Effingham Daily News, Effingham, IL

Local News

November 18, 2010

Migration sensation

Bird enthusiasts flock to flyover point to catch a glimpse of rare cranes

MONTROSE — A group of early birds had a unique opportunity Wednesday to see a completely different type of bird as a flock of endangered whooping cranes flapped their way over the skies outside Montrose, led on their annual southward migration by a trio of ultralight aircrafts.

    About 40 bird enthusiasts from across Central Illinois flocked to a designated flyover point off Interstate 70 before dawn for the chance to catch a glimpse of the world’s rarest cranes. And they got just that, as the sun rose over clear, still skies — perfect flying weather for the cranes and their conservation-minded aerial escorts, who annually lead flocks of the cranes to their Florida winter home as part of a restoration effort.

    The huddled groups of bird watchers strung out along the Interstate 70 Frontage Road north of Montrose, let out a collective gasp shortly before 7 a.m., as an ultralight aircraft emerged from a thicket of trees in the distance, then disappeared again. But the crowd’s perseverance was awarded minutes later, when one, then two of the aircrafts bobbed their triangular wings above the trees, each with a group of the cranes flying fast on its tail.

    And in a grand finale of sorts, the third and final ultralight emerged from the trees and flew straight at the crowd, zooming over their heads with a trio of the white-bodied, black-faced cranes in tow — a sight that drew “oohs” and “ahhs” from many of the observers, watching with binoculars or cameras in hand.

    This was the third year the whooping cranes, named for the sound of their mating call, have made an appearance in the skies over Effingham, Cumberland, Jasper and Clay counties during the assisted migration run by Operation Migration to restore the population of the rare bird.

    This year marked Charleston resident Michael O’Brien’s third time witnessing the migration from the Montrose viewing point.

    “It’s exciting to see the birds fly and see them being led by the trike,” he said Wednesday, binoculars in hand.

    Others, like Effingham resident Nome Keller, were new to the experience. Keller just recently found out about the migration effort, but what she lacked for in experience, she more than made up for in enthusiasm.

    “I just got very excited about it,” Keller said Wednesday as the sun started peeking over the horizon.

    Keller has been monitoring the organization’s website, www.operationmigration.org, daily since she learned of their effort, watching their Internet videos of take-offs and keeping up-to-date on their progress as they moved southward toward the Cumberland County site where they overnighted Tuesday.

    Also present Wednesday was Joan Brian, a sixth-grade science teacher at Lawrenceville’s Parkview Junior High. Like Keller, Brian’s class annually charts the progress of the cranes during a unit on endangered species.

    The whooping crane certainly makes the list of endangered species. Operation Migration estimates the whooping cranes in captivity and in the wild combined only number at 551. But even that is a large improvement over the 15 whooping cranes in existence in 1941.

    Organizations like Operation Migration and its governing body, the Whooping Crane Recovery Team, played a large role in that comeback.

    Chief Operations Officer for Operation Migration Liz Condie said she was pleased with the turnout at the flyover site.

    She was even more pleased, though, with what turned out to be a successful second day in a row of flying weather, after being stuck on the ground in Piatt County for nine days due to winds gusting out of the south.

    By midday Wednesday, the flock flew without incident the 63 miles to its final Illinois stop in Wayne County, where they were to spend the night. Wednesday’s miles made for a total of 415 miles flown in 39 days.

    That leaves 885 miles yet to go before they reach their wintering destination of Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge on the eastern coast of Florida. As to the flock’s pace so far, Condie admitted it never goes as fast as she would like, as inclement weather and strong winds can keep the flock grounded for days at a time.

    Right now, though, they’re progress looks about par for the course.

    “The shortest migration on record is 48 days. The longest is 97, and we’ve had everything in between,” Condie said. “We just take every day as it is.”

    Amanda King can be reached at 217-347-7151 ext. 138 or amanda.king@effinghamdailynews.com.

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