Sometimes, bagging work/school is a good thing.
In the spring of 2005, I was at a writing conference in Madison, Wis., and bagged the afternoon sessions one day to visit the International Crane Foundation. And happened to be there to see a newly hatched whooping crane chick on display to the public.
Whoopers have given me much for an enriched life.
The first year that young whoopers were led by ultralights in 2001, in quite the innovative project, on a flight from Wisconsin I was invited to the farm of Steve Benoit outside of Kankakee to watch the takeoff.
It was one of those special moments to see a goofily dressed pilot (for the bird's sake not to look like a human) leading a string of young whoopers. On one hand, i was awed; yet another, I was slightly uncertain whether such extreme mucking around in nature is right.
On Friday, Oct. 17, the eighth group of ultralight-led whoopers, 14 this time, began their migration from Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin toward Florida.
There's a new migration route this year for the project. The flight will go straight down Illinois, instead of the original route circling Chicago by dropping into LaSalle County, then east through Kankakee County and into Indiana and south.
I will miss seeing them. Several years, I guessed the timing and was able to spot them strung out near dawn as they made their way from Benoit's toward Indiana.
Here's a couple things I recommend highly with whoopers.
1) Visit the international Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wis., just a few miles from the Dells. But you better hurry, tours end on Oct. 31. For general info, go to http://www.savingcranes.org.
2) If you have kids or are a teacher, I highly recommend making following of the whoopers a project. There's an online diary and a ton of other good information at http://www.bringbackthecranes.org.
The whooper reintroduction in eastern North Ameria is led by the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership. There are now 68 whoopers in the wild in eastern Norh America.
Here's the complete release on the latest group of young whoopers to take off.
``Eighth Group of Endangered Whooping Cranes
Depart on Ultralight-guided Flight to Florida
Fourteen young whooping cranes this morning began their ultralight-led migration from central Wisconsin's Necedah National Wildlife Refuge (NWR). This is the eighth group of birds to take part in a landmark project led by the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP), an international coalition of public and private groups that is reintroducing this highly imperiled species in eastern North America, part of its historic range. There are now 68 whooping cranes in the wild in eastern North America thanks to WCEP's efforts.
The four ultralight aircraft and juvenile cranes will be following a new route this year, passing through Wisconsin, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia to reach the birds' wintering habitats at Chassahowitzka and St. Marks National Wildlife Refuges along Florida's Gulf Coast.
"We are excited about the migration this year," said Joe Duff, CEO of Operation Migration, the WCEP partner that leads the ultralight migration. "The new migration route offers opportunities for increased outreach and conservation education. Also, we know it will be safer, and we hope it will be faster."
The fourteen ultralight-led cranes will be split into two groups upon arrival in Florida--one group will winter at Chassahowitzka NWR and one group will spend the winter at St. Marks NWR. The decision to split the birds comes after the loss in February 2007 of 17 of the 18 Class of 2006 whooping cranes in a severe storm at Chassahowitzka NWR. WCEP hopes the two separate wintering locations will help reduce the risk of another catastrophic loss.
In addition to the 14 birds being led south by ultralights, biologists from the International Crane Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reared six whooping cranes at Necedah NWR. The birds will be 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.
In 2001, project partner Operation Migration's pilots led the first whooping crane chicks, conditioned to follow their ultralight aircraft surrogates, south from Necedah NWR to Chassahowitzka NWR. Each subsequent year, WCEP biologists and pilots have conditioned and guided additional groups of juvenile cranes to Chassahowitzka NWR. Once led south, the cranes are able to migrate on their own, without assistance, in following years.
In the spring and fall, project staff from the International Crane Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service track and monitor the released cranes in an effort to learn as much as possible about their unassisted journeys and the habitat choices they make both along the way and on their summering and wintering grounds.
Most graduated classes of whooping cranes spend the summer in central Wisconsin, where they use areas on or near the Necedah NWR, as well as other public and private lands.
Whooping cranes were on the verge of extinction in the 1940s. Today, there are only about 525 birds in existence, 375 of them in the wild. Aside from the 68 birds reintroduced by WCEP, 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 Gulf Coast. A non-migrating flock of approximately 40 birds lives year-round in the central Florida Kissimmee region.
Whooping cranes, named for their loud and penetrating unison calls, live and breed in wetland areas, where they feed on crabs, clams, frogs and aquatic plants. 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 200 yards; try to remain in your vehicle; do not approach in a vehicle within 100 yards. 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 budget comes from private sources in the form of grants, public donations and corporate sponsors.
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 WCEP website at http://www.bringbackthecranes.org.