From 2009 until 2016 St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge served as the winter home for young endangered whooping cranes. These captive-hatched cranes were taught to follow an ultralight aircraft piloted by costumed Operation Migration pilots on a journey of more than 1,200 miles from central Wisconsin to Florida. Each spring, the young cranes, having learned the migration route, returned to the Wisconsin nesting grounds on their own.
Operation Migration played a lead role in the reintroduction of endangered Whooping cranes into eastern North America . In the 1940s the species was reduced to just 15 birds.
The ultralite aircraft guided migration method was ended with the Whopping Crane class of 2015. On January 30, 2016 Operation Migration led the six Whooping Cranes of the class of 2015 in what would turn out to be the final flight of their fifteen-year program. The video below, produced by Tara Tanaka, is of this last flight.
The St. Marks Refuge Association supported Operation Migration financially and “SMRA” (aka Friends) appears on the Operation Migration ultralight that’s hanging in the National Air and Space Museum in DC.
If you are fortunate enough to encounter an endangered whooping crane on your visit to the Refuge, please observe the following protocol to ensure their continued wild and natural behavior:
Do not approach birds on foot within 600 feet.
Do not approach in a vehicle within 600 feet or, if on a public road, within 300 feet.
Try to remain in your vehicle.
Please remain concealed and do not speak so loudly that the birds can hear you.