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Rare winter visitors en route
The 17 whooping cranes renew hopes dashed by last year's tragedies.
By BARBARA BEHRENDT, Times Staff Writer
Published January 17, 2008
The flock follows an Operation Migration ultralight in 2006. Depending on the weather, this year's flyover of the Dunnellon airport could be Sunday.
[Stephen J. Coddington (2006) | Times]
[Stephen J. Coddington | Times (2003)]
A whooping crane arrived in 2003 at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park.
CHASSAHOWITZKA -- The 17 young whooping cranes flapping south from Wisconsin have finally crossed the Florida state line.
The ultralight-led flock could make it to their final destination at the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge by early next week, weather permitting.
This year's migration, stretching more than 1,200 miles from the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin to Chassahowitzka, will have taken longer and ended later than any previous migration. That means the pilots and others affiliated with Operation Migration are ready to get the rare, young birds situated in Chassahowitzka, according to Liz Condie, chief executive for Operation Migration.
"They need time to get acclimated," she said. "They need time to fly around, forage and learn some survival skills."
The ultralight pilots led the birds 138 miles, flying past two regular stops in Georgia on Tuesday and landing in Hamilton County, just south of the Georgia border. "They had one heck of a tailwind yesterday," Condie said.
The team was also concerned at the end of the Tuesday flight because near the stopping point, the young birds got caught up in some thermal air currents and were reluctant to come down. Eventually they did, which Condie said is a testament to what good followers this year's birds have turned out to be.
The team did not fly on Wednesday and did not believe that the weather would clear enough for them to fly today. Condie said that the flyover event planned so the public can catch a glimpse of the birds and ultralights is still slated for the Dunnellon airport.
While the date depends on the weather, she was predicting that the flyover could happen on Sunday. The airport is near the Halpata Tastanaki Preserve, which has served over the past few years as a temporary holding area for the cranes.
This year, because it is so late in the winter and because older birds have had a chance to clear out from Chassahowitzka, the plan is to stop one day at Halpata, then fly the birds the remaining 26 miles to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge the next appropriate flying day, Condie said.
The migration has taken on special significance this year because all 18 birds in the Class of 2006 perished during the last season, a huge blow to the project to reintroduce a migratory flock of North America's tallest bird to the eastern United States.
Of last year's group, 17 were struck by lightning, then drowned in their top-netted pen deep in the refuge. The last was found dead later at Halpata Tastanaki.
Because of the outcome of the storm, members of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership are talking about picking another wintering site for the cranes away from Chassahowitzka. The members are meeting later this month, and Condie said she expected a decision at that time.