THE WHOOPING CRANES AT SOUTHWOOD

Two of the 2009 whooping cranes were so well embedded with their flight down to St. Marks Refuge, that they returned there in 2010.  They wanted into the pen, and wanted to stay in the surrounding area.  However, they were intimidating the newly arrived youngsters who needed to adapt to the area without interference.  So, they were chased off, and they found their way to the Southwood back acreage, where the cows were pastured.  They stayed until spring, foraging and feeling safe, and migrated back north.  Once again, they have returned to grace all of us with their presence.  They are currently in the same pasture, where all the Canadian Geese hang out.  The geese really help in keeping them safe from predators. Early morning is the best time to watch them.  They wake up slowly, move around a little, and then do a dance.  Whooping cranes dance during courtship, when they feel excited, and, most often, cause they feel like it!

Once they've attended to those items, they usually fly south, parts unknown, for the day.  They return near dusk, to bed down with the geese near the small pond.  You'll need a good telescopic lens to photograph them.

The story of how they are being brought to Florida, and particulaly our area is amazing.  Whooping crane eggs are collected from captive and wild nesting cranes and taken to Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland.  There the eggs are incubated, and turned three times a day until they hatch.  While they are incubating, audio tapes of ultralight engine noises and brooding adult crane sounds are played.  This helps them become desensitized to the engine noise,, and learn to recognize brood calls.

The crane handlers are always silent, and always in a white costume when working with the birds.  They use a puppet to greet them when they hatch.  The puppet resembles the adult crane.  Handlers teach the chicks how to feed and drink with the help of the puppet.  This way they are not thinking of humans as their source for food and water.

While in Maryland, they are introduced to their first ultralight.  They are put in a circle pen with the unltralight outside and circling the pen.  When they are strong enough, they are moved to Wisconsin where their training continues.  Whooping crane brood calls are played to help the chicks follow the ultralight.  As they become strong enough to follow the ultralight into the air, the preparation for migration intensifies.  The entire training period last about six months.

Migration from Wisconsin to St. Marks Refuge is about 1,113 miles.  Weather limits the ultralights abilitiy to fly, and the trip has been known to take about three months. Log onto the website listed below to follow their progress.  When they get closer (maybe Alabama), the DEMOCRAT will start printing approximate arrival day, and the visual media will start posting the same.  You can head down to St. Marks, at the end of the S.M. Railroad Trail, and watch them fly in with the ultralights.  The pilots will fly them around folks below at least twice, weather permitting.  It's a great expierence to see the finalization of all the work that mostly volunteers have given.  When the cranes arrive at St. Marks, they are placed in a large pen, which encompasses about 4 acres.  They are released after a few days to fly and forage outside the pen, but are trained to return at night to the safety of the pen.  The entire pen has an electric fence to keep predators away. 

By mid to late March, the now totally independent cranes start feeling the call to return to their summer feeding and breeding grounds in Wisconsin.  They fly on their own, taking only a week or two. Because whooping cranes are soaring birds, they ride thermals, the rising columns of warm arie that develop as the sun heats the earth.  By using these air currents, they return to Wisconsin quicker than there original flight south.  They will continue to migrate between the northern and southern parts of the country for the rest of their lives.

As of the early days of February, we have been graced with a pair of Sand Hill Cranes, keeping our Whooping Cranes company.  They are an interesting quartet, with their similar height, but different colorings.  Visit early mornings where you see the small signs posted to watch them as they wake, and begin their day.  Please observe the posted rules.  The whooping cranes are an endangered species, and you must stay back by the line of signs.  Stay away from the fence.  Any closer, and they will become used to human presence, which takes away the "wildness".  When they are no longer fearful of humans, they will have to be captured and placed in a zoo.  Do help them stay free.

WHOOPING CRANE FACTS;

Tallest North American bird (5 1/2 ft.)

Wing Span:  71/2 ft.

Weight:  13 - 17 pounds

Breeding at about 5 years old

Life span:  22 -25 years

Habitat:  shallow ponds, marshes

Food:  cranes are omnivores (crabs, fish, frogs, berries, aquatic plants)

Conservation status:  endangered

All Time low number:  15 in 1941

Approximate number today:  500

total (350 in the wild)

 

For further information:

Operation Migration website:  www.operationmigration.org/index

Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership website:  www.bringbackthecranes.org

Journey North's website:  www.learner.org/jnorth/crane/index

 

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