Whooping it up - finally - at Dunnellon airport
Published: Friday, January 14, 2011 at 2:30 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 14, 2011 at 2:30 p.m.
With camera shutters clicking furiously and only the quietest “Oooh's” and “Aaah's,” the patient crowd of bird enthusiasts finally caught a glimpse Friday of what they had been waiting for since mid-December.
Two ultralight aircraft flown by Operation Migration pilots dressed in crane costumes guided five endangered whooping crane chicks on a fly-by of the Dunnellon-Marion County Airport. This was the final leg of their 1,285-mile migration from Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin to the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Citrus County.
The birds had been holding in Gilchrist County since before Christmas, when weather conditions forestalled their continued flight and it was decided to send the crew home to spend the holidays with their families.
Ivan Vicente, a park ranger and visitor's service specialist at Chassahowitzka, said this year's migration was only the second time in 10 years that three attempts to fly over the local airport were necessary due to wind and fog.
Colleen Chase, a volunteer with Operation Migration, said the young chicks were also held back in Gilchrist County due in part to adult birds now migrating back south on their own.
“They were harassing the younger birds because they compete for food,” she said.
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 Wisconsin on Oct. 10. The flock was split in North Florida and five flew to St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in the Panhandle while the other five finished the journey at Chassahowitzka.
John Helms, Dunnellon-Marion County Airport supervisor, said he didn't mind the extra foot traffic and admired the determination of the dedicated bird lovers who braved the chilly temperatures during the three flight attempts.
“It's definitely a sight to see. [The cranes] have quite the following and people from all over come to see them,” said Helms.
One such visitor, Jerry Willett, said he wasn't known as a “crazy bird man,” but for the cranes he wouldn't mind.
“We've been out here many mornings when we had to turn back, but it's still worth coming out for,” he said. “It's just amazing what these people are doing. To see this ultralight and see the birds follow the wing, these people are just so dedicated to keep their costumes on so they don't become imprinted.”
Willett also convinced his neighbor, Marie Segovis, to come out on her first visit.
“I think just to see these big creatures following this mechanical thing is a phenomenon,” said Sergovis.
Ken Knox said his fascination with birds in general led him to discover the cranes.
“There's something almost magical about them, just so light and delicate, and they can almost go anywhere. They can go places humans can't, and every time you see a new breed of bird you haven't seen before, it is an exciting thing,” he said.
Knox said this was the sixth time he and his wife Sonja had watched the birds fly over in Dunnellon.
“They are just such a fascinating bird because they almost became extinct, and now to see them recovering is remarkable. I have admiration for the crew that bring them every year. It's almost heroic what they do - saving a species,” said Knox.
Sonja Knox said during the summer they live in upper Michigan and on their way there, they make a trip to Necedah National Wildlife Refuge to see if they can spot any cranes.
“We've just been interested in the cranes from the very beginning [of Operation Migration]. We kinda feel like we follow them, or they follow us,” she said.
Before the birds are born, the sound of ultralight aircraft is played near their eggs. After they are born, they are fed and cared for by people wearing whooping crane costumes and carrying crane puppets. No one speaks near the birds to prevent them from attaching to humans. The hope is the birds will imprint on the ultralight planes and their costumed pilots and follow the aircraft and learn to migrate.
The idea 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.
Teacher Annelise Trubelhorn brought 41 of her seventh-grade students all the way from Tampa Preparatory School to see the five rare birds on Friday.
“We have followed them all the way from Wisconsin, and we check on them every day on the Internet. It's just so amazing to see these birds come from an egg to them flying over us. My eighth graders were even talking about how they wanted to come back,” she said.
Students Sarah Gonzalez said she was excited to finally see the birds on the field trip.
“It's the end of the migrating pattern and it is just cool seeing them all fly. These birds have a lot of courage,” she said.
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