Whooping cranes set to fly over Dunnellon

You'll have to leave early to see them. Birds are set to arrive by 8:30 a.m.


An Operation Migration pilot leads a dozen whooping cranes over the Dunnellon/ Marion County Airport on Jan. 27, 2008. This year, 20 of the endangered birds made the trip from Wisconsin.

Lee Ferinden/File
Published: Tuesday, January 19, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 18, 2010 at 11:16 p.m.

The wait is over, so break out the binoculars, pack up the kids and get out to the Dunnellon/Marion County Airport by 8:30 a.m. today.

Weather permitting, the 10 whooping crane chicks making their maiden migration from Wisconsin to their winter home in Florida - following an ultralight aircraft flown by a pilot in a whooping crane costume - are expected to fly over the airport off County Road 484.

The flyover always is contingent on weather conditions. But today's forecast was looking good. Be sure to check Operation Migration's Web site for updated information: www.operationmigration.org. That is the most reliable source, but residents also may call the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Complex hot line at 352-563-2088.

Liz Condie, Operation Migration's chief operating officer, said people who wish to get a peek at the rare endangered birds should get to the Dunnellon airport, 15070 S.W. 111th St., off County Road 484, by 8:30 a.m. at the latest.

It is always difficult to pinpoint exactly when the birds will arrive because weather determines whether the birds and aircraft are able to get aloft.

For instance, Operation Migration pilots, who train the birds to follow the ultralight aircraft, did not expect to fly on Monday.

"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" County, Condie said. "We snuck in and out pretty fast."

The birds began their 1,250-mile trip on Oct. 16 in Necedah, Wis. This year's flock consists of 20 birds: 12 males and eight females. Half of the birds were left at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in the Florida Panhandle, where they will spend the winter. The other 10, which will fly over the Dunnellon airport today, will continue to the Halpata Tastanaki Preserve near Dunnellon for a brief stopover before resuming flight to their destination, Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Crystal River. There they will settle in for the winter.

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

After the flyover, the birds will be guided to Halpata.

The decision to split the flock between St. Marks and Chassahowitzka was made to reduce the risk of losing all the birds in the migration should a catastrophe strike like the one that occurred in February 2007. At that time, 17 of the 18 chicks from the Class of 2006 died when they were drowned by a storm surge at Chassahowitzka during severe weather.

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 that works to ensure the survival of the endangered species.

This is a major effort that 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 every 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.

Whooping cranes are in danger of extinction. By 1941, there were just 15 of the birds in North America, where they are indigenous.

This project to create a second flock began in 2001. Right now, the eastern migratory flock has about 12 or 13 breeding pairs, but they have not had great success. Studies have been done, and the results should be forthcoming in February.

One thought is that black flies may be hindering the parents from staying on their nests. Whooping cranes generally start to mate when they are about 5 years old.

Only one pair from the 2002 migration, affectionately referred to as "The First Family," has successfully bred, hatched a chick and taught that chick to migrate. However, this year someone shot and killed bird No. 217, the mother of that chick, in Indiana.

This year's crop of chicks have shed much of their cinnamon-colored juvenile feathers. Adult birds are pure white with black wing tips and legs. They have patches of red skin on their faces.

Some cranes have lived to age 60 in captivity, with one even reaching 90.

They are the largest bird in North America standing 5 feet tall. They weigh 14 to 17 pounds and their wing span is about 7 to 8 feet. They fly at about 38 mph but can reach speeds of 70 mph.

They mate for life and, when they reproduce, they generally hatch two eggs, but usually only one chick survives.

Last year's migration took 88 days and ended on Jan. 23.

Contact Susan Latham Carr at 867-4156 or susan.carr@starbanner.com.

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