Cranes fly south, over Pike County

Published 8:24 pm Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Perhaps the flight of 14 whooping cranes over Pike County won’t create the excitement of the Olympic Torch Run though the county, but some eyes will be on the skies over the next few days, hoping to catch a glimpse of the endangered cranes.

Chip Wallace of Troy said his brother Chuck Wallace, who lives in Tallahassee, Fla., alerted him to the flight of the whooping cranes and he has been following their migration from Wisconsin with great interest.

“Right now, the cranes are grounded in Chilton County because of the weather,” Wallace said. “But, with the weather clearing, they should soon be flying again and they are supposed to take a route that comes over Pike County.”

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Wallace said the cranes are being led along the migration route to sites in Florida by ultra-lights and the sight of the endangered whooping cranes being led by an aircraft will be an incredible one.

Scott Mims, a reporter for the Clanton Advertister, said he has written several articles about the cranes since they have been grounded in Clanton since Dec. 31.

“There are 14 whooping cranes and a team of 12 people, six pilots and a six-member ground crew is leading them,”

Mims said. “Operation Migration is an effort to ensure the survival of the whooping cranes on the 1,285-mile migration route from Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin.”

The cranes are raised in captivity and must be taught the migration route in order to survive.

“Liz Condie, chief operating officer, explained that the cranes need only to be taught the route to Florida one time,” Mims said. “They will self-initiate the migration back to Wisconsin in the spring and Operation Migration will start with new eggs and chicks next year.”

Seven of the cranes will migrate to St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge south of Tallahassee and the other seven will end their journey at Chassahowitzka Nation Wildlife Refuge. If the journey is successful for all 14 whooping cranes, there will be 88 whooping cranes migrating on their own every year as a direct result of Operation Migration.

Condie said by telephone Wednesday night that Thursday’s weather looks a little ify for flying so the cranes and the ultra-lights could be grounded for yet another day.

“We’d like to get in the air tomorrow but it all depends on the weather,” Condie said. “Our next planned stop is Lowndes County and then we’ll be in Pike County (the group does not reveal their exact location due to isolation protocol). We try to get in the air around sunrise and usually fly between 50 and 60 miles a day. But we did fly 200 miles over Georgia once. But it depends on the weather and whether the birds behave.”

This year’s Operation Migration is the first to follow a route over Alabama. “We chose a more westerly route for a couple of reasons,” Condie said. “One reason is for pilot safety. The easterly route was rather unfriendly, particularly over the Appalachian Mountains. If a plane had gone down that would not have been a good situation. And, the prevailing wind system will hopefully allow us to get on the backside of the south to east winds and allow us to catch a tailwind.”

Operation Migration flies with four ultra-lights because the cranes don’t always “flock” together.

“At times, some of them will drop back and another plane will pick them. Sometimes we are flying with cranes following all four planes,” Condie said.For more information and to follow the flight of the endangered cranes, Google, Operation Migration Field Journal or visit the Web site