A group of eight young whooping cranes have arrived in Wisconsin aboard donated aircraft, and are now training to head south on the wing led by ultralight aircraft piloted by humans clad in a head-to-toe disguise lest they acclimate the birds to the wrong species. Pilots and cranes are backed by a support team that follows along in motor homes, each human dedicated to the restoration of an eastern flyway that stretches from Wisconsin to Florida.
The class of 2013 hatched at the U.S. Geological Survey Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Md., and it is hoped they will grow up to join the birds reared and trained in the past decade, more than 100 so far. Each crane had to be taught the ancestral routes, a team effort by the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership founded in 1999 to restore flocks last seen in this flyway during the nineteenth century.
Among those organizations, Operation Migration relies on donations and sponsorships for more than 60 percent of its total funding. Windway Capital has donated air transportation for 30 batches of young birds, including the most recent trip to a Wisconsin state wildlife area announced July 16. An FAA mandate prompted an online fundraising campaign that raised a little more than half of its $84,700 goal as of July 17, with 10 days remaining in the campaign to purchase new, special light sport versions of their weight-shift-control ultralights to pass regulatory muster. The FAA, concerned about aircraft and pilot certification issues, grounded the 2012 migration long enough that the birds ended their journey in Georgia, short of the Florida goal. The agency later relented on a previous demand that the pilots hold commercial certificates, but stands firm on the SLSA requirement. Operation Migration must have those aircraft purchased and ready in time for the 2014 introduction in Wisconsin.
Meanwhile, the class of 2013 has been introduced to the older ultralights they must accept as their flight lead.
“We do a lot of running up and down the runway,” said Operation Migration co-founder and President Joe Duff, also one of the pilots, in a recent interview with AOPA Online. “It’s fascinating to watch them figure it out.”
They will set out in the fall for Florida, never having heard, it is hoped, a human voice, or seen a human form undisguised. Duff and two fellow pilots will live on the road for a months-long trek, not seeing home until December. Flying by day in good weather, they will shepherd and cajole the formation along the way, two aircraft dedicated to picking up stragglers for a ride on their vortices, precision rejoins in slow flight just above the 32 mph stall speed of the trikes. Other birds may be higher, cruising at 38 mph.
“It turns into a little bit of an aerial rodeo,” Duff said.
The journey will be oft-interrupted by weather, sometimes forcing the flock to hunker down for weeks at a time. Once in Florida, they can find their own way home, joining other whooping cranes taught the old fashioned way: the International Crane Foundation rears chicks for release in the fall in the company of older cranes to follow south. Birds from both efforts, along with five born wild so far, comprise the new population, more than 100 wild cranes winging their way between Wisconsin and Florida each year. Members of the public who spot wild whooping cranes are asked to report the sightings, and keep their distance – at least 200 yards on foot; no closer than 100 yards if the observer is in a vehicle.
Duff expects the new aircraft being custom-crafted (and sold at a discount) by North Wing will be needed for years to come. The goal is to expand the current group of five breeding pairs to 125, and it will be a slow journey amidst constant threats: storms, disease, and a less than ideal fundraising climate.