Eight endangered whooping cranes arrived safely this week at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Wakulla County, ending a three-month, aircraft-led migration that started in central Wisconsin.
The cranes are the thirteenth group guided by ultralight aircraft from central Wisconsin to the Florida’s Gulf Coast as part of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP), a global coalition of public and private organizations.
WCEP is a reintroduction project to restore the historic range of this endangered species. Because of their efforts, there are now 109 whooping cranes in the wild in eastern North America.
Operation Migration, in partnership with WCEP, used two ultralight aircraft on October 2 to guide the juvenile cranes through Wisconsin, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia, reaching the birds’ wintering habitat at St. Marks Refuge on Tuesday.
“With 96 days on the road and 1101 miles of flight,” said Liz Condie, spokesperson for Operation Migration. “I can’t think of a better way to begin the New Year!”
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.
Operation Migration documented the journey at www.operationmigration.org.
Founding members of WCEP include the International Crane Foundation, 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.
To report whooping crane sightings, visit the WCEP observation webpage here.