The Eastern Flock's 2005-2006 Winter

The Eastern flock's winter home is 65 miles north of St Petersburg, Florida.

These photos give a snapshot of the first winter for the youngest whooping cranes in the new Eastern flock, who were hatched in spring 2005. Most were raised in captivity and led south by ultralight airplanes with costumed humans in the fall of 2005. That's how they learned their migration path.

In year five of the reintroduction, the new flock now numbers 64. These 19 join 4 other HY2005 chicks who were released to follow the older wild cranes south. Besides these 23 HY2005 chicks, the flock includes:
4 pioneer survivors of hatch year (HY) 2001;
• 13 survivors of HY2002;
• 13 survivors of HY2003;
• 11 survivors of HY2004.




Nineteen whooper chicks arrived Dec. 13, 2005 after a 61-day migration led by ultralight planes.

They came from Wisconsin, where they had learned to fly and where they will return each spring for the rest of their lives.

This year the chicks stayed for a month at a temporary site. Each one had a medical exam and got permanent leg bands. Doctors first put a hood over the crane's head. The birds must not see human faces or hear human voices. They will go to their final winter site after all the older cranes disperse. (The older birds pick on the chicks.) All the Eastern cranes wear radio tracking bands on one leg. In addition, two of the chicks were now fitted with PTTs (satellite tracking devices) on the other leg.

Photos this row and below: WCEP, OM
craneHY05_161  craneHY05_163
On January 9, 2006, the pilots tried to lead the chicks the last few miles to the normal wintering area. The ONLY bird willing to follow the ultralights on January 9 was #508! After three days of trying, the pilots managed to get all but one chick to follow them to the final goal— the pen at "Chass." The only bird not making the flight was #516. For the winter, the new arrivals will freely come and go from their predator-proof pen at Chassahowitzka ("Chass") NWR. They will learn about tides and catching blue crabs.

The older birds usually spread out in nearby counties, or even nearby states. But sometimes they come back to get free food! They may fight with the chicks, or try to drive them away. It's best if only the youngest chicks are at the pen site. This year #309 lived with the chicks, but she is meek and doesn't bother them. Photo WCEP 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 screens. Electric fence wire discourages other predators. Much repair work was needed after the recent hurricanes.

Photo Sara Zimorski

A member of the monitoring team (this is Sara) makes the 40-minute airboat ride to the cranes' island each day. Monitors check on the birds and their food supplies. They keep them safe by setting live traps for bobcats. They write notes on the cranes' behaviors.

Photo OM.

The crane monitors (this is Sara ) 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.

Photos this row:

Sara goes to the blind along a board path that keeps her from sinking into the thick, black, goopy mud.

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 since they hatched. The decoy is familiar to them, so the young birds feel less nervous in their new surroundings.

The cranes never see a human form without the baggy white costume.

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

The new arrivals--the 2005 chicks--are free to fly, play, and explore during the day.

Which crane is in front? (See 2005 Banding Codes.) Photo R. Urbanek

Which cranes can you identify by looking at the colored leg bands? (See 2005 Banding Codes.)

The chicks will get their adult voices during winter. They will get whiter as their rusty-colored chick feathers get replaced.


Photo R. Urbanek

The chicks are led into the top-netted area at night—and if the older cranes come around to bully them. The birds must be safe from predators AND from the older cranes who may claim this as their territory.

The top net is high enough so the birds can still enjoy leaping and jumping.

Photo Sara Zimorski.


"We are very proud of our birds and the team. We feel much better about leading the birds all the way, rather than having them crated and trucked to the last stop. After a 1200-mile migration we are much more confident about their ability to return now that they have a complete knowledge of the entire route. We can now release them into the wild knowing that we have done our very best."

—Joe Duff, Ultralight Pilot and Project Leader for Operation Migration, after the birds were safely delivered to Chass from their temporary holding site in January, 2006