Discovering Freedom

Foraging in one of the ponds within the open-topped enclosure at St. Marks NWR.
Image: Beverly Paulan

March 1, 2016

The six young Whooping cranes of the Class of 2015 are getting used to wide open spaces on St. Marks NWR in Florida.

They have been out of the top-netted pen just over two weeks now, becoming more active and making longer and more frequent flights out of the pen. Sometimes all six go, but other times two or three go. Sometimes they come right back. Other times they land out in the marsh to explore and forage.

They must build up fat for spring's journey north. The cranes' 4-acre release enclosure is in an area not open to the public. At night, electric fencing on the 8-foot-high fence is turned on as protection against land predators.

The young birds have learned to roost safely at night on the pen's oyster bar, a human-built pile of oyster shells inside the enclosure. The birds can stand and sleep at night in shallower water and hear the splashes of any nighttime predators in time to escape.

For many adult cranes, March is the month to journey north again. These youngsters just got here February 6! A few of the older cranes hang out and watch over them.

When will they head north? Will they find their way back alone, or follow an older crane? We shall see.