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Story Ten
Hope Takes flight
By MaryAlice Yakutchik
Upper St. Johns River Marsh -- The horizon is so . . . horizontal.

You might think it would be easy to spot the tallest bird in North America out here. But you'd be wrong.

From sea to headwaters, our crew has "climbed" only 30 indiscernible feet in more than 300 miles of river journeying on houseboats, canoes and kayaks. And here, skidding on airboats out through Blue Cypress Lake into the wide-open wetlands where the St. Johns originates, we see fewer and fewer trees to offer relief from the flatness; no rogue red maples disrupt the greenness.

There's no place to hide -- unless, of course, you happen to be one of the most rare and most endangered birds on earth.

To look out over this marsh is to see the same plants over and over and over again; for as far as the eye can travel, the same sawgrasses and water lilies multiplied by millions. It's a monotonous landscape, acknowledges biologist Tom Morris, one about which he's not prone to shout, "GEE! LOOK AT THAT GREAT BIG CATTAIL!", one cattail being relatively identical to the next.

"It may look kind of boring out there," Tom says, "but, oh God! The wildlife!"

"To look out over this marsh is to see the same plants over and over and over again; for as far as the eye can travel, the same sawgrasses and water lilies multiplied by millions."

Tom's cohorts in science, Jim Maher of the Department of Environmental Protection and David Girardin of the St. Johns River Water Management District, are equally awed. They're surrounded by evidence that a state plumbing project is going right. Really really right.

The marshes, once drained for farmland, have returned. The St. Johns' birthplace is restored.

A bald eagle flies overhead, flapping its big, long wings with a powerful WHOOSH, commanding Tom's attention -- despite that we've seen so many on this river journey that most of the crew is now quite blasé about them.

"There are more bald eagles on the St. Johns than anywhere else in the state," Tom effuses. "To find more in the United States, you'd have to go to Alaska."

The eagle is a keystone species, meaning it's an indicator of the health of the river. As a top predator, it's especially susceptible to the effects of pollution. The fact that this charismatic bird has made such a remarkable comeback here in Florida and nationwide means things are looking up.

The eagles' success story bodes well for the whooping crane, an exceedingly rare and endangered species that recently took up residence in the shallows of a St. Johns marsh.

The eagles' success story bodes well for the whooping crane, an exceedingly rare and endangered species that recently took up residence in the shallows of a St. Johns marsh.

We're looking for one that stands 5 feet tall and weighs 16.5 pounds. It's white silhouette with black wing tips is distinctive, but because there's only one of them out here, somewhere, on thousands of acres of wetland, and because it can fly on thermals for 50 miles as easily as we can walk across a street, our chances of seeing it aren't great.

Not without Marty Folk, that is.

Marty's title is wildlife biologist with the Whooping Crane Reintroduction Project. He prefers a less formal label: "craniac." Having studied this species exclusively since 1993 when the Project released its first bird, the man knows whooping cranes.

He knows that a day or two before chicks emerge, the parents and "eggs" are talking back and forth to each other, bonding even before hatching. He knows the deliberate "SNAP" to their wings during flight; can easily discern it from the flap-and-glide of the stork.

He knows whooping crane chicks stay with their parents up until the following year's breeding season: "It takes a long time," he deduces, "to be a crane."

He knows they love crayfish, corn, frogs, snails and snakes and therefore amiably share habitats with fish-eating herons and egrets. He knows bobcats and gators -- in that order -- are their primary predators. He knows it takes three months before a chick can fly -- a long period of vulnerability. He knows they generally lay only two eggs and raise just one chick. He knows they're not smart but are sophisticated socially.

He knows their distinctive "whooping," a high-volume resonant call that males and females make in unison, emanates from what he describes as "ingeniously designed" windpipes that actually grow into the birds' breastbones in big, long loops.

Most importantly of all, Marty knows exactly where to find bird No. 772, the one and only St. Johns whooper.

Outfitted with an antenna and receiver, and tuned to the frequency of the transmitter in a colored band around 772's leg, Marty drives his green truck along a dusty dike road around the Broadmoor Marsh Unit in the TM Goodwin Waterfowl Management Area. He points out a dense flock of sandhill cranes, estimating 200 of them; they're much more gregarious and prolific than whoopers, which are loners by comparison. Whooping cranes often hang out with sandhills.

Marty represents a vast international partnership that, since 1993, has supported the release of non-migratory whooping cranes into central Florida.

The thing is, no one ever released whooping cranes here in the St. Johns basin.

Hatched in 1997, No. 772 flew here on his own three years ago, dispersing from neighboring Osceola County, about 25 miles to the west. He must have found the St. Johns marsh to his liking. He mated last year with a female that he brought here; the pair had a nest with two eggs that never hatched. Sometimes it takes a while for new breeders to get it right, Marty says. Hopes were high when they were seen together earlier this year. But now the female's MIA. Nobody knows what happened to her.

Whooping cranes were gone from Florida by the 1940s. The population crashed as a result of hunting and the wholesale draining of the marshes.

"I feel we're doing the right thing, as humans, to restore their population," Marty says, waving a directional antenna in the air, hoping to detect the chirp of 772's transmitter. "We can tell by signal strength how close we're getting."

We're close.

Whooping cranes are strictly ground dwellers, says Marty, pointing his spotting scope down so he can look in the grasses. They can't perch in trees. They stand, day and night, in shallow marshes. In fact, they'd rather walk than fly.

"They're quite particular about habitat," he explains, "requiring open wetlands with18 inches or less of water."

In 1900, this upper St. Johns basin consisted of 860 square miles of marsh and swamp. (No, they're not interchangeable: A marsh is a herbaceous wetland, Tom Morris explains, and a swamp is a forested wetland. Where you see red maples creeping out into the sawgrass, that's a marsh becoming a swamp.) In the 1920s and 30s, dykes and levees were built to drain the wetlands and create pastures and farmland.

By the 1970s, only 150 square miles of marsh remained; just a mile wide in some parts. About 15 years ago, government agencies and growers -- now savvy about the fact that the marsh acts like a kidney, cleaning impurities from the water -- formulated a plan, a wildly ambitious one. They would all work together to restore 150,000 acres of wetland. At the time, it was the world's biggest and most expensive environmental restoration project, predating Everglades restoration and serving as a model for it.

"We like to see the management of habitats so they're favorable for lots of species," Marty says, "not just one."

He points out wood storks and egrets, glossy ibis and limpkin, tree swallow and shovelers, anhinga and harrier hawk, grackles and cormorants, white pelicans and black skimmers: "You could identify 50 species just sitting here," he says.

That's just birds, he's referring to. We also see gators galore and a half-dozen rambunctious river otters. We don't see the prey animals, but surmise they must be here in equally impressive numbers: marshrats, fish, snakes, snails, frogs, crayfish, grasshoppers and crickets, just to name a few.

"Look!" Marty spots No. 772. The brilliant white bird is magnificent; dwarfing everything around it. Through the scope, we take turns admiring the crane's red skin and black mustache.

As if sensing our scrutiny, the whooping crane takes off: "Look at that 8-foot-wing-span," Marty says. "Looks like a 747 in the air!"

There's nothing routine about seeing this bird fly over the marsh. But maybe someday, it will be.

"Hopefully," Marty says, "seeing whooping cranes here will become a regular thing."


The lone male whooper is no longer alone, reports Marty: "We've done some match-making. We captured an unpaired female in a neighboring county and moved her to near that lone male. He was very accepting of her and they've hit it off well. Sometimes when we move a bird, it flies back to where we caught it within a day or two. Now she's been with him (for a while) and they look pretty chummy."

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