Whooping crane chicks still biding time in Gilchrist County


An Operation Migration pilot flies an Ultralight aircraft to lead whooping cranes past the Dunnellon Airport in Dunnellon on Thursday, Jan. 22, 2009.

Bruce Ackerman/File photo
Published: Wednesday, January 5, 2011 at 5:44 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 5, 2011 at 5:44 p.m.

OCALA - The whooping crane chicks making their first southern migration from Wisconsin will be flying over Dunnellon/Marion County Airport at some point, but not likely this week.

The birds are being taught to migrate by following ultralight aircraft flown by Operation Migration pilots dressed in whooping crane costumes. The final stop for five chicks will be the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Crystal River, where food is provided for the young birds. In the spring, the cranes migrate north on their own.

According to Liz Condie, Operation Migration chief operating officer, the delay in the Dunnellon flyover occurred because adult cranes from previous migrations have stopped at the refuge. Because the older birds are sometimes aggressive with younger ones, the chicks are being held in Gilchrist County until the older birds move on. No food is provided for the older birds to encourage them to find other locations.

The whooping crane chicks are part of a project 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 survival of the endangered species.

Ten chicks left Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin on Oct. 10. The flock is split in North Florida and five stay at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in the Panhandle while the other five continue on and fly over the Dunnellon Airport before finishing the 1,285-mile trek at Chassahowitzka.

This is the 10th year of the ultralight program.

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The Direct Autumn Release project that began in 2005 has chicks migrate with adult whooping cranes. The goal of the two programs is to have a total Eastern Migratory flock of 125 birds, including 25 breeding pairs.

“Over the years, approximately 152 birds were released by the ultralight method,” Condie said.

About 35 whooping cranes have been released in the DAR program, with about half surviving. A total of 96 birds in the two programs have survived.

In December, three birds from the DAR program were reported dead near Albany, Ga., and the deaths are being investigated as “suspicious.” The carcasses have been shipped to the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Lab in Ashland, Ore., for necropsy.

Some birds are lost to predators, some to illness or environmental factors. Some hit power lines or buildings, and one was shot to death in Indiana last year. That crane was the first female in the program to have successfully raised a chick and taught it to migrate. That baby, called “Wild 1-06,” is a female and has taken a mate from the 2003 flock, Condie said. “The last time we had a report on them, they were in Indiana in mid-December.”

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A whole “generation” of 18 birds died at Chassahowitzka when a storm kicked up in February 2007 and they drowned in their pen. One survived, but was killed later by predators. As severe a setback as that loss was, the program continues.

“You don't accomplish anything by giving up,” Condie said.

And the efforts seem to be paying dividends.

In 2010 two females were hatched in the wild and have survived.

“Both are in Florida,” Condie said.

“Wild 3/10” was born to bird No. 12 from the 2002 flock and bird No. 19 from the 2004 flock. The second baby, “Wild 1/10,” was born to bird No. 3 from the 2004 flock and bird No. 9 from the 2003 flock. They, too, migrated with their parents.

A third baby was hatched but disappeared on the refuge, Condie said.

Contact Susan Latham Carr 352-867-4156 or susan.carr@starbanner.com.

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