Yesterday morning around 8:00am CST, the nine young Whooping cranes in the ultralight-led Class of 2011 were released from their temporary pensite at the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama. Along with OM’s Brooke Pennypacker, on hand for the event were WCEP Tracker, Eva Szyszkoski from ICF, Interns Olivia and Ben who were up from Florida’s Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, and Bill Gates, Biologist at the Wheeler Refuge.

The cranes had their health checks as well as their permanent bands affixed on Thursday, the 9th, and normally would have been held in the pen a bit longer to allow them more recovery time. Brooke advised that moving up the timing for their release was based on several factors.

He said it appeared the young cranes had made a speedy recovery from being handled. Also, because many of the Sandhill cranes were leaving and the behavior patterns of the two Direct Autumn Release juveniles present were changing, the timing was auspicious. These reasons, along with a predicted weather front moving in that was likely to motivate birds to head north, prompted the decision to effect the release a day or two early.

When the pen gates were opened, the birds came out walking and flapping. No residual soreness or limping was seen and all the birds flew, three of them for an extensive period. They appeared to be enjoying their new-found freedom and eventually they flew to a nearby wetland. With the release of the Class of 2011 into the wild, the estimated maximum number of Whooping cranes in the reintroduced Eastern Migratory Population is 112.

Brooke remains on site to monitor their activity. Once they have removed themselves to where they are out of sight of the travel pen enclosure, he will be able to go in to take it down and pack it up so it can be hauled out.

“So far the cranes are foraging and hanging around in flooded fields close to the pen,” said Wheeler Biologist, Bill Gates. The photos we share with you below came to us compliments of Bill. Photo credit: USFWS – William R. Gates

Pen gates open

Pen gates open and the Whoopers leave their pen.

One crane jumps and flaps as Brooke watches others.

Four young cranes stroll and forage in nearby wetland.

Headed for the wetland with ‘landing gear’ down.

Testing their wings and enjoying their new-found freedom.

Click this link to view more photos, including those captured during the health checks and banding procedure. We will post more news on the Class of 2011 here as it comes in. Stay tuned!

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