CHASSAHOWITZKA — The annual ultralight-led migration of rare whooping cranes from Wisconsin to Florida has begun.
Well, sort of.
All 20 young birds have left the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, where they have been taught to follow the aircraft over the past few months. But only some of them flew to the first stopover just 4 miles away.
The remaining eight were put into special crates and driven to the roundup point last week after foul weather and the birds' reluctance to leave their comfortable pen kept them grounded.
The fitful start to the more than 1,200-mile trek now puts the team from Operation Migration several days behind schedule in what has become the latest departure in the nine-year history of the whooping crane reintroduction project.
The team had set this year's departure date for Oct. 10 but didn't get any of the majestic birds out of the refuge until Oct. 16.
Organizers' hopes were high Monday morning that the weather would break and allow the ultralight crew to lead the birds to the next stopover, less than 20 miles away in southern Juneau County, Wis.
But the clouds hung too low, preventing the aircraft and birds to take to the air as a group for the first time.
Liz Condie, executive director for Operation Migration, tried to stay positive. "It's not unlike anyone else's situation,'' she said. "There are elements of everyone's work that are frustrating and hard to deal with.''
She said the hope is that somewhere along the flight, they can make up the time.
Condie said the setbacks just make the crew more appreciative when they make the final delivery of their precious charges.
"You can't do a project with wildlife and not expect the trials and tribulations because wildlife is never predictable,'' Condie said. "It almost doubles the appreciation you have when you've clearly accomplished what you've set out to do.''
She said that those with Operation Migration signed on for one specific task: to establish a flock of 125 migrating whooping cranes, including 25 breeding pairs. That's why the crew comes to work, she said, "with the hope that every year you're one step closer.''
The whooping cranes are bonded to the ultralights from Day One as sounds of the aircraft are played for the eggs. Once hatched, the crane chicks are reared by handlers in crane costumes so they never see people.
The cranes in the "Class of 2009'' represent the largest group of birds ever to be led to Florida. For the first seven years, the whooping cranes are led to the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, which straddles the Citrus-Hernando county line.
This is the second year that half the flock will be split in the Florida Panhandle to spend winter at the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.
In the spring, the cranes respond to their natural instinct to fly back north without assistance and many spend their summers back at the Necedah refuge in that general area.
Because of the efforts of Operation Migration and the other public and private groups that compose the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, there are 77 wild whooping cranes in eastern North America, part of the cranes' historic habitat.
The birds were on the verge of extinction in the 1940s; now there are thought to be about 500 whooping cranes in North America, with 350 of them in the wild.
Another migratory flock splits its year between the Texas Gulf Coast and northern Canada. About 30 nonmigratory whooping cranes live year-round in the Kissimmee area.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.