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Meanwhile, the neophyte whoopers of '07 are barely halfway along their ultralight-led journey.
By BARBARA BEHRENDT, Times Staff Writer
Published December 15, 2007
CHASSAHOWITZKA - The 17 whooping cranes comprising this year's ultralight-led Class of 2007 may only be halfway to their winter homes but their elders from previous years are already trickling into the area.
Four of the endangered whooping cranes already have been seen in Hernando County and two more have made it to Pasco County.
The birds from previous years do their own migrations now and they tend to leave their home turf in the upper Midwest much later than the youngsters that are following the ultralight aircraft of Operation Migration.
They also arrive at their winter homes much earlier than the fledgling cranes that are just learning the migration route behind the ultralights. That is because the older birds soar much of the way on air currents far above where the ultralight pilots can fly.
When the ultralights lead the young birds, the juvenile cranes must flap much of the way and cannot cover as much ground each day as the soaring adults high above.
Among the new arrivals to Hernando County is the bird designated W601, which is the first crane chick hatched in the wild from parents that were taught the migration route by following the ultralights. He hatched last year, followed his parents to Florida, returned to Wisconsin in the spring and now is back in Hernando County.
His parents, Nos. 211 and 217, known as the First Family, were last seen in late November in Indiana.
W601 is one of the rare surviving hatches of 2006. The entire ultralight-led Class of 2006 died. Seventeen of the birds were struck by lightning and drowned in a top-netted pen at the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge during a freak storm.
The sole survivor of that storm died several months later in Marion County.
Liz Condie, executive director of Operation Migration, called W601 "our little miracle."
"That's what's so encouraging about little 601," she said. "Whatever we did, we did right. And whatever his parents did, they did right."
The only discouraging fact is that there are so few birds hatched in 2006 that survived. "We would have liked for him to have some little friends," she said.
Two other birds from 2006 are the two that have already made it to Pasco County. They were part of the so-called Direct Autumn Release flock. Those young cranes are released with wild cranes in hopes they will follow them on their migration to the south in their first fall.
Two other birds in Hernando already are from the Class of 2005 and the other recent arrival is one dubbed 105, also known as Romeo. That bird lost its mate during the last winter season and caused quite a ruckus when it chose to make friends with Peepers, a captive whooping crane at the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park.
Condie said someone had been joking with her that 105 had stopped by to see Peepers on his way to the pen site at the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in late November. State park manager Art Yerian said that the rumor was not true.
However, he said late last week that if the wild birds do come near the park in the future, the park will be able to track them with a 15-mile radius. The park is installing a telemetry unit that will pick up the signals from the radio transmitters worn by the birds.
The radio tracking exercise with allow park visitors to participate in crane tracking as well as manatee tracking because manatees outfitted with radio tags use the same frequency, Yerian said.
For the migrating juveniles in the Class of 2007, it's been a rough trip. As of Friday, the birds had flown 680 of the approximately 1,200 miles of the migration, getting stuck now for eight days in Cumberland County, Tenn. due to weather.
Last year was the latest arrival in Central Florida ever, with the birds flying into their temporary stop over in Marion County on Dec. 19. They were moved to Chassahowitzka in January. At this time last year, the cranes were nearly ready to cross into Florida.
The Operation Migration team is at the edge of one of the more daunting legs of the migration, the flight over what they call "the beast" which is the Cumberland Gap. The flight requires more altitude than other legs and can be plagued by winds.
"It's not an easy thing to do whether you're a bird or a pilot," Condie said. "It's intimidating."
They had hoped to make that leg on Friday but low clouds made visibility a big problem and they had to cancel, disappointing a group of crane enthusiasts which had gathered to watch the departure.
Once that flight is done, the team considers themselves in the last half of the migration. The quickest that has ever been completed was eight days. But Condie said everyone is thinking but not talking about the reality that the migration might keep everyone away from home for the holidays.
"Obviously, it's something on everybody's minds, are we going to make it there by Christmas. But no one is verbalizing it," she said. "We're all kind of quietly sweating."
To keep up with the migration, visit http://www.operationmigration.org/Field_Journal.html or call the whooping crane hotline at 904 232-2580 ext. 124.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.
[Last modified December 14, 2007, 20:05:54]