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To give the young whoopers a better chance at survival, half will go to a refuge in the Panhandle.
By BARBARA BEHRENDT, Times Staff Writer
Published February 8, 2008
[Photo by Will Vragovic]
CHASSAHOWITZKA - The Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge no longer will be the sole winter destination for the ultralight-led migratory whooping crane flock.
When the whooping crane chicks that will be raised this year in Wisconsin are ready to head south for the winter, the flock will be split into two groups. Half of the giant birds will be led to Chassahowitzka, while the rest will head to the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in the Panhandle.
Thursday's decision by the agencies and organizations making up the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership was in response to last year's devastating loss of 17 of 18 cranes in a winter storm at Chassahowitzka.
The violent storm caught the birds in a pen that had been enclosed at the top to keep out predators, and lightning and a storm surge wiped out nearly all of the cranes that had been hatched in 2006. The only crane to have escaped the pen was found dead several months later.
A report of the incident called for new protocols at the pen site, including a new fence system that releases the birds if waters rise. The fence is in place for this year's flock of cranes, which recently arrived at a remote area of the 31,000-acre refuge that spans the Hernando and Citrus county borders.
The report also recommended that the partnership consider other sites for winter grounds to avoid another catastrophic loss.
"I'm very pleased" with the decision, said Joe Duff, founder of Operation Migration and co-chairman of the partnership's Project Direction Team.
"I think it was time to investigate a new site."
Duff, one of the pilots who leads the birds to Florida each year, said, "you certainly reduce the risk" by dividing the flock.
Aid survival of young
Not counting the 17 young birds now learning how to survive in the wild at Chassahowitzka, the entire eastern migratory flock includes 31 males and 28 females.
"I feel really good about it, but it was a tough decision for the partnership," said Louise Clemency, a co-chairwoman of the Project Direction Team.
"We wanted to maximize the first-year survival of the young whooping cranes," she said. "Young whooping cranes face a lot of challenges in their first year."
Since the ultralight-led migration began in 2001, numerous young birds have been lost to predators and injuries. While predation is natural, "we want to minimize that," she said.
The second reason for splitting the flock, she said, was to give the cranes more opportunity to socialize over the winter and to form pair bonds.
"For the ultimate success of the program ... we also need them to go back to Wisconsin and reproduce," Clemency said.
Neither site perfect
So far, only one pair of cranes from previous years has successfully produced a chick and led it to Florida naturally. Those three birds, the so-called first family, were last tracked in Hernando County.
While the members of the partnership knew there were strong whooping crane supporters in the communities surrounding Chassahowitzka, Clemency said that played no role in the decision to split the next group.
Members of the partnership who were in Florida for their annual meeting last week traveled to St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge during their visit.
That refuge stretches across 68,000 acres of Wakulla, Jefferson and Taylor counties and forms the center of Florida's Big Bend.
Some areas will be closed to the public and a pen site will have to be established.
Some crane partnership members have long said Chassahowitzka is not the best habitat for whooping cranes. Duff said St. Marks is not perfect, either, but it does have some advantages.
The refuge, which was established as habitat for migratory birds, is drier, and does not have problems with storm surges like the one that wiped out the Class of 2006. Plus, the cranes' favorite foods, such as crabs, are abundant there.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or 352 848-1434.
[Last modified February 7, 2008, 21:29:07]