Maverick crane survives

Published February 5, 2007

Bird specialists dressed as giant whooping cranes stalked through the Citrus County wilderness Sunday, hunting for No. 615 - the sole survivor.

Authorities thought 615 had perished along with 17 other whoopers killed Friday by the storms that ravaged Central Florida and killed 20 people.

But 615, which sometimes flies to the sound of a different drummer, cheated death.

The bird was among 18 born last spring in Wisconsin and led to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Reserve behind an ultralight airplane, in an effort to re-establish migrating flocks.

The endangered birds were in a top-netted enclosure at the refuge near Crystal River when the storms hit.

When a tracking team went to the whooping cranes' pen, they found the dead birds.

The body of 615, a male, was not found, but searchers presumed it was buried in the mud, said Liz Condie, chief executive of Operation Migration.

But 615 cheated death.

"We have no idea how he made it," said Joe Duff, senior pilot and Operation Migration co-founder. On Sunday, 615's transmitter signal was noticed. It was moving around outside the pen, Duff said.

Trackers picked up a signal first near the pen, then later in a prairie area miles away. Later Sunday, a tracker in an airplane spotted 615.

A ground tracking team, some in bird costume, moved in. No. 615 was hanging out with two sandhill cranes in a remote area.

The goal, Duff said, is to recapture 615 and put him back in the pen. Sunday, the bird was left alone and will probably be captured today.

To do that, tracking team members will don whooper costumes made so the birds don't become familiar with people.

"It's a big white bag that covers a person from head to toe," Duff said. "It even has a mirrored visor so the bird can't look you in the eye."

The trackers will use an MP3 player to play whooping crane brood calls to entice the bird. "It's a sound they've heard since they were in the egg, and they'll walk right over to the tracker," Duff said.

Then the whooping crane will be gently herded into a box and taken by a van for a short and silent ride back to the pen. "There's no talking or radio-playing once the crane is inside," he said.

"We are just so relieved to have found him alive - one small ray of hope for this disaster in the crane project," said Rachel Levin, a spokeswoman with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"I think we probably consider him to be a little bit of a miracle bird," she said.

Duff had a bittersweet reaction when he heard the news. "It lifted my spirits a little that he survived, but we still lost 17 others."

Crane 615 also made news in December, when on the flight south with the 17 others, he decided to turn around and head back north. The whooping cranes were learning a migration route from Wisconsin to Florida.

When 615 detoured, an ultralight tracked his transmitter to Hamilton County. He flew back to rejoin his flock.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Jorge Sanchez can be reached at sanchez@sptimes.com or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 7313.