Last winter, I was on a mission to see Operation Migration. For many years, I’d lived within the flyover path for this conservation program that brought whooping cranes to Florida, following an ultralight on their first flight as young birds, but had never gotten caught up in the frenzy to see the cranes in flight. Until 2011.
Weather, wind conditions, and the cranes themselves determine where exactly the stopping points are each night and how long they stay. Watching the Operation Migration website and friends on Twitter, I followed leads twice to get to the Dunnellon Airport and waited. No cranes. The third time, with Mom and my nephew Alex bundled in the car on a cold winter morning, was the charm.
Amid the hubbub of birders who’d come from as far as Jacksonville, Tampa, and Naples on the ghost of a chance they’d see this young brood of a very endangered species, I remembered where I’d first seen a whooping crane chick: the International Crane Foundation. Located in Baraboo, Wisconsin, this nonprofit is a Noah’s Ark of the world’s cranes, ensuring a breeding population into the future.
Returning to the International Crane Foundation this August, it was a delight to finally “see” the area where the young whooping cranes are raised, handled by humans dressed in full-body crane suits so as to not allow an imprint on a human face.
A mated pair of whooping cranes is always present at the Whooping Crane exhibit, and it was there that I’d seen the newly-hatched chick back in 2003, tottering around behind its parents. In the Johnson Exhibit Pod, a variety of cranes came up to the fence to greet us, including Siberian cranes, a Eurasian crane, and White-naped cranes.
On my last visit, I hadn’t had the time to wander the nature trails into the Wisconsin prairie. As we headed across the rolling, open landscape, we could see the enclosures far off in the distance from the bulk of the complex. We couldn’t see the young cranes, however, until we stopped in the Donnelly Family Education Center, where amid interpretive information about the whooping crane, a “crane cam” allowed us to peer into one of the pens.
Founded in 1973 on a former horse farm, the International Crane Foundation is a unique effort to ensure that the 15 species of cranes found around the world do not go extinct. Saving the whooping crane has been their flagship project and an incredible success story.