Surviving crane to stay in wild

Published February 6, 2007

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 thought to have perished with the others in the pen, possibly buried in the mud after the late Thursday/early Friday 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.

Cranes in the area will begin their migration back north within the next two months; the hope is that 615 will follow his instincts and return to the area around the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin, where it learned to follow an ultralight aircraft.

"He should know the way, but we'll keep a very close eye on him," Zimorski said.

Trackers have been checking on the condition of older whooping cranes from former migrations in the wake of the storm. The so-called "First Family," last spotted in a Hernando County neighborhood, survived; the young crane born to those wild birds is the only other remaining wild whooping crane hatched in 2006.

Another survivor is a crane from the 2001 migration. That bird made headlines last week for another reason.

Dubbed 105, the whooping crane twice last week landed in the enclosure of captive whooping crane Peepers at the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. It is not known whether the crane, which recently lost its mate, had a romantic interest in Peepers or was instead attracted to the free food there.

The night of the storm, keepers donned crane costumes between rain showers and retrieved 105, placing it in a top-netted pen north of the park. It is expected to remain there for several weeks.

That bird is actually one of the reasons why the 2006 hatchlings were in a top-netted pen at the Chassahowitzka refuge.

Older birds, including 105, had been arriving back at the pen site and stealing food and water from the youngsters. Some were aggressive and could have scared the young birds away from their safe enclosure.

Jim Kraus, Chassahowitzka refuge manager, said people should not read too much into the decision to top net the cranes the night of the storm.

The intensity of the storm had not been predicted by anyone and was the worst in the area in a decade.

The keepers must decide each day how to keep the young cranes safe; keeping them in the enclosure was "trading one protection for another," he said.

"You have to remember that when we call this an experimental flock, we mean that people are using protocols that have never been tried before," Kraus said. "It's all trial and error."

He added that, despite the significant setback the deaths signify in the project, "you have to expect that there will be setbacks, yet this project demonstrates that there have been significant gains in meeting the goals of the species recovery plan."

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