Press Release

Ultralight Migration Leads 20 Endangered Whooping Cranes into Georgia

SOCIAL CIRCLE, Ga. (1/7/2010)

 

Twenty juvenile whooping cranes and several chilly pilots in ultralights reached Decatur County, Ga., today on their ultralight-guided migration from Necedah National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in central Wisconsin to Chassahowitzka and St. Marks National Wildlife Refuges along Florida's Gulf Coast.
 
“Successfully restoring a population of a migratory species is a huge challenge and this pioneering effort is demonstrating the need for long-term commitment,” said Mike Harris, Nongame Conservation Section chief with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
 
These majestic birds, the tallest in North America, left Necedah refuge on Oct. 23, following Operation Migration’s four ultralight aircraft. Georgia is one of the seven states on the route to Florida. The flight path crosses the corner of southwest Georgia.
 
“I hope all Americans appreciate this monumental and inspiring project to save this species for future generations,” said Cindy Dohner, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s southeast regional director.
 
A public flyover is planned at San Marcos de Apalache State Park in St. Marks, Fla. For more information, call St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge at (850) 925-6121, or visit:
www.operationmigration.org_Field_Journal.html. Another event is planned at Dunnellon Airport, in between Crystal River and Ocala, Fla. For more information on that event, call (352) 563-2088 Ext. 213
 
There are now 85 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. One crane from an earlier cohort was recently shot and killed in Indiana.
 
Harris said some of those birds are also moving through Georgia. People who spot a whooping crane are encouraged to contact the Nongame Conservation Section’s Forsyth office, (478) 994-1438, or report the sighting online at www.georgiawildlife.com/node/1321.
 
Anyone who encounters one of the cranes in the wild should give it the respect and distance the bird needs. Do not approach 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.
 
The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, an international coalition of public and private groups conducting this project, is now in its ninth year in an effort to reintroduce this endangered species in eastern North America.
 
Each fall, pilots from Operation Migration, a founding partner of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, leads a new generation of whooping cranes behind their ultralight aircraft to wintering grounds in Florida. Unaided, the cranes will make the return migration to the Upper Midwest in the spring.
 
“This is the second time we have led birds through this part of Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama, Georgia, and I am still amazed at the support this project generates,” said Joe Duff, CEO of Operation Migration Inc.
 
“Without help from land-owners who allow us to use their property or the airport managers who provide hangar space for our flimsy aircraft this project could not be done. We are grateful to all the people who provide pumpkins for the birds, showers for the crew members or dinners. Your generosity is greatly appreciated.”
 
The ultra-led flock from Necedah NWR passed through Wisconsin, Illinois, Kentucky, and Tennessee, Alabama, and passes through Georgia to reach their final destinations in Florida. Because the ability to fly with the birds is entirely weather dependent, the duration of the migration is unknown. To help speed the migration and improve safety for the birds and the pilots, a new route was developed last year that takes the team around the Appalachian Mountains, rather than over them.
 
In addition to the 20 ultralight-led birds, biologists from the International Crane Foundation and the Fish and Wildlife Service reared nine 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 fifth year Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership has used this Direct Autumn Release method.
 
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 International Crane Foundation 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 Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership project staff. Crane Foundation 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.
 
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 85 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. 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.
 
A non-migrating flock of about 30 birds lives year-round in central Florida. The remaining 150 whooping cranes are in captivity in zoos and breeding facilities around North America.
 
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 the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership 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/wcraneplan.htm.
 
For more information on the project, its partners and how you can help, visit the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership’s Web site at www.bringbackthecranes.org.
 
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting and enhancing fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of Americans. Visit the service’s Web site at www.fws.gov or
 
The Nongame Conservation Section, part of the Georgia DNR’s Wildlife Resources Division, is charged with conserving nongame wildlife, including animals that are not hunted, fished for or trapped, plus native plants and natural habitats. The section receives no state funding, depending instead on fundraisers such as the sale of the eagle and hummingbird license plates and the Give Wildlife a Chance state income tax checkoff.
 
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