Ultralight migration leads 14 endangered whooping cranes through Tennessee skies
Rough weather has grounded 14 whooping crane chicks taking their first migration through West Tennessee.
The endangered cranes landed Friday at the Horse Creek Wildlife Sanctuary and Animal Refuge in Savannah. They haven't been able to continue their migration south because of strong winds.
The young birds are on an ultralight aircraft-guided migration from Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in central Wisconsin to Chassahowitzka and St. Marks National Wildlife Refuges along Florida's Gulf Coast.
This is the first such migration through West Tennessee. In the previous seven years, a more easterly route took the cranes through Indiana, Kentucky, eastern Tennessee and Georgia.
The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, which conducts the migration project, hopes that the new route will avoid difficulties associated with crossing the Appalachian Mountains.
The new route heads south from Wisconsin through Illinois, western Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, extreme southwestern Georgia and ultimately Florida. In Tennessee, the route follows the Tennessee River as it separates West Tennessee from Middle Tennessee.
An overnight stop had been planned in Carroll County, but it proved unnecessary. The cranes flew 117 miles from Marshall County, Ky., to Hardin County, Tenn., in two hours and 20 minutes on Friday.
The public is welcome to watch the birds while they are grounded in Savannah. The birds have attempted take-offs and participated in exercises during their stay. The viewing location is 13780 Highway 69 South at Savannah. Use the entrance marked "North Gate" and follow the road in and to the right going down the hill. Turn right where the sign says "Watermelon Hill" and proceed up the hill to the viewing stands.
To read daily accounts of the cranes' adventures, visit the Operation Migration Web site at: www.operationmigration. org and click on "In the Field."
This year's migration began Oct. 17.
"This is an exciting year for the reintroduction project with the addition of St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in the Florida panhandle," said Sam D. Hamilton, Southeast Regional Director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "We wish the intrepid pilots of Operation Migration all the best with the new route as they enter the Southeast, and hope for a safe and speedy arrival at St. Marks and Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge."
There are now 68 migratory whooping cranes in the wild in eastern North America -- including the first whooping crane chick to hatch in the wild in Wisconsin in more than a century.
"The state of Tennessee is a key partner in this unprecedented effort to reintroduce whooping cranes into the eastern flyway," said John Christian of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership founding partner. "We are grateful for the efforts of Tennessee and our other state colleagues in helping to make this project a success. Quite simply, we couldn't do this without them."
Each fall, pilots from Operation Migration, also a founding partner, lead a new generation of whooping cranes behind their ultralight aircraft to wintering grounds in Florida. The cranes will make the return flight on their own to the Upper Midwest in the spring.
The duration of the migration is completely dependant on weather. It is unknown how long it will take the team to reach their final destination. Last year's journey lasted 97 days.
In addition to the 14 ultralight-led birds, biologists from the International Crane Foundation (ICF) and the Fish and Wildlife Service reared six whooping cranes at Necedah NWR. The birds were released in the company of older cranes from whom the young birds will learn the migration route. This is the fourth year WCEP has used this Direct Autumn Release method, which supplements the ultralight migrations.
Whooping cranes that take part in the ultralight and Direct Autumn Release reintroductions are hatched at the U.S. Geological Survey's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Md., and at the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wis. Chicks are raised under a strict isolation protocol and, to ensure the birds remain wild, handlers adhere to a no-talking rule and wear costumes designed to mask the human form.
Most of the reintroduced whooping cranes spend the summer in central Wisconsin, where they use areas on the Necedah NWR, as well as various state and private lands. Reintroduced whooping cranes have also spent time in Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Michigan and other upper Midwest states.
In the spring and fall, project staff from ICF and the Fish and Wildlife Service track and monitor the released cranes in an effort to learn as much as possible about their unassisted migrations and the habitat choices they make along the way. The birds are monitored during the winter in Florida by WCEP project staff. ICF and Fish and Wildlife Service biologists continue to monitor the birds while they are in their summer locations.
The Whooping Crane Recovery Team has established a target number for this reintroduction. Once there are at least 125 individuals, including 25 breeding pairs, migrating in this eastern corridor the population could be considered self-sustaining. With 68 birds now in the wild and another 20 soon to be released this project is well past the halfway mark.
Whooping cranes were on the verge of extinction in the 1940s. Today, there are only about 500 birds in existence, 350 of them in the wild. Aside from the 68 Wisconsin-Florida birds, the only other migrating population of whooping cranes nests at the Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories of Canada and winters at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Coast.
A non-migrating flock of about 30 whooping cranes lives year-round in central Florida. The remaining 150 whooping cranes are in captivity in zoos and breeding facilities around North America.
Whooping cranes, named for their loud and penetrating unison calls, live and breed in wetland areas, where they feed on crabs, clams, frogs and seeds. They are distinctive animals, standing 5 feet tall, with white bodies, black wing tips and red crowns on their heads.
WCEP asks anyone who encounters whooping cranes in the wild to please give them the respect and distance they need. Do not approach birds on foot within 600 feet; try to remain in your vehicle; do not approach in a vehicle within 600 feet or, if on a public road, within 300 feet. Also, please remain concealed and do not speak loudly enough that the birds can hear you. Finally, do not trespass on private property in an attempt to view whooping cranes.
Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership founding members are the International Crane Foundation, Operation Migration Inc., Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and National Wildlife Health Center, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin, and the International Whooping Crane Recovery Team.
Many other flyway states, provinces, private individuals and conservation groups have joined forces with and support WCEP by donating resources, funding and personnel. More than 60 percent of the project's estimated $1.6 million annual budget comes from private sources in the form of grants, public donations and corporate sponsorship.
A Wisconsin Whooping Crane Management Plan that describes project goals and management and monitoring strategies shared and implemented by the partners is online at: http://dnr.wi.gov/org/land/er/birds/wcra.... For more information on the project, its partners and how you can help, visit the WCEP Web site at http://www.bringbackthecranes.org.