Operation Migration [OM] has been working to reintroduce critically endangered Whooping Cranes into the wild since 2001. Their goal is to establish a migratory population of Whooping Cranes in the eastern part of North America. Each fall, part of their work involves flying first-year birds from their breeding grounds in Wisconsin down to wintering grounds in Florida with the aid of ultralight aircraft. On Sunday, October 31st, Arthur and I were lucky enough to see the cranes as they departed their Fall 2010 stop in Winnebago County, Illinois. Arthur wrote up a nice post, which contains more information about OM, on our personal blog: Whooping Cranes and Operation Migration in Winnebago County, IL.
Volunteers with OM were on hand at the viewing site to let us know what the pilots were doing. The first step was to test the flight conditions. Once the initial flight was made, and conditions were deemed suitable for flight, the ultralight planes circled back to get the birds*, and they were on their way. Two ultralight planes accompanied the flock of 10 birds. The first plane appeared in the distance.
As it approached, we could hear other crane viewers shouting – “there they are!” and “I see birds!”
Soon we could all see the flock of birds-and-aircraft heading our way. The flightpath brought them directly over us as we waited in the viewing area. It was very exciting!
I stopped taking photos and stood in awe as they passed right over my head. I snapped a couple more pictures as they headed off towards the sun.
Here is the group of “craniacs” at the viewing site shortly after the flyover.
Over the next few weeks, the cranes will follow the ultralight aircraft as they make their way to Florida. Several stops along the migration route provide viewing locations, so you can go and view the birds flying overhead, as we did. You can also watch the birds online via the Operation Migration Crane Cam, and follow along with their progress via the Field Journal. You can help support Operation Migration by making a donation, becoming a member, or purchasing Operation Migration merchandise.
*This is an extreme simplification of the process. Follow the Field Journal to learn more about the process of teaching these young endangered birds how to migrate.