Sunday, 8 April 2012

Whooping cranes set for return flight home

By Dennis Sherer
Staff Writer
A flock of juvenile whooping cranes that took a liking to north Alabama during a Florida migration have yet to lose their fondness for the Tennessee Valley.

The rare birds being led from Wisconsin to Florida by volunteers flying ultralight aircraft arrived in Russellville on Dec. 11 for what was supposed to be an overnight stay. A combination of bad weather, a holiday vacation for employees and volunteers of Operation Migration and an investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration into whether the organization paid its ultralight pilots kept the birds grounded in Franklin County into January.

When the weather finally improved, the staff returned from the holiday break and the FAA ruled the assisted migration could resume, the birds did not want to leave north Alabama.

Repeated attempts to resume the migration resulted in the young cranes flying only into northern Winston County.

After it became apparent the cranes did not want to fly all they way to Florida for the winter, they were moved to Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Decatur in February where they joined sandhill cranes and whooping cranes that had migrated to the refuge on their own.

As the weather warmed, the cranes that migrated unassisted to Wheeler Refuge flew back to their summer homes.
The nine released cranes who followed the ultralights to north Alabama have yet to leave, but are expected to soon fly back to their summer home in Wisconsin.

After being led south from Wisconsin by the ultralight aircraft, the whooping cranes are able to migrate back there unassisted.

Bill Gates, a biologist at Wheeler Refuge, said time is running out to see the whooping cranes there.

“The are not going to be here much longer,” Gates said. “If we get another really warm day with a good wind out of the south, they will probably be gone. No one knows when they will head back for Wisconsin, but I suspect it will be within the next few days.”

The best place to see the whooping cranes is from the observation building at the refuge visitor center on Alabama 67, Gates said.

Telescopes and one-way glass in the observation building allow visitors to see the whooping cranes without disturbing the birds. The observation building is open 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

Whooping cranes are one of the rarest birds in North America with fewer than 450 living in the wild.

Seeing such a rare bird in north Alabama is worth the drive to Wheeler Refuge.

Staff Writer Dennis Sherer can be reached at 256-740-5746 or,189284

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