Whooping cranes visit Climax

Published 7:20 am Monday, January 19, 2009

The sleepy little community by the name of Climax in the southeastern most part of Decatur County was pleasantly awakened and surprised on Tuesday, Jan. 13, as its residents peered into the morning skies and saw something they had only seen in a movie or on television documentaries.

An airplane followed by a large group of birds.

One of our sources in the area called: “Jean Ann, did you look out your door and see the sight?”

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I asked in amazement, “Wait a minute, what sight?”

“The plane, the plane, and of course the birds!” they said.

Naturally, they had my curiosity up and my nose began to itch for the story.

“Where did they go?” I asked.

“Sorry I can’t tell you!” they said.

I replied, “Of all things for you to do to me!”

They said, “Well you know where I live, don’t you? Come for a visit!”

Grabbing my crutches, (I’ve had a bum knee for quite a while) off I went for a visit. Upon arriving at my destination, I found the source of the excitement, the fall migration of the endangered birds, whooping cranes, lead by an ultra-light aircraft.

In a very secluded area of the Climax community, deep in the country on dirt roads, camper, trucks and equipment greeted me and would not let me go any farther.

The news hound in me went snooping along with my source, and I got an interview with Liz Condie, operating officer and director of communication and fund development for Operation Migration Inc.

“Jean, I will give you all the information you want, but no pictures, and you can’t tell where we are!”

I agreed.

She said 14 endangered whooping crane and their surrogate parents, four ultra-light aircraft had landed for a rest in the Climax community. A team of around 10 workers, mostly volunteers; four from Canada and the rest from the United States, were extremely busy making everything secure for the birds.

According to information provided, these majestic birds, the tallest in North America, began their migration from Necedah National Wildlife Refuge Oct. 17 on a 1,285-mile migration to the Florida Gulf Coast, making their way through Wisconsin, Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee.

This is the first time the migration route went through southern Illinois and Alabama, clipping the corner of Georgia instead of cutting north to south through the state as before due to flying around the Appalachian Mountain instead of over them.

Liz said they were supposed to land in Clay County. But instead came on to Climax Tuesday making good time.

Whooping cranes, named for their loud unison calls, were on the verge of extinction in the 1940s. Today, there are only about 350 in the wild and around 500 in existence.

Of the 14 birds that rested in Climax, seven were being taken to St. Mark’s Wildlife Refuge in Florida, arriving on Friday, and the other seven to Chassabouitzka National Wildlife Refuge, also in Florida.

These birds, according to Condie, have never heard a human voice or even seen a human. They were hatched without parents to teach them. When the birds hatch, they see a waterfowl puppet head. Having no parents, they have to be taught the migration and even how and what to eat by a long arm shaped like a parent whooping crane. A human dressed as the parent.

The pilots wear costumes to disguise themselves, and the sounds of the plane engine and a brood call of the whooping crane is even played during the incubation period of the eggs. The sounds are continued even in flights as the planes are fitted with special sound systems and speakers for the birds.

Each fall, Operation Migration Pilots led a new generation of whooping cranes behind their ultra-light aircraft to wintering grounds in Florida, said Condie.

The cranes will make the return flight on their own to the upper Midwest in the spring.

She said the birds are tracked and monitored year-round. They live and breed in wetland areas, where they feed on crabs, clams, frogs and seeds.

They are distinctive animals, standing 5 feet tall with white bodies, black wing tips and red crowns on their heads.

In a report from Mike Harris, nongame conservation section chief for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, he stated that historic records show whooping cranes used to migrate through Georgia, and possibly even wintering here.

“Once the population is restored, we hope we’ll have places where they stop regularly during migration. Maybe one of those places will be Climax,” he said.

Mike Harris also reported that the Migration Operation asked that anyone who encounters a whooping crane in the wild to please give them the respect and distance they need. Do not approach on foot within 200 yards, remain in your vehicle if possible, and do not approach in a vehicle within 100 yards.

Please stay concealed and do not speak loudly enough that the birds can hear you. Finally do not trespass on private property in an attempt to view the cranes.

Even though I was unable to get a picture of the whooping cranes in Climax, Ginger Harrison got up early on Jan. 14 and did the leg work, literally.

Her mother told her I was on crutches, and Harrison was kind enough to share the pictures with us. She got a picture of a pilot dress ready to lead the cranes in flight and the take off in flight from Climax. We give her a big thank you!

So the excitement of the migratory flight of the whooping crane coming to Climax was a big thing for the little community even though we can’t tell you where they landed, some figured it out. But we can tell you the whooping cranes did not land at Larry Harrison land strip.

For more information on the whooping cranes, and how you can help this very worthwhile endeavor, log on to www.operationmigration.org and for more wildlife information in Georgia log on to www.georgiawildlife.com.