Thursday, January 15, 2009

Ultralight-led Whooping Cranes Winging Toward Southwest Georgia

Fourteen endangered whooping crane chicks and their surrogate parents – four ultralight aircraft – are headed toward southwestern Georgia on their 1,285-mile migration from Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in central Wisconsin to Chassahowitzka and St. Marks national wildlife refuges along Florida's Gulf Coast.

These majestic birds, the tallest in North America, began their migration from Necedah on Oct. 17. In Georgia, the planned route will take them from Clay County almost due south through Decatur County in the coming days. Stopovers are scheduled in both counties. The cranes and crew landed in Pike County, Ala., on Monday and will move toward Clay County at the Alabama/Georgia state line as weather allows.

There are 68 migratory whooping cranes in the wild in eastern North America, thanks to the efforts of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, an international coalition of public and private groups that is reintroducing whooping cranes in the species’ historic range.

Mike Harris, Nongame Conservation Section chief for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Resources Division, said the impressive work is bringing back an eastern migratory population of the imperiled cranes “from scratch.”

Harris said historic records show whooping cranes used to migrate through Georgia, possibly even wintering here. “Once the population is restored, we hope we’ll have places where they stop regularly during migration.”

The ultralight-led flock from Necedah National Wildlife Refuge has made its way through Wisconsin, Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee. For the first time, the route went through southern Illinois and Alabama, clipping the corner of Georgia instead of cutting north to south through the state as before. Increased weather delays and safety risks with crossing the Appalachian Mountains prompted the ultralight migration team and project partner Operation Migration to develop the more westerly route that goes around the mountains instead of over them. Last year’s journey lasted 97 days.

In addition to the 14 birds being led south by the ultralights, six other birds were released in the company of older cranes in the hope that they can learn the migration route from the more experienced birds. This is part of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership’s “Direct Autumn Release” program and is conducted by the International Crane Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The International Whooping Crane Recovery Team has set the target for this reintroduction at 125 birds, including 25 breeding pairs. Once these numbers are reached the population could be considered self-sustaining. With 68 birds in the wild and another 21 scheduled for release soon, the effort has passed the halfway point and “whoopers” are again migrating over eastern North America after a 100-year absence.

Whooping cranes, named for their loud unison calls, were on the verge of extinction in the 1940s. Today, there are only about 350 in the wild and 500 in existence.

Aside from the 68 Wisconsin-Florida birds, the only other migrating population nests at Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories of Canada and winters at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast. A non-migrating flock of about 30 birds lives in central Florida. The remaining 150 whooping cranes are in captivity in zoos and breeding facilities.

The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership asks that anyone who encounters a whooping crane in the wild please give them the respect and distance they need. Do not approach on foot within 200 yards, remain in your vehicle if possible and do not approach in a vehicle within 100 yards. Please stay concealed and do not speak loudly enough that the birds can hear you. Finally, do not trespass on private property in an attempt to view the cranes.

Each fall, Operation Migration pilots lead a new generation of whooping cranes behind their ultralight aircraft to wintering grounds in Florida. The cranes will make the return flight on their own to the upper Midwest in the spring.

The birds are tracked and monitored year-round. They live and breed in wetland areas, where they feed on crabs, clams, frogs and seeds. They are distinctive animals, standing 5 feet tall, with white bodies, black wing tips and red crowns on their heads.

Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership founding members are the International Crane Foundation; Operation Migration Inc.; Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and National Wildlife Health Center; the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation; the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin; and the International Whooping Crane Recovery Team.

Many other flyway states, provinces, private individuals and conservation groups have joined forces with and support the partnership by donating resources, funding and personnel. More than 60 percent of the project’s budget comes from private sources in the form of grants, public donations and corporate sponsorship.

Go to www.bringbackthecranes.org for more information on the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership. A map of the route is at www.operationmigration.org/mile_makers.htm#map.

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