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The tail of 615, the wayward whooper

Published December 21, 2006


All the way from Wisconsin, 18 rare whooping cranes followed an ultralight to their winter home in Florida.

All except for bird 615.

The crane fell away from the group as they were flying near the planned stop in Gilchrist County.

Crane 615 was missing in action at the end of the flight near Dunnellon.

But not anymore.

The bird was found Wednesday morning in a Hamilton County swamp. It apparently had been heading north toward Wisconsin.

"See how much he needs us?" quipped Liz Condie, chief operating officer for Operation Migration, which teaches cranes the migration route.

Pilots Don and Paula Lounsbury, who fly above the ultralights to watch the birds during each migration, hunted the signal from 615's tracking device Tuesday, but they had no luck.

They wanted to give it one more shot Wednesday before heading home for the holidays. Tracking north from Gilchrist back toward Hamilton County, they found a signal - and wayward 615.

They contacted pilot Richard vanHeuvelen and told him the bird appeared to be waiting for help.

VanHeuvelen arrived and spotted the bird, and then he slipped into his whooping crane costume. As soon as he turned on the crane vocalizing recording the crew uses to call the birds, 615 "flew over and landed right next to him - like it was about time someone showed up," Condie said.

The bird was crated and delivered to the Halpata Tastanaki Preserve midafternoon so he could be with "all his friends and buddies," she said.

[Last modified December 20, 2006, 23:56:11]

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