Bird's eye view
Airport director flies with cranes
Russellville Municipal Airport manager Harry Mattox got a better view than most this week of the rare flock of whooping crane that passed through Franklin County.
Mattox flew 1,000 feet above the ultra-light guided cranes as they made their way from Russellville to Walker County on Monday. The birds and the crew working with them spent more than two weeks in Franklin County before moving on.
The birds are on a migration from Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in central Wisconsin to Chassahowitzka and St. Marks National Wildlife Refuges along Florida's Gulf Coast.
The birds, the tallest in North America, left Necedah refuge on Oct. 17, following four ultra light aircraft. This marked the first time the flight path of the migration has traveled through Alabama.
The crew arrived in Russellville on Dec. 12 and was forced to suspend travel due to weather conditions and the Christmas holiday.
When conditions seemed right for the next leg of the flight earlier this week, Mattox got to travel along in the top cover plane.
"It was really exciting being up there and watching the whole operation," Mattox said. "Not too many people have seen them from up there."
Crew members who spent a great deal of time in Franklin County this month seemed to be impressed by the hospitality they received here. Before leaving, Mattox gave one crewmember an old coffee cup that had a great deal of meaning to him.
"I amended my usual ritual by adding a coffee cup to the contents of my already bulging trike backpack. I rolled the cup in my hand, gazing at the name, 'Harry' on one side," team member Brooke Pennypacker wrote in the travel diary on www.operationmigration.org.
"It was a good luck cup, and to me represented all the incredible kindness and generosity the folks at Russellville had blessed us with these past many days. If that's not luck, I don't know what is."
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.
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.
Each fall, pilots from Operation Migration, also a founding partner, leads a new generation of whooping cranes behind their ultra light aircraft to wintering grounds in Florida. The cranes will make the return flight on their own to the Upper Midwest in the spring.
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.