Necedah loses crane program
Operation Migration uses ultralight aircraft to lead endangered whooping cranes on their first migration from Necedah National Wildlife Refuge to winter nesting grounds in Florida. The program is now seeking a new location after 10 years in Necedah.

Operation Migration, which brought international attention to the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge with its ultralight aircraft, will soon call a new place its home.

However, the refuge will still play a major role in the crane restoration process.

According to operationmigration.com, the refuge plays an important part in the restoration of the whooping crane population in the eastern United States.

This portion of the process is changing with the recent completion of the 10-year plan by Operation Migration.

Since 2001, captive-reared chicks were taught to migrate by following ultralight planes from the refuge to Florida in the fall and return independently to the refuge in the spring.

Richard King, NNWR biologist, said the ultralight-led chick training will be held elsewhere in Wisconsin.

He said, "The International Recovery Team, which is 50 percent Canadians and 50 percent American, recommended a different site after 10 years. We will still be having the Direct Autumn Release happening here."

He said the DAR is a program where the captive-raised chicks are placed in whooping crane and sandhill crane flocks in late fall and then migrate with them.

King said, "We have raised chicks in Baraboo [International Crane Foundation] and Maryland [Patuxent Wildlife Research Center] and when they are released in the fall here with the others, they come right back to Wisconsin.

"A third technique, which is just beginning, is parent rearing. The chicks are reared in Maryland by captive whooping crane parents and brought to Necedah."

He said they will be released in the summer and fall and will migrate with the other cranes.

This technique would be the most logical and inexpensive because the parents would be the best at raising chicks through the most difficult time when there is normally a high mortality rate, he said.

Rebuilding the population can be a daunting challenge. One of the problems of the nesting pairs of cranes at the refuge has been nest abandonment. King has been studying several theories to find the reason the parents leave their eggs.

He said, "Improper nesting is a problem. They nest two weeks sooner than the common loon, sandhill cranes and trumpeter swans on the refuge." He said this is significant in that all four species get attacked by black flies, which has also been blamed for nest abandonment.

"But, 100 percent of the whooping crane nests before April 25 are abandoned," King said. "After April 25 they are successful in re-nesting and none abandon their nests, though the surveys show there are just as many black flies present in May."

He said another theory is that the birds are energy deficient from poor diet either before or after their return flight in the spring.

"We have had no successful nests initiated if the birds have not been back for one month or more," King said. "Multiple clutching in Maryland is a consideration also. The captive pairs that clutch the most start the earliest by use of artificial lights to make them think it is spring. Some of the pairs have their eggs taken away up to 11 times."

Since the chicks come from there, they would naturally nest as early as their parents did. King said the process can be reversed, however, and the cranes do adapt and nest later.

Liz Condie, chief operating officer of Operation Migration, said the Whooping Crane Recovery Team had planned to move the ultralight project to a different location in Wisconsin after a decade at the refuge.

She said, "We have been at Necedah since 2001 and the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership still manages it. The major responsibility will be the refuge staff for those 106 whooping cranes that return."

The team is looking at public and private lands to relocate the Operation Migration ultralight-led bird migration.