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The class of 2008 migrates

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By Michel Northsea

“This was worth getting up for,” Cheryl Gier said to her friends as they headed back to their vehicles. She was referring to the ultra-light-led cranes fly-over of the Dunnellon Airport.

Thursday morning, Gier was one in a crowd of about 200 people who flocked to the Dunnellon Airport in hopes to catch a glimpse of the seven whooping cranes as they moved closer to their final destination. Earlier in the week, Jan. 17, the other seven cranes were left at St. Mark’s Wildlife Refuge.

Shortly after 8 a.m., applause broke out when it was made known the cranes had left Gilchrist County and were expected in a little over an hour.

Gier and her husband, Don, of Sugarmill Woods and Ohio, met their friends, Herb and Norma Law, of Rainbow Springs, at the airport. The Laws attended last year’s fly- over and had encouraged their friends to join them.

“We’re on vacation time, so we’re not used to getting up this early. But this was a neat thing,” Don Gier said. “As we like to say among the four of us, this was a nice adventure.”

For a busload of people on an Elderhostel tour seeing the fly-over of the cranes was an unexpected treat. With the cold temperatures, their scheduled canoe trip on the Weeki Wachee River was canceled.

Learning of the fly-over event, they left Brooksville at 6 a.m. to catch a glimpse of the cranes, said Joyce Hren of North Carolina. They had the opportunity about 9 a.m. when four ultra lights and their seven charges were spotted way off on the horizon.

The noise level of the crowd dropped as “craniacs,” the word coined by the staff of Operation Migration in reference to crane enthusiasts, looked upward. They aimed binoculars, cell phone cameras and digital cameras with huge lenses toward the sky with hopes of getting a good look or photos.

Riding the draft of pilot Brooke Pennybacker’s ultra light, were the seven juvenile cranes. Good flying conditions allowed Pennybacker and the other three pilots to circle the tarmac giving the appreciative crowd a second gander of the whooping cranes.

The cranes were then led to Halpata Tastanki Preserve for the day. Friday morning, on day 88 of the migration, weather conditions permitted the pilots to lead the cranes to the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge.

Over the past months, the cage conditions for the cranes at the refuge were improved. Last February a storm killed all but one crane of the class of 2007.

If the water level starts to rise, it triggers a door in the netted cage to open and release the birds, Joan Garland of the International Crane Foundation, told the concerned craniacs during a question-and-answer session.

Last year, Art and Christine Burns traveled to Homosassa to see the cranes on the final leg of the yearly migration. Impressed with what they saw, they braved the chilly morning to see the cranes again.

“We’re interested in experiencing Florida,” Art Burns said. The couple moved to Ocala two years ago.

Thanks to the efforts of Monica Trevor, of The Villages, first-graders in Mrs. Grosdidier’s class in Olathe, Kansas, will soon learn about the whooping cranes and the efforts of Operation Migration in teaching the young cranes to migrate. Trevor was entrusted with the students’ cardboard figurine of Flat Stanley, a fictional storybook character who goes on many adventures.

To go along with the reading of the series, teachers often have their students make a paper cutout doll and send it to relatives in other states. Photos of Flat Stanley are then taken to indicate where he has been.

Wanting to see the cranes in person, Trevor brought the students’ Flat Stanley along for the ride. Once the ultra pilots landed, she had one of them hold the cardboard figurine and pose for a photo. She’ll send the photos via e-mail to the class in Kansas.

This year’s 88-day trip was nine days shorter that last year’s despite being down for 11 days in Wisconsin and almost a month in Alabama. The long trip didn’t go unnoticed by craniac Rosemarie Kleuker, of Rainbow Springs.

They give up so much of their personal life to do this for the birds, she said.

Besides the time, there is also much cost associated with the trip. Each mile is estimated to cost $208 on the 1,285-mile journey.

“This is so exciting, what these guys do. I wish I had lots of money to donate to them,” said Loreen Schumacher, of Floral City, seeing the fly-over for the first time.

The 12-member crew of Operation Migration will celebrate their success with a farewell dinner. They will come together again in September in preparation for the ninth trip to Florida.

The cranes will return north on their own in the spring, Garland said.