tampabay.com

Two cranes return to Wisconsin in season marked by tragedy

By BARBARA BEHRENDT
Published March 17, 2007


CRYSTAL RIVER - Like the first heralds of spring, the first two whooping cranes of the year have returned to Wisconsin, officials with Operation Migration reported Friday.

The birds designated 307 and 313 arrived back at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge this week, where snow is still on the ground. The refuge is where the birds first bonded with the ultralight aircraft that led them to Central Florida in 2003.

Crane 307 left on migration from Alachua County on March 8 and 313 is a bird that wintered in Indiana after losing its mate.

The first arrivals are a hopeful sign to the partner agencies reintroducing a migratory whooping crane flock to the Eastern United States, especially after what turned out to be a tragic winter season.

A strong storm in early February killed 18 of the 19 birds making up the Class of 2006. The birds drowned huddled in their top-netted enclosure at the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge.

Members of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership have been analyzing all the details of that tragedy to determine whether protocols for dealing with the birds should be changed.

A report on that analysis could be finished as soon as the end of the month, according to Liz Condie of Operation Migration.

In the meantime, Condie said, the arrival of the first cranes in Wisconsin is a reminder that there is plenty of work ahead.

New whooping crane chicks will be hatching in the coming weeks and a Class of 2007 will need to be raised and prepared for the fall migration.

According to those who track the wild whooping cranes, many other birds also have begun the spring migration, including the "First Family," the two birds that produced the first wild-hatched chick and led it - without help from humans - to Chassahowitzka last fall.

That family had been hanging out much of the winter in a Hernando County neighborhood where someone was feeding them. The partners urge people to not approach or feed the wild cranes to keep them as wild as possible.

Two other well-known cranes in the area have not yet begun their flight back north. Crane 615, the sole survivor of the class of 2006, and 105, the bird that lost his mate and made several visits to the enclosure of a captive crane at the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, are still in Central Florida, Condie reported.

Condie said many people have asked whether there would be a special celebration when 615 makes it back to Wisconsin, but after such an emotional loss, she said that she can't bear to think about that.

"I'm so afraid that something will happen to him ... but I know we will be waving the flag when the First Family gets in to Wisconsin and when 615 gets in."

For weeks since the tragedy, the partners have been inundated with both support and criticism. Among the hardest things to endure have been the contacts from schoolchildren whom the crane partners educate about the project each year, Condie said.

One school even needed grief counselors after the Class of 2006 tragedy. At another, the children held a service.

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