North America's tallest bird is the Whooping crane, Grus americana. In the 1800's, numbers reached well into the hundreds of thousands, but loss of habitat and indiscriminate hunting for the skins, eggs, feathers, or simply sport, reduced the population to about fifteen birds by 1941. Naturalists feared the Whooping crane would disappear like the passenger pigeon. However, the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1916 might have saved them.
Through the decades, the population has gradually increased to about 500, but these beautiful and rare birds, residents of the prairies and marshes, still face massive migratory challenges. In the 1990's, the Whooping Crane Recovery Team was founded by Canada and the U.S. to protect the existing flock and establish two more migratory groups. Operation Migration was sanctioned by the WCRT to create the second migratory flock with their ultralight-led method.
I am extremely fortunate that my area is part of Operation Migration's route. The dedicated volunteers give up months of their lives to lead juvenile Whooping cranes south each autumn and one of their stop-over camps is in my neighborhood.
The crowd gathered in the frozen, pre-dawn glow of a west Kentucky sunrise awaiting the fly-over of the ultralights and their priceless charges. To prevent the cranes from imprinting on humans, contact is only by costumed workers, trained to mimic crane actions with a puppet attached to their hand. The birds are kept secluded throughout the migration in undisclosed locations. However, on migration days, there is usually a viewing area, and the public is encouraged to come out and witness a fly-by as the cranes and planes head south. It is an emotional sight to see the young cranes, completely trusting their surrogate ‘mamas', flying overhead on a crisp, clear morning.
Our group sported license plates from several states and high-powered cameras and binoculars were bristling from cords around the necks of the watchers. Operation Migration volunteers were on hand to answer questions as we watched the sunrise together. Soon we could hear the sound of the ultralight motors and all eyes turned to the tree-line, waiting for the first glimpse of the Class of 2011. The first ultralight passed a bit to our east with seven birds flying in the traditional V formation and a few moments later, the second ultralight passed to our west, with the remaining two. The pilots were high enough so the birds wouldn't spook, and low enough that we could all see the gleaming black tips on their wings as they made their way to the next stop in Tennessee. Follow their progress by accessing the Operation Migration Field Journal.
Gardeners understand the need for wild areas in the world. So many creatures depend on suitable habitat that only undisturbed locations provide. Russia is facing the same problem with the Siberian crane that we in North America have with our Whoopers. Most cranes are shy and avoid contact with civilization. Their nesting grounds are becoming urbanized and the migratory route offers little protection or foraging opportunities. Operation Migration proves that dedicated people with determination and a dream can change the course of events. I think the Whooping cranes have a bit of this determination as well. Despite the overwhelming odds, they keep hanging in there, refusing to fade into the mists of history.
My images are from the 2008 flyover and the 2011 flyover in Marshall County, Kentucky.
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