CHASSAHOWITZKA — For the second year in a row, no ultralight aircraft will lead young whooping cranes into Central Florida.
This time, however, it's intentional.
Last year, the whooping cranes learning their migration route from Wisconsin to Florida never made it farther south than Alabama. Slowed by weather and grounded temporarily by the Federal Aviation Administration, the young birds succumbed to an extra-warm winter and refused to follow the ultralights any farther.
Housed for awhile at the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge near Decatur, Ala., when the spring came, all nine cranes returned on their own to where they fledged in Wisconsin.
This year, only six cranes were allotted to the ultralight-led migration program run by Operation Migration. For the last few years, the cranes in the program were divided between the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in the Panhandle and the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge straddling coastal Hernando and Citrus counties.
With so few birds this year, it didn't make sense to divide the flock, said Liz Condie, spokeswoman for Operation Migration.
Those in the organization believe that the cranes have a better chance of survival on their return migration in a larger group. Plus consolidating the birds on one site means just one monitoring team is needed this winter, Condie said.
Since the habitat in both locations is suitable, it was left up to the refuge managers to decide which site would receive cranes this year, which is the 12th year of the program to reintroduce a migratory flock of whooping cranes to the Eastern United States. They chose St. Marks, cutting the distance of the migration by several hundred miles and the migration duration by days.
Condie said that doesn't mean Chassahowitzka won't be seeing more young whooping cranes in the future. The Operation Migration team recognizes the importance of maintaining the Chassahowitzka site and the strong support by the refuge and the public in the area who appreciate the annual fly over event in Dunnellon.
If another small group of young cranes is available next year, they may choose to rotate refuges. If a larger group is available, they could split the flock again, Condie said.
While there won't be new young cranes flying behind ultralights, there will be whooping cranes in Central Florida this winter. Of the more than 100 adult whooping cranes in the Eastern Migratory Flock, the majority have established wintering grounds throughout the state.