The Eastern Flock's 2004-2005 Winter

The Refuge is 65 miles north of St Petersburg, FL. It has marshlands, swamps, shallow bays and tidal streams.

These photos give a snapshot of the winter for the youngest in the new Eastern flock of whooping cranes (and a few of the older "ultra-cranes"). In year 4, the total flock now numbers 46. The youngest birds were hatched in spring 2004. They were raised in captivity, imprinted on an ultralight airplane, and led on the eastern migration route by costumed humans in ultralight planes in the fall of 2004. These 13 are the fourth group of "ultra whoopers." They join the original five "ultra-whoopers"—the five pioneers—from hatch year 2001, the 13 survivors from hatch year 2002, and the 14 survivors of HY2003. Will the newest youngsters know when and where to return in the spring? Stay tuned!


Thirteen whooper chicks arrived Dec. 12, 2004 after a 64-day, 1191-mile journey led by ultralight airplanes from Wisconsin, where the cranes had learned to fly and where they will return each spring for the rest of their lives. For the winter, all of these magnificent juveniles freely come and go from their predator-proof enclosure at Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge. They learn about tides and catching blue crabs. Every crane had a medical exam and got permanent leg bands shortly after arrival. Doctors first put a hood over the crane's head and worked in silence. The birds must not see human faces or hear human voices.

All the cranes wear radio tracking bands on one leg. In addition, four cranes were now fitted with PTTs (satellite tracking devices). The open-topped pen is made of 8-foot high fencing. The cranes can come and go as they like. The bottom of the pen is alligator-proofed with heavy wire screening. Electric fence wire discourages other predators. Much repair work was needed after the 2004 hurricanes. See photos and details here. A member of the monitoring team (this is Mark) makes the 40-minute airboat ride to the cranes' island each day. Monitors check on the birds and keep them safe by setting live traps for bobcats. They keep notes on the cranes' behaviors.

The crane monitors (this is Sara Zimorski) can hide in this blind to watch the cranes. They come twice a day to the island. A solar-powered video monitoring system helps keep watch when the humans aren't there.

Sara returns to the blind along the boardwalk. The board path keeps her from sinking into the thick, black, goopy mud.
The cranes never see a human form without the baggy white costume.

Caretakers spend as little time as possible with the cranes. These birds must remain wild to have the best chances for survival.

Decoys like this one have been with the cranes at all times since they hatched. The decoy is familiar to them, so the young birds are less nervous by their new surroundings.


During the day, the 13 new arrivals--the 2004 chicks--are free to fly, play, and explore.

At night, monitors make sure they are in the new top-netted pen area. They must be safe from predators AND from the older cranes who claim this as their territory. They'd get aggressive with the youngsters and eat their food.

Which crane is in front? (See 2004 Banding Codes.)

A feeding station inside the pen provides a constant supply of high- protein crane chow and fresh water. A small roof covers the hanging feeders and keeps rain out.

The top net is high enough to allow them to still enjoy their favorite actions: leaping and jumping.

As dusk falls, 3 older whooping cranes, or "white birds," roost on the "oyster bar" in the main part of the winter release pen. Workers built this artificial roosting area from oyster shells. Now it doesn't matter how high the tide gets. The cranes can always find a spot on the "oyster bar" to roost at night.)

The 13 chicks are in the top-netted area.

Photos OM.

Try This! Journaling Question
To keep them as wild as possible and not dependent on humans, the cranes were raised by very strict rules. You can read more about the rules, or protocol, by which these "ultra- whoopers" were raised. The same rules will apply to all the chicks hatched and raised to join the new Eastern Flock for the next two or more years. By then, the oldest cranes may begin laying egg and hatching chicks. They will teach their young the migration route and the ways of wild cranes.

  • Do you think the tiny flock can be called truly wild? Explain your answer. Do you think that will change?
  • Are you surprised to see a few of the older cranes return to the pen site instead of finding a new area nearby? What are some pros and cons of older whoopers returning to the pen site?

Journey North is pleased to feature this educational adventure made possible by the
Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP).