Endangered whooping cranes winter at St. Marks NWR in Wakulla County

January 13, 2010

Photo courtesy OperationMigration.org
Photo courtesy OperationMigration.org

St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge
winter home to endangered birds

On Jan. 13, Operation Migration successfully escorted 10 young endangered whooping cranes more than 1,100 miles to the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Wakulla County, Fla.

Initially, 20 young cranes left Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin on Oct. 23, 2009. The group was split in two in Jefferson County, Fla., with the second half now on their way to winter at the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, just south of Homasassa Springs, Fla. This is the second time whooping cranes will be wintering in Northwest Florida. There was an enthusiastic crowd of spectators cheering the fly-over at the refuge as they arrived.

The birds were led by a group of experts and volunteers, Operation Migration, in what is called an aircraft-led migration. Operation Migration has played a leading role in the reintroduction of the endangered Whooping cranes into eastern North America since 2001.

Whooping cranes over salt marsh, St. Marks NWR. Photo courtesy Operationmigration.org
Whooping cranes over salt marsh, St. Marks NWR. Photo courtesy Operationmigration.org

What is aircraft-led migration?
This technique relies on the birds’ natural instinct called imprinting. Imprinting means the just-hatched waterfowl chick immediately trusts the first object it sees and follows the object. As soon as the chicks hatch, they bond with their parents and become inseparable. The OM team acts as surrogate parents, helping the birds imprint on the aircraft and conditioning them to fly with it. Later, when the birds are mature, they are led south by the OM team on a pre-determined route to a safe wintering site.

About the cranes
The whooping crane is the most famous endangered bird in North America. In part because it is large, distinctive, and photogenic and, partly because, since 1967, Canadians and Americans have cooperated in a successful recovery program to safeguard it from extinction. There are only 398 North American whooping cranes left in the wild.

The adult whooping crane (Grus Americana), is the tallest North American bird. It has a long neck, long dark pointed bill, and long thin black legs. A large male is about 1.5 m tall. In the air, the wings measure 2 meters or more between the tips of the long black primaries, or flight feathers, which cannot usually be seen when the bird is at rest.

About Operation Migration
Operation Migration is a founding partner of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP), the coalition of non-profit organizations and government agencies behind the project to safeguard the endangered Whooping crane from extinction.

Operation Migration relies on grants and contributions from individuals and foundations to continue their work. You can help ensure the Whooping crane survives for future generations by calling 800-675-2618, or visiting operationmigration.org.

The Operation Migration website is well worth a look at. It is chock full of interesting information about their aircraft-led migrations, history, educational programs and photos from the field.

For more information about St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge in Wakulla County Florida, go to: fws.gov/saintmarks

© 2010 WaltonOutdoors.com

1 Comment
    1. Well, what an informative post. I learned more here than from all the local sources combined.

      Sorry you (we) missed seeing the actual fly-by and of course we will not be able to see the birds while they are here.

      But, there are lots of other things to see and do so come back soon.

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