Seven endangered whooping cranes arrived safely at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Wakulla County Thursday morning, ending a two-month, aircraft-led migration that started in central Wisconsin.
The cranes are the 14th group guided by ultralight aircraft, traveling 63 days and 1,100 miles from Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin to the Gulf Coast.
The young birds were part of Operation Migration, a project of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP), a global coalition of public and private organizations. WCEP seeks to restore the historic range of this endangered species.
Because of their efforts, there are now more than 100 whooping cranes in the wild in eastern North America.
Operation Migration used two ultralight aircraft in October to guide the juvenile cranes through Wisconsin, Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia, to reach the birds’ wintering habitat at St. Marks Refuge. Due to bad weather this year, the cranes were trucked to Tennessee from Wisconsin, through Illinois and Kentucky.
“After today’s destination flight lasting 50 minutes, our seven-month-old whooping cranes touched down for the first time on their new winter home,” said Operation Migration spokesperson Heather Ray. “The birds trusted us. We had faith in them. We got it done.
“Once these birds undergo their final health check and receive permanent leg bands and transmitters in a week to 10 days,” she added, “they can be truly wild cranes — wary of people and all things ‘human.’”
Whooping cranes have been close to extinction since the 1940s. Today, there are about 445 cranes in the wild out of about 600 birds in existence. A non-migratory flock of approximately 20 birds also lives year-round in the central Florida Kissimmee region, and 33 non-migratory cranes live in southern Louisiana.
The Operation Migration website documented the journey at www.operationmigration.org.
Founding members of WCEP include the International Crane Foundation, Operation Migration, Inc., Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and National Wildlife Health Center, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin, and the International Whooping Crane Recovery Team.
More than 60 percent of the budget for WCEP and Operation Migration comes from private sources in the form of grants, public donations and corporate sponsors. Flyway states, provinces, private individuals and conservation groups have also cooperated with WCEP by donating resources, funding and personnel.
To report whooping crane sightings, visit the WCEP whooping crane observation webpage here.