Ultralight Migration Leads 14 Endangered Whooping Cranes

From the USFWS:

Fourteen whooping crane chicks reached Hardin County, Tennessee, today
on their ultralight-guided migration from Necedah National Wildlife
Refuge in central Wisconsin to Chassahowitzka and St. Marks National
Wildlife Refuges along Florida's Gulf Coast.

These majestic birds, the tallest in North America, left Necedah refuge
on Oct. 17, following four ultralight aircraft. Tennessee is one of the
seven states the ultralight-guided migration will fly over before
reaching Florida.

The 117-mile flight leg this morning took them from Marshall County,
Ky., to Hardin County, Tenn., in two hours and 20 minutes. The good
weather allowed the team to skip a stop in Carroll County, Tenn.

The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, an international coalition of
public and private groups, is conducting this project, now in its eighth
year, in an effort to reintroduce this endangered species in eastern
North America.

"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,
leads 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 ultralight-led flock from Necedah NWR passed through Wisconsin,
Illinois, and Kentucky. It will fly through Tennessee, Alabama, and
Georgia to reach the wintering locations in Florida. 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. To help speed the migration and improve safety
for the birds and the pilots, a new route was developed this year that
takes the team around the Appalachian Mountains rather than over them.
For the first time, they will pass through the state of Alabama.

In addition to the 14 ultralight-led birds, biologists from the
International Crane Foundation (ICF) and the 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 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 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 half way
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 five feet tall, with white
bodies, black wing tips and red crowns on their heads.

WCEP asks anyone who encounters a whooping crane 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/wcrane/wcranep... more
information on the project, its partners and how you can help, visit the
WCEP website at http://www.bringbackthecranes.org.

For daily updates and press kits, visit the WCEP website at
www.bringbackthecranes.org. Daily updates from the field are recorded
at (904) 731-3276.

B-roll is available by calling (612) 713-5314.