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Whooping Cranes finally take flight after FAA exemption
by Pam Rotella
26 January 2012

Whooping crane at ICF in 2009, photo by Pam Rotella Operation Migration reports that whooping cranes grounded in Alabama by an FAA investigation have finally left Franklin County, Alabama... if only making it nine miles south to neighboring Winston County.

On Tuesday, the birds were led into flight again, although the flock's handlers reported difficulty in keeping the birds together in the air after the long Alabama stopover. Poor flying weather has grounded the birds since.

In December, the endangered birds' ultra-light-guided migration south was paused due to an investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). At issue was whether the FAA rule banning compensation of ultra-light aircraft pilots had been violated. On January 9th, the FAA granted a "one-time exemption" for the migration to continue until a long-term agreement for the program could be reached.

After the FAA delay, a lack of favorable flying conditions prevented the migration from continuing, and the birds remained penned up in Franklin County, Alabama until Tuesday. Now the birds are penned in Winston County until good flying conditions return.

Operation Migration famously guides captive-bred whooping cranes through their first migration via costumed ultra-light pilots. It is a complicated release into the wild, but the method is successful in training migration routes to captive-bred birds. Whooping cranes are one of the most endangered bird species in North America, and captive-bred release programs have helped to build the cranes' numbers back from the brink of extinction.

According to Heather Ray of Operation Migration, the birds grounded in Alabama were raised at the organization's White River Marsh location in Wisconsin. They are a separate captive-bred flock from the whooping cranes released at Horicon Marsh last year.

The Horicon flock was raised by the International Crane Foundation (ICF) at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, and then transferred to Horicon National Wildlife Refuge before being released. Operation Migration and the International Crane Foundation cooperate in their crane reintroduction programs.

Kate Fitzwilliams of the International Crane Foundation said that ICF's captive-bred flocks are also raised by costumed handlers, but rather than being guided by ultra-light aircraft, the birds are released into the wild and allowed to follow older cranes -- both whooping cranes and sandhill cranes -- southward.

ICF released eight whooping cranes from Horicon last year, and according to ICF's latest survey on the 22nd, two were found at wintering grounds in Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge in Tennessee, two at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama, one on the Alabama-Georgia border, and three in unknown locations.

The lone whooping crane who had separated from his group and was found in Rock County, Wisconsin was from the Operation Migration ultra-light-led flock, and has already arrived in Lake County, Florida on his own.

According to Fitzwilliams, whooping cranes now total 599 overall, 162 of those in captivity.

All original content including photographs © 2012 by Pam Rotella.