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Juvenile whooping cranes reach Florida

The aircraft led birds are expected today at their new winter home near St. Marks, Fla.

Whooping cranes take off to follow an ultralight aircraft on another leg of their 1,100-mile jounrey from Wisconsin to St. Marks, Fla. Organizers of the 13th annual training flight for young whooping cranes expect them to get to their new winter home on New Year's Day. (Photo: Operation Migration)

Whooping cranes take off to follow an ultralight aircraft on another leg of their 1,100-mile jounrey from Wisconsin to St. Marks, Fla. Organizers of the 13th annual training flight for young whooping cranes expect them to get to their new winter home on New Year's Day. (Photo: Operation Migration)

BAINBRIDGE — Following a visit to Decatur County, eight juvenile whooping cranes that took flight Oct. 2 in Wisconsin reached their last layover spot at Leon County, Fla., on New Year’s Eve.

UPDATE: Weather delay

Officials with Operation Migration this morning said that with rain closing in, the final flight to St. Marks will not take place today.

Sometime today, the young birds, who were led on the migratory path by ultralight aircraft, are expected to make the final 28-mile leg of their flight to their new winter home at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. Terry Peacock, refuge manager at the St. Marks NWR, said there was a 70-80 percent chance that the cranes would make a New Year’s Day flyover at St, Marks’ city field by 8:30 a.m.

“We hope to see all our ‘craniacs’ at the flyover tomorrow,” Peacock said Tuesday. “We would like our biggest crowd ever in the five years of crane arrivals!”

By Tuesday, the whooping cranes had flown 1,073 miles since leaving White Rover Marsh State Wildlife Area in Green Lake County, Wis., on Oct. 2. Officials with the groups that have escorted the birds on their long journey say the youngsters have gotten the hang of the long-distance air travel.

“These birds are in the mode of flying now!” Operation Migration spokesperson Liz Condie. “They took off like a shot this morning (in Decatur County) as soon as the ultralights revved up.”

Condie said she is hoping the skies will be fair for today’s planned flyover at the St. Marks field at the terminus of Florida Highway 363, next to the St. Marks River.

“We are hoping for good weather on New Year’s Day to complete this, our 13th migration,” Condie said Tuesday. “I can’t think of a better way to ring in the New Year!”

Whether Mother Nature would cooperate with the plan was a bit iffy. The National Weather Service forecast for St. Marks today is cloudy with a 60 percent chance of rain, primarily after 1 p.m., and a high of 60 degrees.

This is the 13th group of birds to take part in a project led by the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP), an international coalition of public and private groups that is reintroducing this highly imperilled species — which was near extinction in the 1940s — in eastern North America, part of its historic range. WCEP partner Operation Migration has used two ultralight aircraft to lead the juvenile cranes through Wisconsin, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia to Florida’s Gulf Coast.

Final confirmation of the trip can be found at Operation Migration’s website, www.operationmigration.org.

Also, the whooping cranes can be followed on Operation Migration’s live CraneCam, which broadcasts daily during flights and while the cranes are at each stopover location. The video stream is HERE and daily website postings are HERE.