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Their airfare unpaid, cranes are still coming

Liz Condie has always known that the people who follow the annual tale of the whooping cranes being led from Wisconsin to Chassahowitzka behind ultralight aircraft have earned their "craniac'' nickname.

But this week Condie, chief executive officer for Operation Migration, got new validation.

The 18 birds comprising the "Class of 2006'' have made it 902 miles. They arrived in Pike County, Ga., on Tuesday and remained there Wednesday and Thursday because of weather conditions.

When Condie checked Tuesday, she saw that Operation Migration had raised enough money to fund exactly 902 miles. The program's work is funded through donations, and people can donate per mile toward the cost.

Marveling at the coincidence, she decided to write a tongue-in-cheek update on the Operation Migration Web site.

In the posting, she noted that she had to tell the hosts in the current location, "I'm so sorry, but we just checked the status of MileMaker and we've run out of money.''

The posting goes on to say that Condie deadpanned, "so we'll all have to stay on here - perhaps indefinitely.''

The hosts immediately decided to pay for at least one more mile to send their company on its way, and Condie said everyone had a good laugh.

But as loyal craniacs read the joking exchange Wednesday morning, some took it to be a real emergency and called to offer help.

Some people wanted to know whether the whooping cranes would now winter in Georgia. Others wanted to know if a pen would be built there. Still others wanted to donate.

Condie said she was trying to think of a tactful Web site posting to explain that it was just a joke.

While the money has not yet been raised for the entire trip, the cranes will still come to Florida and their ultimate destination in Chassahowitzka. But she said people also need to know that the staff has had to cut its salaries and pinch pennies to do the work, and more funds are still needed.

While Condie said Thursday that the team doubted that the cranes would fly today, their next stop when they do fly will be Terrell County, Ga. Once there, the cranes will be just three stops away from the Dunnellon Airport flyover. The cranes could arrive in the area by early next week.

Check www.operation or call the whooping crane hotline at (904) 232-2580, ext. 124.

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