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Cranes reach their destination in Florida

By Staff
Jonathan Willis
Many area residents closely followed the travels of a group of migrating whooping cranes as they passed through the county last month on their way to a Florida refuge.
Project leaders announced this week that the birds have reached their destination.
Seven of the 14 ultra-light led migrating whooping cranes arrived at Florida's St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge on Saturday after traveling more than 1,200 miles from their summer grounds at Necedah NWR in Wisconsin.
Half of the flock is expected to remain at St. Marks NWR for the winter. The rest of the birds will continue south to Chassahowitzka refuge.
The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP), an international coalition of public and private groups, leads the annual project, now in its eighth year, in an effort to reintroduce this endangered species in eastern North America. Each fall, pilots from Operation Migration, a non-profit organization and founding WCEP partner, lead a new generation of whooping cranes behind their ultra light aircraft to wintering grounds in Florida.
The cranes will make the return flight to the Upper Midwest on their own in the spring.
This year's migration began from Necedah on Oct. 17, with four ultra light aircraft leading the birds southward. To help speed the migration and improve safety for the birds and the pilots, a new route was developed this year that took the team around the Appalachian Mountains rather than over them, taking them through the state of Alabama for the first time.
There are now 73 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.
Many of these cranes have settled into their wintering locations in parts of the Southeast, including Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Florida.
The whooping crane chicks that take part in the reintroduction project are hatched at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland. There, the young cranes are introduced to ultra light aircraft and raised in isolation from humans.
New classes of cranes are brought to Necedah NWR each June to begin a summer of conditioning behind the ultralights to prepare them for their fall migration. Pilots lead the birds on gradually longer training flights at the refuge throughout the summer until the young cranes are ready to follow the aircraft along the migration route.
The Whooping Crane Recovery Team has established a target number for their 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 73 Wisconsin-Florida birds, the original 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.