Quietly Whooping for Joy
By DINAH VOYLES PULVER
News-Journal/CHAD PILSTERA sandhill crane lands as whooping cranes search for food Thursday, January 26, 2006 in the woods and marshes near the St. Johns River in West Volusia. These birds were taught to migrate with an ultralight, one in 2002 and one in 2003. They return to Wisconsin each summer. These are among the only eastern migrating whooping crane flock. There are 45 whooping cranes now migrating annually and another 19 were brought down this winter via ultralight.
It sounds like a love story for the ages.
Each raised against impossible odds. A chance meeting. A transcontinental relationship. Now, the pair is poised to make history.
But for the moment, the two endangered whooping cranes are leading a hum-drum life in a West Volusia marsh -- much to the delight of devoted bird-watchers.
At 5 feet tall and snowy white, they´re showstoppers. Most people never forget their first glimpse.
Phil Gotschall, a DeLeon Springs bird photographer, saw his first whooping crane on a Samsula cattle farm about five years ago.
"I couldn´t believe it. My jaw just dropped," Gotschall said. "It was wonderful."
He never dreamed it would become a regular event. Apparently the rare birds like Volusia County. One or two have been seen almost every year since Gotschall saw his first.
This winter is the third trip for a pair of cranes that are part of a groundbreaking experimental project to reintroduce whooping cranes in North America. They were taught to fly from Wisconsin to Florida by ultralight. And this spring, when they return to the North, they could become the first of their flocks to produce a chick.
"We´re all keeping our fingers crossed for this next spring," said Joan Garland, spokeswoman for the International Crane Foundation. The group is one member of the reintroduction project, called the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership. Partners also include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, several state wildlife agencies and Operation Migration, which leads the cranes by ultralight.
The tallest bird in North America, the whooping crane was nearly lost forever. In 1941, only 16 birds remained, from a once estimated 500 to 1,400. The birds literally have come back from the brink of extinction with a lot of human help. But, there´s still a long, perilous way to go before anyone considers the bird recovered.
The West Volusia pair is one of a half-dozen that could produce a chick this summer.
It´s the only pair that actually laid an egg last year on their Wisconsin breeding grounds. But they flew away from the nest during the day and a raccoon nabbed the egg, said Larry Wargowsky, manager of the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin.
The nesting was a little sooner than expected but it was a start. The cranes, which are monogamous and mate for life, are still immature, said Bill Brooks, a federal wildlife biologist. "Like other young animals breeding for the first time, it takes a while to get it right. It takes some practice," he said.
"We hope that after a year or two that pair will be leading one of the first wild pairs migrating back to Florida."
That these cranes migrate at all is nothing short of a miracle to those involved. The oldest surviving flock of cranes is a group that migrates between Texas and Canada each year. From 16 birds in 1941, the flock now numbers about 215.
The other flocks were started because of fears that a catastrophic natural disaster or disease in the lone flock could wipe out the cranes forever.
Florida officials introduced a nonmigrating flock in the early 1990s. It now numbers about 60, concentrated primarily in three counties: Polk, Osceola and Lake. In 2001, after more than 10 years of planning, the first human-assisted whooping crane migration took place across a seven-state flyway.
The group of chicks was hatched at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Md. Bundles of cinnamon feathers when they first emerge, chicks transform gradually to five feet of elegance, with snow-white tail feather skirts and a dramatic slash of red across the top of their heads.
Each year, at Patuxent and after they´re moved to the Necedah refuge, the young cranes are raised in isolation and imprinted to believe their costume-clad human keepers are really their parents.
In October, the cranes are led 1,250 miles from Wisconsin to the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge on Florida´s west coast by ultralight.
Like a natural, wild migration, the trip doesn´t always go smoothly. Sometimes there are weather delays. Other times, one or more cranes go astray.
Last fall, 19 cranes made the trip and are now acclimating in a special pen at the refuge.
Another 45 cranes led by ultralight in past years made the trip on their own and can now be found in the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida, including the pair near DeLeon Springs.
The pair, one born in 2002 and the other in 2003, shows the cranes are dispersing across Florida, wildlife officials say.
It´s another step toward the long-term goal, which at the moment may seem almost out of reach. The federal recovery plan, Garland said, calls for 25 breeding pairs in each of Florida´s non-migrating and migrating flocks, plus another 40 breeding pairs in the Texas cranes.
1860: Between 500 and 1,400 whooping cranes roamed wild in North America
1936: Two populations of cranes remain, one migrating between Texas and Canada and one living in Southwest Louisiana
1940: Cranes in Louisiana disappear and only 16 left in the migrating Texas flock
1993: 33 captive-reared cranes released by Florida wildlife officials on the Kissimmee Prairie
2001: First captive-reared whooping cranes follow ultralight airplane to Florida
FLYING HIGHER AGAIN: BY THE NUMBERS
16 number of whooping cranes in 1941
474 estimated whooping cranes today
135 whooping cranes in captivity
60 estimated nonmigrating whooping cranes in Florida
64 whooping cranes that migrate between Florida and Wisconsin
215 whooping cranes that migrate between Texas and Canada
Whooping Cranes: Grus americana:
Whooping cranes may have the slightest weight-per-inch ratio of any living species. They´re 5 feet tall and weigh about 14 to 17 pounds. Their wings span 7 to 8 feet.
They´re snowy white, except for the tips of their wings -- which are black, and the tops of their heads -- which are red. Their eyes are golden yellow.
The name comes from the complex unison "whooping" calling between males and females. The females start the sessions and she makes two higher-pitched calls for every lower male call. Calls are made with the head back and the beak upward. The female keeps her wings folded at her sides while he holds his over his back.
They like wetlands replete with their favorite foods, which include primarily plants but also insects, mollusks, crustaceans, frogs, snakes and small mammals.
Nests are made from rushes and other wetland plants in shallow water. The eggs hatch in about 29 to 30 days and the chicks make their first flight within 80 to 90 days.
Whooping crane fossils from the Pleistocene Epoch-- 1.8 million to 10,000 years ago -- have been found from Canada to Mexico and from the Atlantic to Utah.
Serial story: ENDANGERED