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Weather slows birds' flight

By BARBARA BEHRENDT
Published November 19, 2006


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CRYSTAL RIVER - Day after day of bad weather has made the whooping crane migration of 2006 the slowest ever.

While officials with Operation Migration were thrilled Friday to have flown nearly 59 miles, the 18 young whooping cranes are still in Indiana, only 450 miles into their 1,200-mile trek to their winter home at the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge.

They left Wisconsin earlier than ever to start this year's migration but have had long stopovers at several sites in Indiana.

Friday, the 44th migration day this year, they landed at the Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge in Jackson County, Ind. It is one of the rare spots along the migration route that lends itself to a public viewing of the cranes when they depart, said Liz Condie, chief operating officer of Operation Migration.

A public viewing of the site of the large, rare whooping cranes following behind ultralight aircraft that teach them the migration route are a regular feature in Central Florida since the first migration six years ago.

This year, a flyover will be planned again at the Dunnellon Airport. But elsewhere along the route, large public viewing areas are sparse.

Condie said there are plans to look at spots in Kentucky and the Atlanta area for such viewing spots in the future.

"I'm so glad that we moved," Condie said Friday. The long delays have been hard on the team, and some are worrying that the arrival in Florida might come closer to Christmas than ever before.

The one upside of the later arrival could be that the older birds that are already migrating could already be cleared out of the Chassahowitzka area by the time the chicks arrive.

Last year, the Class of 2005 chicks were held several weeks in the Halpata Tastanaki Preserve in Marion County waiting for the older birds to leave Chassahowitzka.

Whooping cranes are territorial, and in past years the older birds terrorized the chicks, so the team tries to keep them separate.

If the older birds are already gone when the chicks arrive, the Operation Migration team will be able to stay a few days to get the birds settled into their winter quarters without having to fly back and forth, running up bills that the charitable organization cannot afford.

Operation Migration operates through donations tied to each mile of the flight. Even this far into this year's migration, 500 miles of the flight have not yet been funded, Condie said.

While the migrating crane chicks are moving slowly this year, some of the wild whooping cranes from past migrations are already in Florida.

Not among that group, unfortunately, are the cranes that make up the so-called First Family. That male and female and their one remaining chick have not yet left their summer home at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin.

Condie said there was no need for concern because mid to late November is usually when the wild birds begin their migration. When the food source runs out, they will head south, she said.

Still, it is odd to see a scene like the one Condie posted earlier this week at operationmigration.org. It shows the First Family wading through snow.

All eyes are on those birds this year. They are the first of the whooping cranes trained in past migrations behind the ultralights to successfully hatch and raise a chick. That would also make them the first couple to teach their chick the migration route without the benefit of ultralights.

A second chick also hatched but has not been seen for weeks.

"Soon we won't be able to say that chick is just missing anymore," Condie said.

But acknowledging that the rare bird is lost is hard. "We just refuse to accept it," she said.

Still, there is much excitement about the First Family and its migration. "That's just going to be so huge," she said.

More information on the progress of the birds is available at the In the Field link at the Operation Migration Web site or at the whooping crane hotline at 904 232-2580, ext. 124.

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

[Last modified November 19, 2006, 08:28:20]


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