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Ultralight Pilots Lead A New Flock Of Cranes To Florida

Seventeen Endangered Whooping Cranes Take to the Sky on Ultralight-Guided Flight to Florida

Seventeen young whooping cranes began their ultralight-led migration, Saturday morning, from central Wisconsin's Necedah National Wildlife Refuge (NWR).

This is the seventh group of birds to take part in a landmark project led by the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP), an international coalition of public and private groups that is reintroducing this highly imperiled species in eastern North America, part of its historic range. There are now 52 whooping cranes in the wild in eastern North America thanks to WCEP's efforts.

Four ultralight aircraft and the juvenile cranes took to the air for the first leg of the 1,250-mile journey to the birds' wintering habitat at Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge along Florida's Gulf Coast.

"This will be our seventh migration along this route and although we have done it before, each season brings new challenges and the weather is always unpredictable," said Joe Duff, senior ultralight pilot and CEO of Operation Migration, the WCEP partner that leads the ultralight migration.

"It has consistently taken us 22 to 23 flying days to cover the 1,250 miles from here to Florida. However, each year, it seems to take a longer period to get those 23 good weather mornings and last season we were on the road for 76 days. The team works very hard to prepare these birds for their first migration and they deserve a break. We are asking everyone to hope and pray for good weather this year and speed the birds to their new winter home."

In addition to the 17 birds being led south by ultralights, biologists from the International Crane Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reared 10 whooping cranes at Necedah NWR. The birds will be released in the company of older cranes in hopes that the young whooping cranes learn the migration route, part of WCEP's "Direct Autumn Release" program, which supplements the successful ultralight migrations.

Whooping cranes that take part in the ultralight and Direct Autumn Release reintroductions are hatched at the U.S. Geological Survey's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Md., and at the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wis. Chicks are raised under a strict isolation protocol and to ensure the birds remain wild, handlers adhere to a no-talking rule and wear costumes designed to mask the human form.

Each year since 2001, ultralight pilots of project partner Operation Migration have conditioned and led juvenile whooping cranes to follow their aircraft on their first migration south. Each year's new class of young cranes is shipped from Patuxent Wildlife Research Center to Necedah NWR in June to begin their summer of "flight training" behind Operation Migration's ultralights in preparation for their migration south. Pilots lead the birds on gradually longer training flights over the refuge throughout the summer until the young cranes have sufficient stamina to follow the ultralights along the migration route.

Graduated classes of whooping cranes spend the summer in central Wisconsin, where they use areas on or near Necedah NWR, as well as various state and private lands.

In the spring and fall, project staff from the International Crane Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service track and monitor the released cranes in an effort to learn as much as possible about their unassisted journeys and the habitat choices they make both along the way and on their summering ground.

WCEP asks anyone who encounters a whooping crane in the wild to please give them the respect and distance they need. Do not approach birds on foot within 200 yards; try to remain in your vehicle; and do not approach in a vehicle within 100 yards. Also, please remain 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 whooping cranes.

Whooping cranes were on the verge of extinction in the 1940s. Today, there are only about 350 of them in the wild. Aside from the birds reintroduced by WCEP, the only other migrating population of whooping cranes nests at the Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories of Canada and winters at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Gulf Coast. A non-migrating flock of approximately 50 birds lives year-round in the central Florida Kissimmee region.

Whooping cranes, named for their loud and penetrating unison calls, live and breed in wetland areas, where they feed on crabs, clams, frogs and aquatic plants. They are distinctive animals, standing five 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 WCEP 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 sponsors.

FMI: www.bringbackthecranes.org

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