December 9, 1998

The article below got forwarded to me by a Canadian peregrine

falcon biologist. This email works in mysterious ways.

- Tom  Stehn


Ultralight whooper arrives back at Bosque


Associated Press Writer

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - A whooping crane that followed a biologist's ultralight plane on a southward migration a year ago safely returned to its winter habitat in New Mexico on Monday without human assistance.

Biologist Kent Clegg reported the big white bird - now fully grown and standing up to 5 feet tall - left the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado on Friday. It arrived Monday morning at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge south of Socorro, 260 miles south of the San Luis Valley.

"It came in with some sandhill cranes that were some of the last ones remaining in the San Luis Valley," U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist John Taylor said.

A second ultralight whooper was last seen in November near Farmington, N.M., and Clegg urged anyone who finds the bird or one of its distinctive yellow leg-band transmitters to call him or the Fish and Wildlife Service. The leg bands have Clegg's phone number on them.

"We're still looking for it," Clegg said Monday from his ranch near Grace, Idaho. "It was in Farmington, and we assume it's either south of that area or somewhere in that area. It has three-inch yellow bands on each leg, and they have little transmitters attached to them.

"It's real obvious - a four-and-a-half- to five-foot tall white bird with yellow leg bands," he said.

"They're completely white plumage now with a read head and black mustache," or black feathers near the beak.

"We would appreciate anybody that happens to see her giving us a call - or if somebody finds one of those transmitters."

Clegg had thought it might have gone to an area near Wilcox, Ariz., east of Tucson, but sightings of a white bird there are believed to have been of an albino sandhill crane, he said.

In October 1997, Clegg flew an ultralight plane from Idaho to the Bosque with four whoopers and several sandhills following. It was part of an experiment to see if whoopers could be taught to migrate so biologists could establish a new migratory flock in the southeastern United States for the birds, which nearly became extinct in the 1940s. About 370 exist today, roughly half wintering along the Texas gulf coast.

Two of Clegg's ultralight whoopers were killed last winter - by a bobcat and coyote - and the two survivors migrated north last spring.

They spent the summer at Yellowstone National Park. But they took different routes heading south this fall. One followed sandhills to the San Luis Valley near Alamosa, Colo., and the other followed a route more approximately near the ultralight's 1997 path.

"They got separated," said Clegg. "It's interesting that (the missing bird) was over close to where we had flown with the ultralight."

Clegg said five of the seven sandhills that followed the ultralight last year also are back at the Bosque, a Spanish word describing a riverside woodland. This one's on the Rio Grande.

"We're encouraged by the research - the science is there," Clegg said. "I think it's a very viable technique, and I think we can really make a difference with the species if we're just allowed to continue developing the technique. The birds are doing everything we predicted they would do."

"The ultralight is a good start," he said, "but we feel there is a lot of refining we can do."

Clegg has proposed trucking birds to the Bosque instead of flying ahead of them in an ultralight. He noted the bird that arrived at the refuge Monday, which had been injured in an eagle attack last year, was trucked part of the way south afterward.

Perhaps that may account for differences in the two birds' migration patterns, he suggested. But scientists don't have enough information to know for sure.

"With one bird, it's difficult to make assumptions. That's why we need to continue our research," he said. "It would be nice to have a bigger number of birds to work with."


copyright Associated Press