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A flock of whooping cranes flew to their winter homes in Florida this week guided by ultralight aircraft. 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.

Vic Micolucci joined the waiting crowd near Tampa.

VIC MICOLUCCI: As the early-morning fog cleared at the Dunnellon Airport in Marion County, Florida and the temperatures slowly rose, eight-year-old Edon Palchar waited with his family to see the whooping cranes for the very first time.

Whats so cool about this?

Mr. EDON PALCHAR: That they can fly and they just follow the ultralight. Its really cool.

MICOLUCCI: Is it going to be worth it to stand out here in the cold and get up early to come and see it?

Mr. PALCHAR: Yeah, a lot, really worth it.

MICOLUCCI: Coming to watch the cranes fly over has become a yearly routine for 82-year-old Florence Scaron.

Ms. FLORENCE SCARON: I watch these whooping cranes from the time they are hatched, and when they take off from Wisconsin until they come down here for the past four years. And also, I watch them every day on the Internet.

(Soundbite of plane)

MICOLUCCI: As the drone of an engine broke the morning silence, cameras clicked, 10 slender, white birds with black wingtips, passed overhead, trailing behind an ultralight aircraft. When fully grown, their wings will stretch to nearly seven feet. Its part of Operation Migration, the mission keep the endangered birds from extinction.

Liz Condie has been with the group since it began in 2001.

Ms. LIZ CONDIE (Operation Migration): There were zero in eastern North America when we started migrating, that is, when we started this project. So over a hundred is we think pretty good in nine years.

MICOLUCCI: Each year, Operation Migration pilots lead a new flock of young birds from Wisconsin to two Florida wildlife refuges teaching them their winter migration.

Ms. CONDIE: There's nothing that can explain the feeling of accomplishment that you get when we finally release these birds here in Florida, knowing that we're adding to a population that 10 years ago didn't exist.

Ms. SARAH ZAMORSKY (Biologist, International Crane Foundation): This is (unintelligible).

MICOLUCCI: International Crane Foundation biologist Sarah Zamorsky says the birds are starting on what should be a lifelong tradition.

Ms. ZAMORSKY: They just have to be shown the way down south one time, whether it's with ultralights or older birds, and then they know how to go back on their own in the spring. So, thats what theyll do. These birds that spend the winter at the (unintelligible) usually in late March, early April, they'll just decide one day its the right day and they'll get up and theyll go and theyll head back north.

MICOLUCCI: And as this year's trip wraps up, the Operation Migration crew looks at it as a success.

(Soundbite of applause)

MICOLUCCI: All the young birds made it south safely, starting a new generation of a species still very much at risk.

For NPR News, Im Vic Micolucci.

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