Surviving crane to stay in the wild

Published February 6, 2007

CRYSTAL RIVER - The sole survivor of the whooping crane "Class of 2006" will be allowed to stay free in the wild but will be closely monitored, according to officials with the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership.

On Monday, the young male crane known as 615 was in a remote waterfront area away from the Citrus gulf coast.

The partnership still doesn't know how 615 escaped a netted enclosure in the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge last week. Strong storms killed the 17 other birds that were with it. The birds flew behind ultralight aircraft from Wisconsin to Florida late last year, part of a longstanding effort to re-establish a migratory flock of whoopers.

Partnership officials don't yet know the cause of death for the 17 cranes. It's possible that a strong tidal surge overtook them, or that lightning electrocuted them. Necropsies will be performed at the University of Florida.

Officials said they are not sure what effect the deaths will have on the way they safeguard young cranes in the future. Also unknown: whether Chassahowitzka will continue to be the final destination for future cohorts of crane chicks.

Crane 615 was originally thought to have perished with the others in the pen, possibly buried in the mud after the storms. But a signal from the bird's transmitter was heard and, on Sunday, trackers caught sight of the crane.

This is the same bird that turned away from the final leg of the migration from north Florida into Marion County in December, when the birds were arriving at their stopover site at the Halpata Tastanaki Preserve. Crane 615 had instead headed north of its last stop, requiring trackers and one of the ultralight pilots to retrieve and return it to the flock.

Although the bird is a bit young to be on its own, managing 615 alone at the old Chassahowitzka pen site would not have been easy for workers or good for the bird, according to Sara Zimorski of the International Crane Foundation.

Currently the bird is with sandhill cranes in an area where at least three other whooping cranes hatched in 2005 also frequent, she said.

The habitat in the area is good, and the spot is so remote that trying to recapture the bird would be difficult. Officials with the crane partnership also noted that the bird has already endured significant stress because of the storm.

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