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Saving a species

The Citrus County Audubon Society is helping with a program to train young sandhill cranes to migrate by following an ultralight aircraft to Florida. If it works with the sandhills, the endangered whooping crane will be next.

In the distance, an ultralight takes shape above the horizon. Part hang glider, part airboat, the craft advances slowly over a crystal clear pond.

Slow is the right speed for seven young sandhill cranes learning to fly alongside pilot Joe Duff. As they flap toward their holding pen, their extra-wide wingspans cut swaths through the light morning air.

The attachment between bird and machine is strong and surreal, dating to life in the shell. To maximize conditioning, trainers turned the sandhill eggs to the background sounds of an ultralight engine. Four months later, the cranes follow the craft as closely as they would their own parents.

The sandhills land with Duff and strut off their excess energy. Their reward is mealworms. Trainer Dan Sprague drops them from the beak of a homemade feeder _ a long, covered tube with a red crown and intense yellow eyes designed to mimic an adult sandhill. Relaxed, the gangly cranes are easily led into the pen.

The birds have bonded to so many things: the trainers, the ultralight, the feeder. Another magnet is the brood call, a digitized recording of the sandhills' low purr that plays from a hand-held vocalizer.

The cranes have never observed a human. Duff, Sprague and a visiting trainer are covered from head to ankle in light blue cloth that hides their limbs and faces. Conversation is strictly forbidden.

In this land, where deer vastly outnumber people, humans are teaching sandhills to be wild.

Their survival depends on fear of humans, because humans pose the greatest danger. "We believe if we give them as wild an experience as possible, then they'll become less tame," Duff says.

"So hopefully by the time they arrive in Florida, they never will have heard a human voice, no human paraphernalia, no nothing. Our thought is the first time they see a car they'll be scared to death."

Step one in this spirited project, which combines science with a good dose of faith, begins this month: Researchers will see whether the sandhills will follow three ultralights from this wildlife refuge in Wisconsin, across 1,250 miles and seven states, to the Citrus County coast.

If the project works _ and Duff defines "works" as anything from landing the sandhills in Citrus to the best possible result, having them return to Wisconsin on their own next year _ the scientists would move to step two, the ultimate goal: Saving the endangered whooping crane.

The scientists hope to use the techniques they are experimenting with on the sandhill cranes to reintroduce a migratory flock of whoopers to the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge, in Citrus and Hernando counties, is ideal whooper habitat, with brackish water, salt marsh islands and an abundance of blue crabs.

Whoopers numbered 1,400 in the 1800s, but hunting and habitat loss to overdevelopment trimmed their population to a low of 21 in the 1940s.

Through experimentation in a variety of rearing techniques, there now are about 400 whoopers centered in two flocks _ a migratory group that winters in south Texas and nests in northwest Canada, and a non-migratory group established around Kissimmee by the Whooping Crane Recovery Team in the mid-1990s.

Now comes this grand experiment. Researchers are giving the project 10 years _ with introductions of new whoopers for at least five years _ to generate a self-sustaining flock of 25 nesting pairs.

If they succeed, it would rival the effort to restore the bald eagle.

Joe Duff leaves the Necedah headquarters of Operation Migration, a complex of three campers and an administrative office with showers and a computer, in a beaten-down Army pickup. Traversing a winding dirt road, he turns left and stops behind a berm about 150 yards from one of two holding pens on Rynearson Pond 1. There are 14 sandhill cranes altogether, seven in each flock.

They're all across the pond in the other pen because of a mix-up a couple days before. Hoping the birds would get in touch with their wild side, the team had been allowing the sandhills a great deal of freedom following their morning flights behind the ultralight.

It was a gamble, because the sandhills they are training have started flying off with the wild sandhills in Necedah. The cranes have always returned, but Duff and the others worry that they are taking too much of a risk.

Dressed in jeans, Duff enters one of the pens and begins installing a wire mesh divider.

"It's weird talking down here," he says. "It's like violating the sanctity of the space."

The divider will separate the two flocks but let them communicate with each other. Aggressive posing and pecking are inevitable, a process that eventually will establish the all-critical hierarchy that will govern where each sandhill flies during the migration.

Duff is 50, an adventurous soul who combines an earthy love of nature with cool perfectionism.

As a young man, he followed his brother to Western Canada, spending a couple of years as a bush pilot in the remote wilderness. He took bore samples for mineral companies.

Returning to his native Ontario, Duff embarked on a career in photography. He opened a studio in Toronto and specialized in photographing cars for automakers, including BMW, Ford and Jaguar.

His life consisted of travel and invitations to black-tie openings. In the early 1990s, an old friend, sculptor Bill Lishman, came calling.

Several years earlier, it was Lishman who had demonstrated that Canada geese could be trained to follow an ultralight. That opened minds in the scientific community to the possibility of teaching whoopers to travel with the slow-moving aircraft.

Lishman came to Duff in 1993, asking for his help flying 18 Canada geese to Virginia. The next year, 13 of the birds flew back _ on their own. Lishman and Duff's work was the subject two years later of the Academy award-nominated movie Fly Away Home. Duff was hooked.

"I got bored with photography and thought maybe I could take a year off," he says. "I would fly with the birds three days a week, train with them two days a week and have weekends off. That was seven years ago.

"As aviators we have an appreciation of the creatures that taught us the art of flying. And if you can save a species on top of that, how can you beat it?"

In 1997, Lishman and Duff used costume-rearing techniques in a flight from Ontario to Virginia, showing they could teach sandhills a migratory route. Six of the seven birds returned.

But there was an obvious problem. The sandhills grew comfortable around people during their training; during the migration they meandered into public places, including school yards. The situation was dangerous, for the birds and for those around them.

Everyone realized the training needed refinement, Duff says. The sandhills would have to become more wild _ while still trusting ultralights.

A year later, Duff and others implemented a minimal contact approach for a group trucked from Ontario to South Carolina. The new protocol still used costumed trainers but added the no-talking rule, the digitized brood calls developed by a German chemist-bird lover and time for the birds to be alone (no more walking handler).

Operation Migration, formed by Duff and Lishman in 1994 to foster whooping crane restoration, spent much less time training the birds _ and got better results, Duff says.

But this is hardly an exact science. The lead project biologist, Richard Urbanek, believes in different techniques. Here at Necedah, he is training a third flock, about a mile away from Operation Migration's sandhills.

Having taught sandhills to migrate without ultralights, Urbanek releases his flock with wild sandhills. He says it preserves their wildness.

His eggs were hatched on-site. Operation Migration's cranes were hatched at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Md.

Despite their disagreements, Urbanek and Operation Migration meet three times a week to discuss the project. Once the talking is over, he and Operation Migration go their own ways.

"He's just trying different techniques," says Larry Wargowsky, the refuge manager at Necedah. "It's been a frustrating first year (for him). Operation Migration has proven they can fly them. You always want to be successful off the bat."

For now, Urbanek is taking the lead role in obtaining state permits allowing the birds to land along the proposed migration route, from Wisconsin to Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia and on to Florida. He also is arranging for all the transmitters that will be used to track the cranes.

"I could obviously support the project," Urbanek says. "I've been working on it for 17 years. I don't give up easily. Maybe this will work. I'm concerned the birds will be too tame. If it doesn't, maybe they will let me use some of the techniques I've used in the past.

"This is the first big test this year. They've never done a migration yet with birds that were trained to be wild."

As usual, Duff, trainer Dan Sprague and Deke Clark, a former United Airlines pilot, gem merchant and post office supplier, greet the sunrise. Clark makes coffee. They huddle around his camper and map out the day.

Sprague, a biotechnician with the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, says the sandhills are a good month ahead of schedule. On this day in mid-August, one flock broke new ground by landing at a different spot from where they took flight.

"They never did a flight away from the pen" to another destination, he said of the first flock. "That was amazing."

Four cranes in the second flock lagged behind the others. Sprague isn't concerned. "They may not be as developed as the other birds," he says. "They're still so young. I just think it's great they keep following the plane."

Unlike whooping cranes, which are bordering on extinction, the sandhills are the most prolific cranes, numbering more than 650,000.

Though both are cranes, whoopers and sandhills are different, which means the team must be prepared to do some things differently next year.

Whoopers are not flocking birds. They are more reclusive and may prove stubborn to train, Duff says. Unlike the more personable sandhills, they can be downright ornery.

"Like we say at the pen: If you're not bleeding you didn't do it right," says Brian Clauss, a visiting biotechnician from Patuxent.

Hundreds of miles away, in Minneapolis, project leader John Christian continues to line up support.

Earlier this year it was his job as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Region 3 director to lobby the eastern flyway councils for the necessary airspace to conduct the migration. He wrote letters to the environmental protection agencies from each of the seven migration route states, spoke to congressional representatives and beseeched the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation for support _ all successfully.

"Miraculously everything is moving forward kinda as planned," he wrote recently to the head of the Citrus County Audubon Society.

Wargowsky also is playing booster.

The refuge in Wisconsin is organizing three send-offs, for donors, residents and the media. The kicker will come late this month, when the public will be invited to an event marking the sandhills' departure for Indiana.

Wargowsky can already imagine the dramatic flyover as the Necedah community, for so long shielded from the sandhills, watches in awe.

Duff would like the recovery team to consider sending the cranes off with shotgun blasts, to alert them to beware of humans.

He is arranging their first landing site in Chassahowitzka. Initially, they will live in an isolated, electrified pen for several days; they will be released for longer and longer periods until they are moved to another pen a short distance inland. After several more days of scrutiny, they will be given total freedom to move about.

This year the sandhills. Next year the whoopers. For the researchers, the 16-hour days and weeks of separation from wives, companions and children have been difficult, but they're confident it will be worth the sacrifice.

"I'm not worried about something major we're missing," Duff says. "I'm confident it's going to work."

Information from the International Crane Foundation was used in this report.

To keep up with the flight of the sandhills from Wisconsin to Citrus County, beginning around Sept. 26, go to http://www. operationmigration.org and click on the "Today's Update" page. An interactive map will track the progress of the birds.

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