Friday, January 21, 2011

Operation Migration-Whoopers in Flight

By Mark Chenoweth
photo credit Mark Chenoweth

The whooping crane (Grus americana) is North America's tallest bird, with some approaching 5 feet in height. The whoopers can live for 30 years or more in the wild and are highly endangered.
The total population of wild and captive whoopers is estimated at 535.

The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP) is comprised of 9 groups including the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, US Fish, the International Crane Foundation, Operation Migration, the US Geological Survey folks at Patuxent, MD, and more. The group partners and makes decisions to hatch, raise and train these highly endangered whooping crane chicks in a 'captive' environment.  Those who rear, train and fly amongst the whoopers wear white, baggy costumes that hide the human form. This keeps the birds in a wild state, or at least so believe their human handlers!

This was the 10th year this work was accomplished, and there are almost 100 birds in the Eastern Introduced Flock now, migrating from Wisconsin to Florida. The only other flock, which dwindled to only 15 birds in 1941, is near 300 birds. Those Whoopers migrate from northern Canada's remote Wood Buffalo region to Aransas, Texas.

photo credit Mark Chenoweth
Last year saw the most birds ever following ultralight aircraft, a total of 20. Changes in the program left fewer birds to work with; this year that number was the fewest ever... just half of last year's flock. 10 young Whooper chicks were led by ultralight planes from Wisconsin to Florida. The 1285 mile migration began October 10th, ending on January 15th. The birds are split into 2 flocks, this year 5 wintering at St. Mark's NWR near Tallahassee, and the other 5 at Chassahowitzka NWR on Florida's West Coast near Crystal River. The flyover at the Marion County Regional Airport in Dunnellon allows public viewing of the birds as they are led by the ultralights to the nearby Halpata Tastanaki Reserve to hold the birds prior to making their final leg to Chassahowitzka NWR. The Operation Migration team, along with refuge personnel and others with US Fish, answer questions and the pilots talk with the crowd once their charges are safely delivered to the reserve. This year, the flyover was on January 14th, with the final leg, a 26 mile flight to Chassahowitzka where the birds will winter, taking place the next day.

The work and dedication of those who hatch, raise, train and fly with these special and rare birds is something we all can learn from. Each year is different, and not every year is as successful. While the birds brought to Florida in 2006 made the journey and did well, only 3 weeks after their arrival a deadly storm killed all but one of the birds in their pen. That storm was also responsible for the deaths of 20 residents of Lake County.

It's often heartbreaking work, and predation, power lines, genetic issues and even interaction with their own kind have caused the birds to suffer many losses.

Listen as the 3 pilots who have worked on this program virtually since it began talk about their feelings and how they see the future for this icon of conservation.

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