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Navarino hosts ultralight pilot who leads cranes

Joe Duff is one of a handful of people in the history of the world to fly an open-cockpit aircraft arm’s length away from the 7-foot wingspan of endangered whooping cranes.  As you might expect, he had some good stories to tell when he spoke at the Navarino Nature Center near Clintonville June 17 as part of its 30th anniversary celebration.

Joe Duff - 1 (1)

Joe Duff in flight

The Community Foundation, also celebrating 30 years in 2016, funded the appearance through an Environmental Stewardship Fund grant.

Duff, leader of Operation Migration, gave the history that runs from his friend and former partner Bill Lishman teaching himself to fly an ultralight and training Canada geese to fly with him (chronicled in the movie Fly Away Home) testing the technique on the much more common sandhill cranes, to Wisconsin businessman Terry Koehler proposing the group teach whooping cranes to migrate 1,150 miles to Florida and making that a reality.

Duff said it’s still hard to believe that a Canadian sculptor (Lishman) and commercial photographer (Duff), neither with a background in biology, were able to convince wildlife officials in two countries to let them try with the continent’s most endangered animal. How endangered? There are 1,800 panda bears left in the wild. There are only 600 whooping cranes.

After 15 years of fall migrations, about 100 wild whooping cranes are finding their own way from Wisconsin to the Gulf Coast and back. The problem is, they aren’t reproducing very well. Out of 19 whopping cranes hatched in this flock last year, only three survived.

Duff said it could be a habitat problem, or food sources or black flies that harass the birds off of their nests. U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials decided it was poor parenting skills by birds raised by people dressed in crane costumes. So there will by no V of big, white-and-brown-mottled birds trailing behind and ultralight this fall. Instead, young whoopers will be paired with adults from previous years to learn the route.

Duff’s disappointment was obvious, but he said at least he’ll be home for his daughter’s birthday, one of a very few times in her life.

Operation Migration will continue, taking part in the training and tracking of the young birds. The great migration experiment continues, even without the captivating sight of giant prehistoric birds falling in line behind a man in a baggy white costume at the controls of a flying machine that is little more than a seat hanging from an engine and a triangular wing.

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