LSA-Led Crane Migration Ends With Less Drama
January 20, 2011 —The 2010 Whooping Crane migration that uses light-sport aircraft weight-shift trikes to help the young birds find their way south for winter concluded over the weekend (January 16) at their Florida nesting grounds in the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge. The 73-day, 1,200-mile journey began in October in Wisconsin and was led by aircraft operated by Operation Migration (OM), which has assisted the Eastern Migration (one of two major routes by cranes in the U.S.) for the past 10 years. While the trip for OM’s cranes went fairly smoothly, a sister organization assisting a free-release migration suffered tragedy when three cranes were found shot in Georgia.
The cranes are hatched in captivity in facilities like the International Crane Foundation (ICF) in Baraboo, Wisconsin, and trained at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in central Wisconsin to follow older cranes or ultralights south to Florida. When the birds begin the migration, they are one year old and have been raised by biologists who use costumes to avoid improper imprinting on the young chicks.
“All in all it was a good season,” said Joe Duff, CEO of Operation Migration. “We had 10 birds with us this year, last year we had 20. We also had better weather. I wish we could have added more birds to the flock, but that’s the luck of the draw in how many hatch.”
The cranes that were killed were part of a Direct Autumn Release (DAR) program operated by the ICF. Operation Migration and ICF are part of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, which uses both the LSA-led and DAR method to introduce cranes to migration in the eastern U.S.
“The people who shoot these birds are obviously not hunters,” Duff said. “There is obviously someone out there that wants to shoot something, and it doesn’t matter if it’s an endangered species or a protected species.”
The deceased birds, which were tagged and had tracking devices, were found on a farm by hunters and sent to an Oregon lab, which confirmed that they were shot. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and private groups are offering a $12,500 reward for information in the case.
Last year’s migration class led by OM was beset with harmful problems including vandalism, extended weather delays, the crash of a chase plane, and the killing of one crane by gunfire. After the 2009 migration began, the OM hangar in Necedah was vandalized, causing tens of thousands of dollars in damage to equipment and two trike aircraft. Donations helped with repairs but the migration would soon see other setbacks as adverse fall weather in Wisconsin and Illinois slowed progress.
Not long after things got moving again, a volunteer chase plane heading back to Canada experienced carb ice and flipped over in a plowed field upon landing. The two occupants were unhurt. As the migration moved through southern Indiana, a female crane, which was in the first migratory class to make the journey, was found dead from a gunshot.
Biologists don bird suits as they socialize the crane chicks with the older birds.