Most of us have, at one time or another, yearned to fly. And I'm not talking about shoehorning into an airline seat, but donning a cape and visiting the clouds like a superhero flying. Or, in the case of Operation Migration co-founder Bill Lishman
, wearing his own set of wings and taking to the sky like the birds.
A Canadian sculptor, Bill is also a leader in ultralight aviation
. He spent the 1970s learning his craft and in 1985, after watching the Imax film Skyward, which documents the instinctual phenomenon of imprinting in geese, decided to try it himself. With the assistance of his family, Bill spent several years learning how to get the geese to imprint on himself and the aircraft he wanted to use to lead them on a successful migration.
In 1993, Bill and his friend Joe Duff became the first humans to navigate the sky with 18 Canadian geese following their aircraft on a migratory route from Ontario to Virginia. Their adventure resulted in the formation of Operation Migration
and even propelled their cause to fame with the 1995 movie "Fly Away Home."
After years of studying geese, sandhill cranes and the post-migratory behavior of the birds they have flown south for the winter, the team, which is largely lead by volunteers, has made an enormous impact on one of the most fragile populations in the United States: the whooping crane.
Reduced to a single flock of 15 in 1941, this glorious bird is slowly making a comeback
, with the count hitting 281 in 2011. This group
enjoys winters on the Gulf Coast and travels to northern Canada during warmer weather to breed. But with the entire wild population of the species living as one flock, scientists worried that any one incident of disease or inclement weather could eradicate their population for good.
Efforts were made to develop a population of cranes in Idaho,
but unfortunately the birds weren't thrilled with this idea. In 1993 a flock was established in Florida, which continues to grow, but since the birds were bred in captivity, they never learned to migrate. In 1999 the Whooping Crane Recovery Team determined that the species would be best served by developing a second flock with a migratory pattern using northern Wisconsin as the starting point and western Florida as their new wintering location.
The only problem? Teaching these birds to fly to this new location, since all other wild whooping cranes would instinctively head to Texas. Enter Operation Migration to the rescue. After years of successful trips from Wisconsin to Florida, the team on their ultralight aircraft have helped grow this secondary migratory group to more than 100 birds.
If you live in the Midwest, you might just be able to see them. This year's group of six fledgling fliers began their journey on Sept. 28 in Marquette County, Wisc., and will be making their way through Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, and of course, Florida. A day-by-day journal
is kept at the Operation Migration website. The whooping cranes can also be viewed by webcam
as they follow the aircraft to their winter wonderland.