Saturday, Oct. 25


Historic ultralight migration leads majestic whooping cranes over Illinois

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[OCT. 25, 2003]  Fifteen endangered whooping crane chicks reached Illinois Friday on their 1,228-mile ultralight-guided migration from Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge along Florida's central Gulf Coast.

These majestic birds, the largest in North America, left Necedah on Oct. 16, following three ultralight aircraft piloted by Operation Migration pilots. Illinois is one of the eight states the ultralight-guided migration will fly over before reaching Florida.

The whooping cranes and the migration team left Green County, Wis., and flew 47.1 miles for 1 hour and 42 minutes before landing in Ogle County, Ill. Frost and some engine trouble delayed the morning flight start time until 8:42 a.m.

The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, an international coalition of public and private groups, is conducting the project in an effort to reintroduce this highly imperiled species in eastern North America.

"The state of Illinois 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 WCEP founding partner. "We are grateful for the efforts of the Illinois DNR and our other state colleagues in helping to make this project a success. We certainly couldn't do it without them."

"We are proud to be a part of this team and this historic project," said Illinois Department of Natural Resources Director Joel Brunsvold. "Special thanks go to the private landowners who continue to assist this project. The mission could not be accomplished without their generosity."

The whooping cranes chicks hatched at the U.S. Geological Survey's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Md., where they were introduced to ultralights and raised in isolation from humans. The Operation Migration pilots, along with biologists from Patuxent and the International Crane Foundation, spent the summer conditioning the cranes to fly gradually longer flights behind the ultralights -- the cranes' "surrogate parents."

One of the cranes conditioned at Necedah this summer did not leave with its flockmates on the ultralight-led migration. Crane 3 was diagnosed with a small fracture in her right leg and underwent surgery. She is being transported separately along the migration and put in the pens each night with her flockmates so that she can continue learning wild crane behavior. Project biologists and veterinarians hope she can join the ultralight-led migration in progress after she has healed.

These cranes represent the third generation of birds to make this historic assisted migration from Wisconsin to Florida. In 2001, seven of eight whooping cranes that began the pilot fall migration made it to Florida safely; five of these seven birds survived the winter and made an unassisted, successful spring migration back to Wisconsin.

In 2002, the WCEP migration team conditioned a second group and guided 17 juvenile cranes to Chassahowitzka NWR. One was lost when it collided with an ultralight during the migration. Sixteen returned to Wisconsin this past spring.


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The WCEP monitoring team is presently tracking the location of all of the cranes from the "class of 2001" and "class of 2002" that are headed south.

The reintroduction is part of an ongoing recovery effort for the highly imperiled whooping crane, which was on the verge of extinction in the 1940s and even today numbers only about 260 birds in the wild. Except for the Wisconsin-Florida birds, the continent's only other migratory population of whooping cranes winters at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Gulf Coast.

A nonmigrating flock of about 100 cranes remains year-round in central Florida, as part of an ongoing reintroduction study led by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. This reintroduction would not only restore the whooper to part of its historic range but also provide another geographically distinct migratory population, which could lead to downlisting the species from endangered to threatened status by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and eventual recovery.

In 1998, an international coalition of state and federal governments and private organizations formed the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership to spearhead the migratory reintroduction project for the whooping crane, a federally listed endangered species. More than 35 private landowners have volunteered their property as stopover sites for the cranes and migration team. A temporary pen keeps the cranes safe from predators between each morning's flight, and all team members who interact with the cranes wear costumes to mask their human form and use adult crane puppet heads to mimic adult bird behaviors. The goal of WCEP is to establish a migrating flock of at least 125 birds, including 25 adult breeding pairs, restoring the species to eastern North America.

Founding members of WCEP include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the International Crane Foundation, the International Whooping Crane Recovery Team, Operation Migration Inc., National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, U.S. Geological Survey's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and National Wildlife Health Center, and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Many other flyway states, provinces, private individuals and conservation groups have joined forces with and support WCEP by donating resources, funding and personnel.

For daily updates, visit Daily updates are also recorded at (904) 232-2580, ext. 102.

[Illinois Department of Natural Resources news release]

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