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Fog splits, scatters cranes' flight
Operation Migration's 17 birds were headed to their next stop inGilchrist County.
By BARBARA BEHRENDT, Times Staff Writer
Published January 24, 2008
CRYSTAL RIVER - The same weather that has kept this year's whooping crane flock grounded in Hamilton County near the Georgia border for more than a week prompted a crane rodeo on Wednesday.
Early in the morning, Operation Migration ultralight pilots tried to move the 17 young cranes to their next stopover site in Gilchrist County. But early on, the birds stopped cooperating and broke into individual groups, sending pilots and ground crews scrambling.
By mid-afternoon, the rare cranes were in several locations between Hamilton and Gilchrist counties. Four were missing and search crews were scouring in the air and on the ground to pick up radio signals from each of the errant youngsters.
That left Operation Migration's Liz Condie unable to update curious crane enthusiasts on whether a public viewing opportunity would be possible this morning.
A formal flyover event is staged each year as the cranes near their temporary stop at the Halpata Tastanaki Preserve in Marion County and their final destination at the Chassahowitzka Wildlife Refuge at the Hernando-Citrus border.
This year's fly-over is tentatively scheduled at the Dunnellon/Marion County Airport. Updated information on the event and the migration progress is available at operationmigration.org/Field_Journal.html.
Later in the afternoon, Condie reported that one crane had made it to Gilchrist County and the pilot who led it there was "bird-sitting" in an isolated spot as sunset approached.
Ten more were in Suwannee County. One was in a crate and workers were on their way to put another in a protective crate. The signals of the four missing birds were tracked. Two were near the Gilchrist site and two others near the Suwannee pen.
Condie said that the crew had equipment, vehicles, planes and people scattered all across north Florida and she was expecting a long evening of getting organized again.
She had not yet had a clear conversation with the bird-suited pilots of the ultralights that teach the young birds their migration route, but she suspected that the high humidity and fog were the reasons for the splitting flock.
The humid air makes it difficult for the cranes to breathe and so they don't want to fly far, she said. The fog scares them and she said after the ultralights and birds took off from Hamilton County early Wednesday, "the ceiling just dropped" sending birds and planes into the fog bank.
By late afternoon, conditions had cleared somewhat and the Cessna that normally flies above the birds and ultralights to keep track of the action was able to track four missing cranes.
Condie said she felt ill when she heard the birds had scattered. This year's migration has taken on special meaning for the team since last year 18 birds made the flight to the Chassahowitzka Wildlife Refuge, only to have all but one die in a strong storm that brought lightning and flood waters. The surviving bird died several months later.
To avoid another such tragedy, new procedures and equipment have been added at the refuge, including a new top-netted pen system that will release the birds if water rises. Officials with the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, the group that runs the project to reintroduce a migrating flock of North America's largest bird to the East Coast, will soon decide whether it should replace the Chassahowitzka Wildlife Refuge with a new site.
By early spring, instinct will tell the cranes to fly home to the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin. The cranes complete their return trip without human assistance.