Hundreds gather for arrival of whooping cranes
Published: Tuesday, January 19, 2010 at 3:58 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 19, 2010 at 3:58 p.m.
DUNNELLON - Printed on the side of a white Operation Migration truck are the words, “Fewer than 500 Whooping Cranes remain between survival and...extinction.”
Ten of those birds - all chicks making their first ever migration - flew over the Dunnellon/Marion County Airport Tuesday morning.
More than 700 people showed up at the airport in the early morning fog to see the whoopers as they winged their way behind an ultralight aircraft flown by men dressed in Whooping Crane costumes. The flyover was one of the final legs of their 1,250 journey, which began Oct. 16 in Necedah, Wisc.
“It was kind of mezmerizing,” said Waleed Khan, a 7th grade student from Tampa Prepatory School, who woke up at 4 a.m. to attend the flyover with his classmates as part of their science project to follow the path of this endangered species. “It was all quiet. I recorded it on my phone so I can have it for future reference and I can show my parents. I want to come next year, too. It was worth it.”
Kahn's classmate, Hannah Campo, said the students are fortunate.
“The seventh grade class gets to do this every year,” Campo said about the experience of finally seeing the birds they track. “There's a bird. There's a plane. There's a Whooping Crane.”
These Whooping Crane chicks are part of a special project of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, a consortium of government and private agencies from Canada and the United States that works to ensure the survival of the endangered species.
This the the ninth year Operation Migration is teaching whooper chicks how to migrate. Because of Tuesday's heavy morning fog, the birds did not actually fly over the airport until about 10:30 a.m.
This major undertaking begins before the birds are hatched. While still in their eggs, the sound of ultralight aircraft is played near the eggs. After they are born, the chicks are fed and cared for by people wearing whooping crane costumes and carrying crane puppets. No one ever speaks near these birds to prevent them from attaching to humans.
The hope is 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.
After the flyover, the birds were taken for a brief stop at Halpata Tastanaki Preserve before resuming flight to their final destination at Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Crystal River., where they will spend the winter.
In the spring, the birds will migrate north on their own.
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