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04-14-04 Whooping it up in Mercer County

By Nancy Allen

Five rare and endangered whooping cranes landed at the farm of Rex and Virginia Werst on Gause Road, apparently after losing their way while migrating from Florida to Wisconsin.
   The snow white, graceful birds first arrived at the Werst residence Monday morning. At five feet in height with a wingspan of more than seven feet, the birds are a sight to behold, Rex Werst said.
   “I looked out our bedroom window, and there they were right in our yard,” Rex Werst said. “Yesterday (Monday) my wife and I watched them for a half hour while they were doing their dance.” The dance is actually a courtship dance. Two birds face each other, bob their heads, spread their wings and jump into the air. An unforgettable sight, Werst said. But an official from the Ohio Division of Wildlife cautioned people to keep their distance from the birds.
   “These birds are easily imprinted on humans, and we ask people to give them space,” said Mark Shieldcastle, a wetlands project leader at Oak Harbor on Lake Erie. “Our hope is that they get back on track on their way to Wisconsin.”
   Shieldcastle explained that the Celina birds are part of an experimental population of whooping cranes being monitored by the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, under the auspices of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The group has been raising and releasing the birds into the wild since 2001. Each year since then, a batch of the young birds are fed by humans wearing hand puppets that look like adult whooping cranes and guided during their first migration in the fall by ultralight aircraft.
   All the birds contain radios attached to their legs that enable wildlife officials to track their exact locations.
   The cranes that landed at the Werst property are from a group of 16 that were led by ultralight aircraft from Neceda Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida last fall.
   Shieldcastle said the Celina birds became disoriented due to storms and strong north winds on Monday and landed in Ohio. They will likely leave the area today or tomorrow, when a southwest wind begins to blow. A group of three other whoopers that entered Ohio around the same time remain in Shelby County, he said. The total group of eight birds still in Ohio represent half of the crane project’s young hatched in 2003.
   Since they arrived at the Werst property, the whoopers have skipped back and forth between Werst’s two farm ponds and a nearby neighbor’s pond. Rex Werst said it looks like the birds have been eating grass and snails.
   With binoculars and cameras in hand, Jill and John Bowers, a St. Marys couple, watched the cranes on Tuesday at the Werst residence. They were able to get within 50 feet of the birds. They carefully hid behind the Werst’s barn so the birds did not see them
   The couple, who recently started a bird-watching club, said they traveled to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Gulf Coast of Texas specifically to see the federally endangered birds. They saw some, but were not able to get very close to them.
   “We saw some when we went to Aransas, but they were about a quarter mile away. Today we got within 50 feet of them,” John Bowers marveled.
   There is only one remaining truly wild flock of whooping cranes, according to information found on the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership Web site. This flock, numbering less than 200 birds, migrates annually from Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Canada to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Gulf Coast. It was this flock that dwindled down to less than 20 birds in the early 1940s. In the wild, whooping cranes usually raise just one chick a year.
   Active intervention on the part of the United States government, the Canadian government and numerous conservation groups helped pull this flock from the brink of extinction.
   The experimental flock first established in 2001 numbers about 36 and a third non-migratory flock in Florida established in the 1990s by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service numbers about 90.


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