IMAGE: WHOOPING CRANES FLY WITH PILOT
Matt Mendenhall  /  Birder's World Magazine via AP
Young whooping cranes fly with ultralight pilot Chris Gullikson of Operation Migration on their departure from Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in central Wisconsin last Oct. 5.
updated 2/6/2007 1:20:39 PM ET 2007-02-06T18:20:39

A whooping crane was spotted alive on Sunday after it was believed killed with 17 others in severe Florida storms, according to an organizer of a migratory project.

Organizers received a signal from a transmitter on the young male crane on Saturday night and again on Sunday near where the endangered birds were kept in Citrus County, Fla. Later Sunday, they saw the survivor with two sandhill cranes, said Rachel Levin, a spokeswoman with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"We are just so relieved to have found him alive — one small ray of hope for this disaster in the crane project," Levin said.

Organizers will continue to track and monitor the bird, she said.

The 18 whooping cranes were being kept in an enclosure at the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge near Crystal River, Fla., when violent storms moved in Thursday night.

The birds were led south in December by ultralight aircraft as part of a project to create a second migratory flock. Organizers of the project thought they had perished in the storms. But when they went to recover the cranes' carcasses Saturday, one was missing, Levin said.

Nearly extinct in 1940s
The whooping crane, the tallest bird in North America, was near extinction in 1941, with only about 20 left.

The other wild whooping crane flock in North America has about 200 birds and migrates from Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast. A non-migratory flock in Florida has about 60 birds.

Joe Duff, senior pilot and co-founder of Operation Migration, a nonprofit organization coordinating the project, has said the University of Florida would perform tests on the 17 birds killed to determine how they died.

Duff speculated that a strong storm surge drew the tide in and overwhelmed the birds.

For the past six years, whooping cranes hatched in captivity have been raised at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in central Wisconsin by workers who wear crane-like costumes to keep the birds wary of humans.

Ultralight aircraft are used to teach new groups of young cranes the migration route to Florida. From then on, the birds migrate north in the spring and south in the fall on their own.

'Unavoidable disaster'
Duff described the loss as an “unavoidable disaster” for the whooping cranes project that ironically followed a milestone.

For the first time in six years, an entire group of young birds reared at the Necedah refuge had made it to the Florida refuge without the loss of a single crane.

The project’s previous losses all involved individual birds killed by predators or fatally injured in accidents.

“It’s a fluke. It’s an unforeseen thing,” Duff said. “So many birds and they were such good birds. It was our hardest migration and our most difficult one to fund.”

The various groups and agencies working on the project had seen the size of the flock grow to 81 birds with the latest arrivals, but the loss of the young cranes drops the total back to 64.

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