for National Geographic News
The journey is part of an effort by the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, a team of U.S. and Canadian agencies and nonprofits, to create a self-sustaining eastern population of the species.
Many of the birds first learned the route by following ultralight aircraft piloted by conservationists.
(See related story: "Whooping Cranes, Ultralight Planes Take Flight on Annual Migration" [October 5, 2006].)
Operation Migration, an Ontario, Canada-based nonprofit, has used the aircraft to teach nearly 90 birds the way to their wintering grounds.
Last fall 18 birds learned the 1,228-mile (1,976-kilometer) southbound route, which took them from Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in central Wisconsin to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge on the central Gulf Coast of Florida. (See maps of Wisconsin and Florida.)
Enthusiasts and scientists alike are closely following the progress of the lone chick that survived, as he prepares to wing his way north.
The ten-month-old crane is still near the Florida refuge, researchers say, but they hope he'll start the journey north in the next few weeks.
It will be the first time the crane makes the trip unaccompanied by an ultralight.
"Each year you're anxious to make sure they get back safely," said Liz Condie, communications director for Operation Migration.
But with only a single surviving crane from last year's new migratory group, there's even more anxiety, she said.
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