own.

So strong is their instinct that they often land in the same area where they first learned to follow ultralights as if they were their parents. One chick in this year's migrating group is the first ever to be the offspring of cranes previously taught the migration behind the aircraft.

That bird was hatched under human supervision with the other chicks in this year's group when the egg was left unattended by its parents.

The crane migration team is also hopeful that when the other wild cranes from previous migrations begin flying south in the next week or two, that the so-called "first family" is among them.

That pair of cranes hatched two chicks on their own. While one has been missing for weeks, the other is expected to be the first crane chick to learn the migration route to Florida behind its parents, rather than behind an ultralight.

Danilko said that so much training and preparation goes into each year's crane crop that the team can pretty much tell how the birds will react in most situations.

"The animals really are the easy part," she said. "They're not nearly as unpredictable as Mother Nature."

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