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Cranes Outrun Ultralights on Southward Migration

Crane formation off a Trike wing over northeast of Bloomington, Illinois.

A group of 20 young whooping cranes, four trikes, and a Cessna 206 chase plane had been on the ground in Illinois for five days due to rain and wind. The group known as Operation Migration (OM) assists the cranes on their yearly journey south for the winter. With 1,000 miles to go on their migration from Wisconsin to Florida, the group parted company for a time on Friday, November 20 - the cranes struck out on their own! Due to early morning freezing temperatures, wind, and patchy fog, it was decided to wait one more day before resuming the trip. By late morning the birds were released from their enclosure for some exercise, which typically includes a brief flight around the field. There was no need to worry because in nine years of working with this species, the cranes had always come back to their pen. This time was different. Only four birds returned. After 15 minutes it was obvious the others had left the area.

A trike containing a tracking antenna was soon launched. The cranes’ signal was quickly found, but the trike didn’t catch up with them until nearly 60 miles away. The birds were found flying in a perfect “V” formation. They were herded back onto the wing of the lead trike for the remaining 20 miles to the next planned stopover. The other four birds were flown to their mates the following day with another trike. The episode illustrates the importance of guiding the new birds to their winter home. Without help they would not likely find suitable sanctuary.

A second stretch of bad weather kept the migration on the ground for another five days over Thanksgiving in Livingston County, Illinois. It was during this time that OM received news that one or several vandals broke into their Necedah, Wisconsin, hangar, damaging vehicles, aircraft, and parts as well as stealing personal belongings from several members of the OM team. Read a Wisconsin State Journal report of the incident here.

To keep track of the daily adventures of Operation Migration, read its field journal reports. A Wing Replacement Fund has been set up to help OM replace four aircraft wings that were slashed during the break-in.

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