NECEDAH NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, Wis. -- The orange glow of sunrise peeks over the prairie as the pilot, dressed like a ghost in a flowing white gown, lifts off in his tiny plane.
Slowly he soars, up, up, above the sturdy pin oaks and jack pines, the silence of the dawn broken by the buzz of the engine.
The pilot has flown tens of thousands of miles, ferrying tens of thousands of people on jumbo jets, but this October morning is different.
This day he is flying a plane that looks like an airborne motorcycle, guiding eight young whooping cranes on a 1,250-mile journey through seven states on their way to their new winter home in Florida.
These magnificent birds and their flying machines are hoping to make history.
If all goes well, the cranes will be back mucking about in the marshes here next spring.
And if all goes really well, these eight whoopers may help save their species.
So here's the plan:
Take some top-notch scientists, a devoted group of bird lovers who happen to be pilots, planes small enough to fit in a barn, a group of baby cranes trained so they never see people...
And the hope is this human-led migration, conducted several times, will help revive an endangered species, producing as many as 125 whoopers -- including at least 25 breeding pairs -- within the next 20 years. The flock will winter in Florida and summer in Wisconsin.
"It's a little like science fiction, but it's been put to the test and it works," says Tom Stehn, co-chairman of the whooping crane "recovery" team.
And so it does.
Canada geese, trumpeter swans and sandhill cranes have made migrations guided by the 364-pound ultralight plane -- called the Cosmos Phase II trike -- that the birds see as a parent leading them to their homes.
It sounds like a plot for Hollywood, right? And it was. But this time art imitated life.
"Fly Away Home," a 1996 movie about a family of lost orphaned geese, was inspired by the life of Bill Lishman, a Canadian-born sculptor who was part of the first ultralight-led bird migration. He helped guide 18 Canada geese on a 440-mile trek from Ontario to Virginia.
He was joined by Joe Duff, another Canadian who had a successful career photographing fancy cars. Together they formed Operation Migration, a nonprofit group that has led 10 migrations since 1993.
"You get to work with the cream-of-the-crop of avian experts," Duff says. "You get to migrate every year, which is fabulous. And you get to save a species. What else could you ask for?"
Deke Clark, a retired United Airlines pilot who has been on the team for four years, agrees.
"I think anyone who has a passion for flying loves birds," says Clark, who has been piloting military or commercial planes for 45 of his 64 years. "They're amazing."
All three embarked on this year's migration Oct. 17 with three ultralights and a single-engine Cessna that allows the pilot to communicate with airports and scope out possible dangers.
Theirs is a journey in slow motion.
The birds fly only 20 to 80 miles a day -- weather and wind permitting. They aren't expected to reach the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in central Florida until late November.
Next spring, on their own, the birds are expected to return to Wisconsin -- even though they've made the trip south just once.
One crane was found dead Thursday in Wisconsin. It may have collided with a power line. High winds caused the birds' pen to collapse Wednesday night and they were rounded up using radio tracking equipment and recorded crane calls.
For safety reasons, the cranes now fly no higher than about 800 feet, far below their normal range, so they flap their wings more and they work harder. For the pilots, the view is exhilarating.
"Flying in a jet at 39,000 feet is a bus ride," Lishman says. "When you're at 300 to 400 feet and the sun is rising through the morning mist, it's just magical."
And the "passengers," he adds, add to the ambience.
"There's a great deal of wonder and hope about the whooping crane," Lishman says. "We're not saving worms. It wouldn't have the same theatrics."
Whooping cranes are majestic white birds that stand 5-feet-tall -- the tallest birds in North America -- and have black wingtips and a patch of red on the head.
Their calls can be heard for two miles and they have ways to signal danger, fear and stress. They do courtship dances and mate for life.
As many as 1,400 whooping cranes existed around 1860 but their numbers shrank as pioneers drained marshes, prairies became farmland and hunters took aim. By 1941, only about 15 birds remained.
Now, more than 400 exist in North America, their only home, and about one-third are in zoos or breeding centers, says Stehn, who is based at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Gulf Coast of Texas. The 174 whoopers there migrate 2,500 miles from the Wood Buffalo National Park, which straddles the Alberta-Northwest Territories border in Canada.
But that flock, while growing slowly, could be wiped out in one fell swoop, such as a hurricane, oil spill or a disease such as West Nile virus, Stehn says.
About 80 more whoopers live in Florida. They were born in captivity and released in the wild and have not produced a fledging that has survived, partly because of drought. Scientists hope that will change this year.
But Stehn says scientists can't depend on those birds alone.
"There's a moral question. We need species to survive that have been there since the Ice Age," he says. "To keep them alive in captivity -- that's just not enough."
Crane training began last spring at the U.S. Geological Service's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland -- before the chicks were born.
The hum of the ultralight, the chirps of frogs and crickets, the calls of adult whoopers were played near the eggs in the final days before the birds were hatched.
"We imprint on the sounds they are likely to encounter in the world, and the ultralight, so they'll survive," says George Gee, a research physiologist at Patuxent.
The birds never hear human voices. And they never see human faces. All handlers and pilots disguise themselves in white gowns and hoods.
"We want them totally afraid of people so when they see a person not in costume, we want them to freak out and fly away," Stehn says. A too tame bird will go to people -- and won't survive.
Years ago on a sandhill crane migration, the birds got too comfortable around people and ended up flying into schoolyards, a ball game -- and a prison yard.
So from the first day the whoopers opened their eyes, they have seen the head and neck of crane puppets -- which fed them early on -- or the white-robed figures.
The south-central Wisconsin refuge with its marshes, lush woods and remote location spread over tens of thousands of acres is considered an ideal nesting place for the cranes.
They were flown here in July and learned to forage for grasshoppers, sprouts, frogs and crawdads. They were trained to follow the ultralight. And they began to fly with the plane.
"When you start working with cranes, you just fall in love with them," says Dan Sprague, a Patuxent biotechnician. "They're charismatic. They look you in the eye. They have personality. It's really neat to spend time with them and feel like a bird for awhile, instead of a human."
These birds have personalities. Consider Tex, a legend in the whooping crane world.
Tex -- who was a she -- didn't respond to cranes, but she DID respond to humans. That meant there were problems trying to mate her.
So George Archibald, chairman of the board of the International Crane Foundation, went to work. He danced, jumped and bowed with her. He mimicked the contact call. For six years, he was at her side.
She was artificially inseminated and hatched a single chick. Shortly afterward, sadly, a raccoon killed Tex. But Gee Whiz, her baby, survived and fathered 12 offspring.
The crane foundation is part of the recovery team -- along with several government agencies, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
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