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Whooping cranes complete migration from Wisconsin to bay area

CHASSAHOWITZKA — Ten of the young whooping cranes from Operation Migration's Class of 2009 soared to their winter destination at 10:05 a.m. Wednesday, trailing behind the wing of pilot Joe Duff's ultralight.

The cranes arrived at the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, on the Citrus-Hernando county border, on the 89th day of this year's 1,285-mile migration.

The Operation Migration team, which has taught young whooping cranes the migration route for the past nine years, departed from the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin in October with 20 birds, the largest group ever. The other half were left at the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in the Panhandle last week.

"It is always a bittersweet parting," Operation Migration spokeswoman Liz Condie wrote on the organization's Web site.

In spring, instinct will lure the cranes back into the sky, and they will make the return trip north without assistance.

This year's arrival came after a rough migration. Weather kept the team stalled for days at some stops.

And, while leading the birds from one stop to another in Illinois in November, pilot Chris Gulikson lost the engine in his ultralight, forcing him to make an emergency landing. He and his craft were both unscathed.

A few days later, the team's storage hangar in Wisconsin was burglarized and vandalized.

Then, in early December, volunteer pilots Don and Paula Lounsbury, who have flown their Cessna above the migrating birds for years, were forced to land in a field, and their craft was a total loss. They were not injured.

The saddest news came while the migration was in progress. Someone in western Indiana shot and killed the crane considered to be the most important bird in the entire Eastern migratory population — the only female crane to successfully hatch, raise and teach the migration route to a wild chick.

Wednesday's release means there are now 105 birds in the Eastern flock.

Whooping cranes complete migration from Wisconsin to bay area 01/20/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 20, 2010 8:49pm]
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