When fully grown, the whooping crane's wings span nearly 7 feet. This crane flies to a field at Paynes Prairie Preserve, Gainesville, Fla., in January 2009.
When fully grown, the whooping crane's wings span nearly 7 feet. This crane flies to a field at Paynes Prairie Preserve, Gainesville, Fla., in January 2009. Phil Sandlin/AP
As the early-morning fog cleared at the Dunnellon airport in Marion County, Fla., and the temperatures slowly rose, 8-year-old Edon Palchar waited with his family to see whooping cranes for the very first time. The cranes, guided by an ultralight aircraft, were on their way to their winter homes at a wildlife refuge in Florida this week.
Experts say there are only 350 of these rare birds left in the world. Their arrival is becoming an annual spectacle that draws thousands of bird lovers.
Watching Live And On The Web
For Edon Palchar, the coolest thing about the cranes is that "they can fly and just follow the ultralight." It was worth it, he said, to wake up early and stand outside in the cold to see them.
Coming to watch the cranes fly over has become a yearly routine for 82-year-old Florence Scaron.
"I watch these whooping cranes from the time they are hatched," she says, "and when they take off from Wisconsin until they come down here. And ... I watch them every day on the Internet."
The drone of an engine broke the morning silence. Cameras clicked as the aircraft, trailed by 10 slender, white birds with black wingtips, passed overhead.
From Zero To More Than 100
"There were zero [cranes] in eastern North America when we started this project," says Liz Condie of Operation Migration, the nonprofit group that has been using aircraft to train these cranes to migrate since 2001. "So over a hundred is pretty good in nine years."
Each year, Operation Migration pilots lead a new flock of young birds from Wisconsin to two Florida wildlife refuges.
"There's nothing that explains the feeling of accomplishment that you get," Condie says, "when we finally release these birds here in Florida, knowing that we're adding to a population that 10 years ago didn't exist."
Sarah Zamorsky, a biologist with the International Crane Foundation, says the birds are starting on what should be a lifelong tradition.
"They just have to be shown the way down south one time," she says, "whether it's with ultralights or older birds. Then they know how to go back in the spring. Usually in late March, early April, they'll just decide one day is the right day and they'll head back north."
And as this year's trip wraps up, the Operation Migration crew looks at it as a success. All the young birds made it south safely, which will help to start a new generation of a species still very much at risk.