Florida Storms Batter Whooping Crane Colony

The storms that swept through central Florida last week killed many people, caused widespread property damage — and also wiped out wildlife.

Seventeen whooping cranes — members of an endangered species — were killed, though scientists were cheered this week when they discovered that one young whooping crane survived.

Joe Duff, a founder of Operation Migration, knows the surviving whooping crane well — a 10-month-old juvenile named No. 15. Operation Migration is one of the groups working to re-establish a population of migrating whooping cranes in the eastern United States.

"Kind of an independent bird," Duff said, describing No. 15. "On the migration south, he was a bit of a problem. He kept dropping out."

Duff saw it happen — he was the lead pilot, flying one of four ultra-light planes that lead the young birds on their migratory path from Wisconsin to Florida.

"That bird was lost on the migration just at the Florida-Georgia border. It dropped out, and we tried to track it, but we couldn't find it. It was actually discovered two days later."

The young bird was crated and trucked to Florida. Eventually, along with 17 other young cranes, it was taken to a covered, four-acre-large salt marsh pen in Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, just north of Tampa.

Duff said in the past, young whooping cranes held at the wildlife refuge have done well. This latest flock at Chassahowitzka also was thriving — until the early morning hours of Feb. 2. That's when storms hit the area.

For Duff and others who had spent months with the birds, the loss was traumatic.

"You know, you spend so much time with these birds, in fact these birds, we started with in April or May when they were hatched. It's just a huge shock initially when you find out they're all gone."

No one was more devastated than Mary Ann Wellington, with the International Crane Foundation. She was one of those at the wildlife refuge who found the dead cranes after the storm. At first, she took little heart from the fact that they found only 17 cranes, and that one was missing. She assumed the 18th crane also was dead until she realized that the transponder device attached to the bird showed that No. 15 was moving.

Wellington says for the first time since the storm, she began to have a little hope.

"We were pretty sure that that bird was alive and flying, and it was a wonderful ray of sunshine after the storm. It was great."

Since then, trackers have kept tabs on No. 15. They say he's hanging around with sandhill cranes and appears healthy.

Since the program began in 2001, the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, a coalition of government and private groups, has been bringing the birds to Florida with reasonable success. There are now more than 60 wild migratory cranes on the East coast.

There is one other U.S. population of migrating whooping cranes that winters in the Aransas National Wildlife refuge in South Texas. Rachel Levin, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service, says that despite this setback, her agency is dedicated to re-establishing a second population of migratory whooping cranes in Florida.

The loss of a season's worth of cranes shows how necessary the work is, she said.

"Everybody who works with fragile endangered species, like whooping cranes, knows that all it takes is one catastrophic storm, weather event, or disease outbreak to wipe out an entire population," she said.

Along with the survival of No. 15, there is one other bright spot. Another whooping crane chick made its way to Florida last year and it came, not with an ultra-light, but with its parents. It was the first whooping crane hatched in the wild in Wisconsin to migrate to Florida in more than a century.

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