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Whooping cranes run away from the roost

You can lead whooping cranes to a custom-made roosting site, but you can't make them stay.

Humans had the birds' best interests in mind when they selected the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge as the winter nesting site for an experimental flock of migratory whooping cranes. They picked it for its similarity to a Texas salt marsh where the only flock of the wild migrating birds winters.

But three years into the experiment, with 20 born-in-captivity whoopers now migrating on their own and another 16 in training, wildlife organizations are now keenly aware of some differences between the Texas and Florida roosting sites: At Chassahowitzka, the tides can change water levels in the middle of the night, leaving areas of the marsh unfit for roosting. The only fresh water is supplied by workers helping the cranes.

So of the 20 birds that learned the migratory path to Chassahowitzka behind human-piloted ultralight aircrafts in 2001 and 2002, 16 are roosting outside of Citrus County. One is unaccounted for, and three are still hanging around the pen designed for the 16 young cranes that arrived in December. (See related story.)

The rest are roosting on cattle ranches in Pasco, Sumter or Suwannee counties, on a University of Florida field in Alachua County, or wetlands in Lake and Madison counties. The wanderlust is perfectly fine with the wildlife biologists who track the cranes, who say the Chassahowitzka site helped train the cranes in what they should seek in a home of their own.

"Cranes like open areas, open grasslands and wetlands," said Lara Fondow, a field assistant for the International Crane Foundation who monitors the cranes' whereabouts. "I'm happy with all the sites they chose."

So far, few of the cranes have been spotted by locals, Fondow said. Most of them have selected isolated areas to spend the winter, though one crane has hooked up with a flock of sandhill cranes in Alachua County that live near a residential area.

Cecelia Lockwood, a computer teacher at a Gainesville elementary school, first spotted the whooper on Jan. 3 at a University of Florida Animal Science field. Since then, it has virtually become a local celebrity, a must-see for the Gainesville birding community.

Like other people who begin closely following the plight of the whooping crane after an encounter with the birds, Lockwood monitors the bird's interactions with the sandhill cranes it hangs out with.

"He's bigger and white, so he stands out from all the others," said Lockwood, who lives near where the crane roosts. "He usually keeps a distance away from the roadside. The sandhill cranes seem to accept him alright. He stays with a little group, but when they're flying, he's at the back. They're kind of like, "Well, you can join us, but don't get too close.'

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Fondow, with the International Crane Foundation, said the roosting areas the cranes are selecting outside Chassahowitzka are adequate. She just hopes there continues to be enough space for the birds.

"The only thing that worries me" in Florida, Fondow said, "is the pace of development."

_ Amy Wimmer Schwarb can be reached at wimmersptimes.com or (352) 860-7305.

Where are they now?

Of the 23 cranes that learned the Wisconsin-to-Chassahowitzka migratory path in 2001 and 2002, 20 are believed to survive, though one is unaccounted for. The 1- and 2-year-old cranes are classified as "sub-adults" and are not expected to mate until they are 3-5 years old. Of the 19 known to have flown south for the winter, at least 17 stopped by the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge before finding winter roosting sites of their own. Three remain at Chassahowitzka. As for the rest:

+ Nine are roosting at two separate cattle ranches in Pasco County.

+ Two are on a Sumter County cattle ranch.

+ Two are on a Suwannee County cattle ranch.

+ One is on a University of Florida property in Alachua County.

+ One lives in a Lake County wetland.

+ One lives in a Madison County wetland.

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