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Crowd cheers as cranes complete journey

The migratin g "Class of 2006 , " led by an ultralight, endures a difficult trip after being grounded several times and losing one bird .

By BARBARA BEHRENDT
Published December 20, 2006


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DUNNELLON - Wrapped in a tight blanket of fog, hundreds of people gathered Tuesday morning to watch history being made overhead.

After the longest and most challenging ultralight-led whooping crane migration to date, the weather gods seemed to finally offer a break.

As radio traffic from ultralight pilots announced the planes and cranes were closing in on Dunnellon/Marion County Airport, sunlight poked through, dissipating the foggy curtain.

By 9:45 a.m. when the first dots appeared on the horizon, drawing the focus of every camera and set of binoculars, the sun was high and sky was clear blue.

The crowd murmured its amazement.

At some point Liz Condie, chief operating officer of Operation Migration, glanced out into the throng. All she saw were open mouths and eyes trained skyward.

Seventeen whooping cranes streaming in formation behind the wings of three ultralights had at last arrived in Central Florida.

"You'll never get a better photo," Condie said as the third aircraft and its 10 avian followers sailed over her head and then faded behind her into the distance.

The sight of arriving cranes couldn't have been more welcome for Marion County resident Carla Weubben.

She comes from Wisconsin near where the crane chicks learn to follow the ultralight and was visiting Florida when the first whooping crane migration flew over the Crystal River Mall six years ago.

Soon after, she decided that winters in Florida were better than winters in Wisconsin and she moved to the Oak Run area.

Weubben hasn't missed a migration since then.

"Each time, it's more awesome," she said.

She didn't want to miss this one either but was worried because she was set to fly back to Wisconsin today.

"They made it just in time," she said. "What magnificent birds they are to fly all that way."

For Condie, it was a mixture of gratitude and relief. As the birds faded out of sight on their way to the temporary pen at the Halpata Tastanaki Preserve, she said, "I've never been so happy to see birds get anywhere in all my life."

The migration has been a difficult one. Birds and ultralights were grounded for extended periods in several locations along the route. Their trek stretches from the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin to their final destination, the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge.

That move from Marion to Citrus County is expected to take place next month after all wild cranes from previous migrations leave Chassahowitzka.

Actually three of the birds seen hanging out in Chassahowitzka are the so-called "First Family." They arrived there in early December and have been back and forth from there to sites in Pasco and Hernando counties.

These two parent birds, from the whooping cranes hatched in 2002, have raised the first successful wild chick in the experimental flock. They also taught that chick the migration route straight back to Chassahowitzka, the first chick to learn the route without benefit of ultralights.

"It's is such a thrill for us," Condie said. "Nothing could be more validating of the whole program."

Operation Migration is a partner in a coalition of agencies and organizations working to reintroduce migrating whooping cranes to the eastern United States.

Not counting Tuesday's arrivals, the eastern flock numbers more than 60.

But Tuesday morning the focus was on the birds following ultralights and pilots who braved the 1,200-mile migration in full whooping crane costumes to lead the birds to Florida.

As pilots Brooke Pennybacker, Richard vanHeuvelen and Chris Gullikson finished dropping the young cranes at the preserve and returned to the airfield, the crowd erupted in enthusiastic applause.

Teams members hugged the pilots and Condie said, "we've been waiting a long time for you guys."

Missing from the group was founding pilot Joe Duff, who was pulled away from the migration recently to attend to family matters.

But his fellow Operation Migration crew members didn't want him to miss out on the triumphant arrival in Florida.

They called Duff on a cell phone and made sure he could hear the crowd cheering.

The so-called "Class of 2006" included 18 birds. One was lost along the way from Hamilton to Gilchrist counties in northern Florida on Monday. Officials are searching for the crane, which is outfitted with a tracking device.

Condie was grateful the 17 birds were in Marion County and safe. As she wrote on the Operation Migration Web site after the flyover: "How do you spell relief?"

A-R-R-I-V-A-L.

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

[Last modified December 20, 2006, 02:39:35]


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