What an amazing morning!! I've been following Operation Migration (http://www.operationmigration.org/index.html) where a dedicated group is re-introducing young and very endangered Whooping Cranes into the wild and teaching them to migrate from Wisconsin to Florida. The young chicks follow their surrogate parent, a costumed pilot flying an ultralight. Today was the second to last leg in their incredible 1285 mile journey. Tomorrow they will arrive at their winter home at the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Citrus, Florida.
We arrived at the chilly Dunnellon-Marion County Airport at 9:00 AM and watched the northern sky. The first ultralight, piloted by Richard van Heuvelen looped around the airport with a single Whooping Crane following his every move.
Shortly afterwards, Joe Duff came into view closely followed by four absolutely amazing Whooping Crane chicks. The crowd that gathered was hushed, not wanting to spook the fragile birds. It was fantastic - and very moving. After they flew over the trees, people clapped, cheered and cried. We spoke with supporters that come every year to get a glimpse of the birds whose numbers are up from a low of 16 to over 500.
Bill has seem Whooping Cranes in the wild in the San Luis Valley in Colorado, but until today, I had only seen them in captivity at the Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park.
Whooping Cranes are larger than their more colorful Sandhill Crane cousins.
Obviously, I took lots and lots and lots of pictures! I also met some very nice people!
Every one's camera was clicking as they dipped down closer to the small crowd that had gathered to welcome them to Marion County.
After they left the birds just over the trees to spend the night, the pilots came back to the airport to greet the crowd. Richard arrived first - still in costume.
Thank you Richard, Joe, Operation Migration and the Dunnellon Airport for this experience!