Sunday, January 8, 2012

Whoopers grounded

In the movie, they are Canada geese, but in reality they are whooping cranes - so named because of their vocalizations (hear them here), but shortened by birders to "whoopers." These big birds are in the news because their ultralight-led migration has been stalled this year by the FAA more than halfway to their destination on Florida's Gulf Coast. Bred and hatched at the Patuxent Wildlife Refuge Center in Maryland, the endangered whooping cranes are then transported to the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin for training. When the ultralight takes flight, they follow it like it's their mother. But the migration is not without difficulty (weather) and danger (poaching). This time, they have been stalled in Franklin County, Alabama, by federal regulators who are looking into whether the journey violates regulations because the pilot was being paid by the conservation group instead of working for free. The rules in question - that only pilots with commercial pilot licenses can fly for hire and that sport aircraft from being flown to benefit a business or charity - are iintended to safeguard the public by preventing businesses or charities from taking passengers for joyrides in sometimes risky planes. In their defense, Operation Migration explains that their pilots are hired for a wide range of non-flying skills and duties, but volunteer their time as pilots. Based on the acceptance of their explanation in 2010 and the passing of an aircraft inspection in August, they began the 2011 season. They have applied to the FAA for a waiver and voluntarily stopped the flight until the matter has been resolved and the birds can make their celebrated arrival in Florida. "We hoped that would happen during the Christmas break, but it is taking longer than anticipated. The FAA is in support of this project and is working hard to resolve the matter in our favor." FAA spokesman Lynn Lunsford says, "We're considering that waiver," but didn't know if the decision would be made by the time the whoopers would return to Wisconsin in the spring. If not, says field supervisor Peter Fasbender of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, "the only option we can think of as a contingency would be to transport them by ground to release sites in Alabama or in Florida." He's confident that the young cranes would make it back to Wisconsin in the spring by joining other cranes making the journey. The grounded birds are part of a 10-year effort to re-establish an Eastern flyway that disappeared in the late 1800s. The cranes flying that route died off, and by 1941 the species had dwindled to only 15 birds. There are now roughly 100 whoopers in the eastern U.S., but the population is very vulnerable. In 2007, 17 of 18 yearlings were killed by Florida tornadoes.

1st image) Whooping crane photographed by Ecobirder over Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin and made available on Camera Critters, 2nd image) A young crane photographed by Dr. Bernhard Wessling while being trained to respond to recorded crane calls by a costumed volunteer at Patuxent Wildlife Refuge Center, 3rd image) A still from video showing an ultralight leading 9 whooping cranes during this year's Operation Migration.

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