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With whooping cranes unwilling to continue, annual migration ends in Alabama

The cranes, shown earlier in Franklin County, Ala., soon will be taken to the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge near Decatur, Ala.

Operation Migration

The cranes, shown earlier in Franklin County, Ala., soon will be taken to the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge near Decatur, Ala.

CHASSAHOWITZKA — The annual migration of ultralight-led whooping cranes had barely gotten off the ground in October when the problems began.

First it was rain and wind that halted the birds in Wisconsin and across the Midwest.

They would fly for a day, then have a week of downtime.

In December, they finally reached northern Alabama, but were forced out of the sky after the Federal Aviation Administration questioned whether the pilots were in compliance with aviation rules.

With that issue resolved, waves of wintertime storms in the Southeast made it impossible for the ultralights to continue.

The crew of Operation Migration grew frustrated. But in the end, it was the whooping cranes that gave up on the dream of spending the winter as Florida snowbirds.

Apparently satisfied that they had flown far enough, they simply stopped following the ultralights.

So, for the first time in the 11 years that a partnership of organizations and agencies has worked to reintroduce whooping cranes to the eastern United States, the migration was cut short Thursday.

The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership decided that the nine young cranes in this year's misfortune-ridden migration would instead be released in an Alabama wildlife refuge.

In the coming days, the cranes will be crated and driven to the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge near Decatur, Ala., about 45 miles from the pen where the birds have been staying in recent days.

The refuge provides the kind of habitat where whooping cranes thrive, including marshes and lakes, said Tom MacKenzie, spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Currently, there are seven whooping cranes on the refuge, including five from previous ultralight-led migrations and two that learned the migration route behind other whooping cranes. In addition, 11,000 sandhill cranes used the refuge this winter.

Officials hope the young birds will learn from the older cranes and follow them back north when the migration bug bites in a few months.

The change means no flyover in Dunnellon, on the Citrus-Marion county border, for whooping crane enthusiasts and no crane-tending chores this winter in the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, which straddles Hernando and Citrus counties.

"There is disappointment, but also understanding about the situation," said Ivan Vicente of the Chassahowitzka refuge, where workers have been preparing for the cranes' arrival. "It just shows you this whole process is one of the most challenging of any of the reintroduction programs."

Officials considered bringing the birds to Florida in crates and hoping they could find their way home to Wisconsin in the spring.

"I think they're doing the right thing and not taking that risk," Vicente said. "That would be one hell of an experiment, but you're playing with the life of an endangered bird."

Even before the whooping cranes hatch, they hear the sound of ultralight aircraft, which will guide them along the Wisconsin-to-Florida migration route their first year.

In previous years, the cranes have wintered at the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in the Florida Panhandle and at Chassahowitzka. After learning how to forage and live in the wild, instinct tells them to return north in the spring.

About 100 birds live in the re-established Eastern migratory population.

This year's young cranes have been in northern Alabama since Dec. 11. Even after the FAA granted a waiver and the weather cleared, pilots faced the challenge of regaining the attention of the birds and getting them to follow the ultralights.

They struggled to fly 5 miles one day, then 9 a few days later.

The final attempt came Sunday.

For nearly three hours, pilots led by Joe Duff tried to keep the birds flying off the wings of the ultralights. But they kept turning back.

Finally, Duff concluded the cranes were no longer interested in migrating, so they were returned to their pen in Winston County, Ala.

"Maybe we have stayed too long in Alabama, and for them the migration is over. Or, maybe they were just too long in one place," Duff wrote in Operation Migration's online field journal.

Operation Migration spokeswoman Liz Condie said there could be multiple reasons for the truncated migration.

One could be the unseasonably warm winter.

Many of the whooping cranes that migrate between Canada and Texas each year didn't bother to come to Texas this winter. And in the last count of Eastern migratory whooping cranes, nearly 40 percent never flew south of Indiana. Condie said sandhill cranes in Indiana are already migrating back north.

Maybe Operation Migration's Class of 2011 got the same signal, she said.

"There has to be something in their collective psyche, instinct, genes," Condie said. "You've got to wonder, when they went back to the pen the other day, did they ask one another, 'What's the matter with these people?' "

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

With whooping cranes unwilling to continue, annual migration ends in Alabama 02/02/12 [Last modified: Thursday, February 2, 2012 11:14pm]

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