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December 5, 2001

"Chass-Seven" Home on Their Island


Cranes at Chassahowitzka
Photo Operation Migration

Although the migration was officially over on Dec. 3, all seven cranes didn't get settled in their new home until Dec. 5. Chassahowitzka Refuge staff and volunteers built a permanent, open-topped pen on a remote island off the coast. The pen measures about 350 feet by 150 feet, made of 10-foot-high fencing with about 2 feet buried under ground. This should prevent alligators and other predators from digging under the fence. An electric fencer unit surrounds the pen to deter feral hogs and anything else that may view these valuable birds as a tasty treat. A feeding station inside the pen will provide fresh food and water to the birds during their stay. And--there's also a costumed dummy in the center of the large pond within the pen enclosure. The costume will provide the young flock with something familiar and encourage them to roost in water at night, where they'll be safer from predators.

You probably never predicted that Crane #4 would beat all the other cranes by a day! He made the trip out to his new home on Tuesday, Dec. 4. Tucked in his familiar crate, he was loaded onto the deck of a boat and cried loudly over the engine noise as they headed out to the permanent pen. Dan and two other experts made the trip with #4. Once at the island, #4's costumed escorts carried his crate through the needle rush and black muck into the large open-topped pen and released him. Then they used the crane puppet to lead him inside the top-netted section of the pen, where he promptly began probing in the muck and picking up tasty snails. Number 4 spent Tuesday night (Dec. 4) alone, waiting for his flockmates to join him and eating lots of snails.

Until 7:31 a.m. on Dec. 5, the other six cranes were in a temporary holding pen on the mainland near the Chassahowitzka refuge. That's when they were released for the air-drop at their winter home. They waited impatiently, poised in their pre-flight posture, for pilot Joe and his ultralight to pass low over them. By now they know the drill: exit pen, line up, point beak in the direction the trike is flying--then ready, set, lift-off! They pumped their long, elegant wings and with each stroke gained the altitude that eventually brought them close to the tiny ultralight they view as their trusty guide. They were soon gliding over the vast wetlands of the Chassahowitzka refuge, where Dan and Marianne had arrived at the pen to "call them in." Joe did a very low pass over the pen and then a sharp and fast climb while the birds were already on their final approach. Joe then turned off his crane vocalizations and Dan began playing his over the loudspeaker on the ground. The idea was to trick the birds into thinking they would be landing with the aircraft. But at the last second, the aircraft quickly moved out and, without time to recover from their approach, the cranes landed in or near the pen. Once inside, they were housed in a secondary top-netted section until the Florida veterinarians did a final health check. The vets fit three of the cranes (#2, #4, and #5) with PTT satellite transmitters to help track their movements over the winter as well as their return trip in the spring. (Be there with Journey North's coverage!) When this procedure was complete, the top net was removed and the cranes were free to fly and explore their new winter home during the day and, we hope, always return to the safety and familiarity of the pen.

Heather signed off saying, "Soon after Joe picked up the six birds, radio contact with him was lost as he ventured further out, however I could still hear Paula's voice as she flew top-cover. At 7:43 a.m., I heard Paula exclaim 'Wow! That was great. Let's head back to Crystal River airport' and I knew that Joe had successfully performed the whooper air-drop and delivered the six cranes to their new winter home. The 'Chass-seven' have arrived, and with them, hope for survival of the species."


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

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