The cranes will arrive Tuesday morning

Published: Monday, January 18, 2010 at 1:13 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 18, 2010 at 1:13 p.m.

OCALA -- Warm up your binoculars and pack up the kids. Tuesday morning, the10 whooping crane chicks making their maiden migration from Wisconsin to their winter home in Florida following an Ultralight aircraft piloted by men in whooping crane costumes are expected fly over the Dunnellon/Marion County Airport.

Liz Condie, Operation Migration's chief operating officer, said that the birds left Jefferson County and made it to Gilchrist County, Fla. this morning. The next stop is Marion County.

"We really didn't think we were going to fly," Condie said Monday morning. "The ceiling was so low, we thought we were not going to be able to fly, but then we got a break and it cleared up closer to Gilchrist. We snuck in an out pretty fast."

Condie said that people who wish to get a peek at the rare endangered birds flying overhead should get to the Dunnellon Airport off County Road 484, by 8:30 a.m. Tuesday.

Of course, everything is contingent on weather. But, so far, the forecast looks good for Tuesday. Be sure to check Operation Migration's Web site:

The birds began their 1,250-mile trip on Oct. 16. This year's flock consisted of 20 birds. Half of the birds were taken to St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in the Florida Panhandle, where they will spend the winter. The other 10, which will fly over Dunnellon on Tuesday, will stop in Halpata-Tastanaki Preserve before resuming flight to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Crystal River, the end of their trip.

Come spring, all the birds will migrate back to Wisconsin on their own.

These whoopers are part of a special project undertaken by the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, a consortium of government and private agencies from Canada and the United States, including Operation Migration, that works to ensure the survival of the endangered whooping crane species.

The project starts early. Before the birds are born, the sound of ultralight aircraft is played near the eggs. After they are born, they are fed and cared for by people wearing whooping crane costumes and carrying crane puppets. No one every speaks near these birds to prevent them from attaching to humans.

The hope is that the birds will imprint on the aircraft and their costumed pilots so they will follow the aircraft and learn how to migrate. The goal is to create a second migratory flock of whoopers in the event the only existing wild migrating flock, which flies from Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast, should become diseased or die off.

By 1941, there were only 15 whooping cranes in North American, where they are indigenous.

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