Luck runs out for maverick whooping crane

In a season of heartbreak, the last survivor of a plane-led flock dies.

Published May 1, 2007

CHASSAHOWITZKA - Whooping crane No. 615 was one tough, and lucky, bird.

When older cranes harassed him and his pals, they were put into a pen for their protection. When lightning and heavy surge from a surprise storm in February slammed the pen, all of the birds were killed - except No. 615.

Somehow, he managed to escape the death trap and fly to a remote area of Marion County, becoming the sole survivor of the 2006 class that had made the arduous flight from Wisconsin to Florida last fall.

No. 615's luck ran out this weekend.

Mary Barnwell of the Southwest Florida Water Management District on Monday found his carcass in an area of the Halpata Tastanaki Preserve in Marion County, where he had been living throughout the spring.

There were no obvious signs that the male crane had been killed by a predator, according to Liz Condie, chief operating officer for Operation Migration, the group that has been reintroducing wild, migrating whoopers to the eastern United States in recent years.

"We'll just have to wait for the necropsy results to come out, " Condie said. The carcass was retrieved and sent to the University of Florida's College of Veterinary Medicine for examination.

Just what happened to the bird is unclear, but Condie acknowledged that 615 has several strikes against him.

After making the ultralight-led migration from Wisconsin to the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge last autumn, the longest and hardest trek so far, 17 of the 18 birds were killed during the severe storm in February.

The birds had been kept in a top-netted pen at Chassahowitzka because older cranes from previous years had been harassing them.

That cost the birds valuable experience.

Usually the young cranes are allowed to fly free during the day to learn how to become wild cranes.

Somehow, 615 escaped from the lightning thought to have shocked the rest of the class, causing them to drown.

But that meant there were no other birds for 615 to learn from, Condie said.

Over the last month, Condie and others in the reintroduction project were worried that 615 had not left the Marion County preserve to begin the migration back to Wisconsin.

At one point, Condie posted on the Operation Migration Web site the earnest plea, "Come on home, little fella."

Condie said Monday afternoon that the news of 615's death hit everyone hard, especially since he was the sole survivor from 2006.

Other cranes have been lost to predators in recent weeks, and the older crane pairs have not had a good nesting season. Four pairs of cranes abandoned their nests and eggs within a 36-hour period recently.

There have been glimmers of good news, however.

One crane chick has hatched in captivity already for the Class of 2007 and another is peeping in its egg and should hatch soon.

Two other eggs laid by wild cranes in the nonmigratory whooping crane population in the Kissimmee area have also been moved to the hatching facilities in Maryland.

Condie said she welcomes the good news for the whooping cranes.

"It's been a heartbreaking year, " she said.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or 352 754-6117.