BY JANET WISSINK
Training camp at White River Marsh has been in full swing since the beginning of July. I had the opportunity to sit on the sidelines at the end of July and observe the young team work out, but they weren’t ready to fly yet. FLY? Oh yeah, I’m talking about juvenile whooping cranes (colts) preparing for their first migration to Florida guided by an ultralight airplane.
You may have heard about Operation Migration which has played a lead role in the reintroduction of endangered whooping cranes into eastern North America since 2001. In the 1940s the species was reduced to just 15 birds.
Using ultralight aircraft, Operation Migration pilots act as surrogate parents and guide captive-hatched and imprinted whooping cranes along a planned migration route beginning in Wisconsin and ending in Florida.
It is exciting to have their training camp in our backyard. People from across the country come to White River Marsh State Wildlife Area west of Berlin for the chance to watch the whoopers train with the ultralight.
On the morning of my visit, we arrived at the marsh before 6:00 am. It was sunny and calm with wisps of fog threaded through the marsh grasses. After a short walk through the marsh we settled into the viewing blind and waited quietly for the ultralight to arrive. Once on the ground, the pilot who was dressed in white from head to toe to look like a whooping crane, taxied over to the holding pen. The doors opened and out came five rusty-colored colts from the Class of 2014. They were eager to follow the ultralight down the runway, but not quite ready to fly. They sort of ran and stumbled and then flew about 10 feet just barely off the ground. And when their wings opened wide we saw they were white with black tips already. What a thrill.
There are a total of seven whooping cranes in training, but two could not be coaxed out of the pen with the other five until later. Since I was there, all of them have taken flight and continue to gain strength. Come October they will begin their long journey to Florida behind the ultralight.
You can plan your visit to the blind by visiting www.operationmigration.org. The website will also provide you with a lot of great information, migration map, and a link to the whooping crane cam.
By the way, White River Marsh is a special place to visit any time, but especially in the spring because of the number of migrating birds, abundance and variety of frogs calling, and the evening mating ritual of woodcock. ν
Janet Wissink is an avid birder, President of Winnebago Audubon Society (www.winaudubon.org) and co-chair of Oshkosh Bird Fest (www.oshkoshbirdfest.com).