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Birders endure cold and delays for a rare sight.
By LOGAN NEILL, Times Staff Writer
Published January 28, 2008
[Photo by Will Vragovic]
DUNNELLON - Looking into the dreary sky above her, Martha Epstein clasped her hands together in anticipation as the graceful creatures drew nearer. She had read about them, had seen plenty of photos of them, but in her 74 years she had never seen a whooping crane "in person."
As the first three cranes and their ultralight aircraft escort appeared in the western sky shortly after 9 a.m. Sunday, Epstein reached for her binoculars and tilted her head back to bring them into view.
"Beautiful, just beautiful," she said. "I feel like I've seen a lost treasure."
The arrival of 17 whooping cranes at Dunnellon/Marion County Airport inspired awe among the hundreds who gathered for a brief glimpse of the rare birds as they made their way toward Halpata Tastanaki Preserve.It was the final leg of a 1,200-mile journey from Wisconsin that took more than three months to complete.
The annual flight is part of a seven-year effort to establish an eastern migratory flock from whoopers raised in captivity. It holds special significance to birders, many of whom travel great distances to see the endangered birds.
For Richard and Andrea Mullin, who drove from Ocala Friday to watch the crane flyby, only to be told that it had been delayed due to foul weather, the wait was worth it.
"When you're a bird lover, you get used to things like that," said Richard Mullin. "If you're dedicated, you simply come back another time. It's not like you're going to see a flock of whooping cranes every day."
Most of the crowd that showed up at the airport appeared ready to wait if necessary as support crews readied the flock at its holding site in Gilchrist County. It was chilly, and many watchers were bundled in heavy jackets and wool scarves and sipped hot coffee as announcers relayed messages from ultralight pilots guiding the birds toward the airport.
Operation Migration chief operating officer Liz Condie said that although this season's migration was the longest since the operation began in 2001, the birds arrived no worse for wear.
"I'm not sure I can say the same thing for our crew," Condie said. "It's been a long, tough haul. We're all ready to go home."
The migration that began on Oct. 13 at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin has had its share of trying moments. Constant threats of rain, fog and high winds grounded the ultralight pilots several times. Early on, some of the birds broke away into individual groups, sending pilots and ground crews scrambling to find them.
The birds follow the ultralights because of an instinct called imprinting. A just-hatched waterfowl chick trusts the first object it sees and will follow the object. The small aircraft is seen as a parent and is therefore followed.
Condie said that this year's migration has taken on special meaning for the team. In 2006, 18 birds made the flight to the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, only to have all but one die in a storm that brought lightning and floodwaters. The survivor died several months later. Fewer than 500 remain.
Condie said she expects that weather conditions will allow the final leg of the cranes' journey to the winter home inside the Chassahowitzka refuge to begin shortly after sunrise today. After the birds are fitted with new permanent radio collars, they will be monitored regularly. Condie expects that most of cranes will depart in the spring and return to Florida sometime next fall.
"One of the wonderful things about all of this is that you know you're helping creatures to help themselves," Condie said.
Information is available at www.operationmigration.org.
Logan Neill can be reached at email@example.com or 352 848-1435.
[Last modified January 27, 2008, 23:13:36]