CHASSAHOWITZKA — With some of their classmates already back in Wisconsin, members of the whooping crane class of 2009 that wintered in the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge began migrating north this week.
All nine young cranes that spent the winter in Chassahowitzka, which hugs the Gulf of Mexico between Citrus and Hernando counties, completed their first day of spring migration at 6 p.m. Monday in Grady County, Ga.
A total of 20 cranes hatched in 2009 learned the migration route from the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin behind ultralight aircraft, arriving in Florida in January. Ten were left at the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in the Florida Panhandle; the other 10 were led to Chassahowitzka.
Eight of the 10 St. Marks birds began traveling back north on March 24 and made it back to Wisconsin in just eight days. Two remain at St. Marks — birds one Operation Migration pilot jokingly dubbed Yo Yo and Boomerang, the "Velcro twins," because they still haven't begun migration.
In Chassahowitzka, only nine of the 10 cranes survived to migrate. One bird was found dead in the refuge. Another crane, from the class of 2005, was also found dead in the refuge several weeks ago, thought to be the victim of a bobcat.
Three other cranes, members of the class of 2008 that spent much of the winter at the refuge, also began migration Monday, possibly prompting the younger birds to follow.
While they did not fly the entire day together Monday, they did all roost together in Grady County, staffers from the International Crane Foundation reported.
There are an estimated 103 whooping cranes in the reintroduced Eastern whooping crane population. Some of the older birds from previous years have already begun nesting in their summer homes.
Nesting is the critical time of year for the cranes — especially since, after nine years of the reintroduction project, only one pair of cranes has successfully laid, hatched and reared a wild offspring and then taught it the migration route to Florida without help from ultralights.
The mother of that family, known as the First Family, was killed last year when someone shot her in Indiana as she was migrating.
Meanwhile, a crane from the class of 2007 that was seen feeding at a bird feeder in Hernando County in early March has been keeping company with a nonmigratory flock of sandhill cranes.
On Tuesday, Operation Migration staff got word that the bird took to the sky last week, leaving his sandhill buddies behind.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.