CHASSAHOWITZKA — If the winds die down, a flock of enormous, elegant birds will take off today, continuing a remarkable eight-year effort to keep alive an endangered species.
Fourteen whooping cranes have been soaring south behind an ultralight aircraft since Oct. 17 when they left their home in Wisconsin's Necedah Wildlife Refuge. They arrived in Jefferson County on Wednesday, but strong winds aloft kept them grounded on Thursday.
Weather permitting, some of the cranes are expected to continue a local tradition by flying over cheering crowds at the Dunnellon Airport in Marion County early next week, said Liz Condie, executive director for Operation Migration.
For the first time since the rescue initiative began in 2001, the birds will not all spend the winter on the North Suncoast. Today, half the flock will leave Jefferson County and fly 28 miles to settle at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in the Big Bend area of the Panhandle. The next day, the plan is for the remainder to resume their journey to the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge.
Straddling Hernando and Citrus counties, Chassahowitzka has been the winter home for the experimental flock since 2001. But an intense winter storm in early 2007 changed all that.
All but one of that year's flock perished when lightning and a surprise storm surge caught the birds in an enclosed pen, wiping out a genetically significant group of animals.
The public and private agencies that make up Operation Migration and control the whooping crane project decided that dividing the flock this year would prevent another catastrophic loss.
This year's flight also has taken a new, more westerly route. It was designed to keep pilots and birds safer by avoiding mountains and valleys, especially the Cumberland Gap in Tennessee, which has stalled the flight each year.
The new route had the added benefit of introducing a whole new audience on the ground to the majestic whooping cranes, said Condie.
The enthusiasm and support "was definitely a morale boost for us," she said. "And it bodes well for the future of whooping cranes and other species."
Condie said the appeal of the cranes, the tallest birds in North America at nearly 6 feet, touches a wide range of people from aviators to birders to environmentalists.
Whooping cranes command attention with their size, their grace and their rare status. Their migration helps other species along the way, she said, by raising awareness of the need to protect animal habitat.
"They're a keystone species," she said. "So many other species have a better chance of survival because of them."
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.