For the past eleven years we have focused on reintroducing a flock of Whooping cranes to safeguard the
species but there is a lot more we could learn if we had more resources.
Leading birds in the air and being able to observe them from only a few feet away affords a unique platform from which to study the mechanics of bird flight. We could weigh the birds before and after each migration leg to study energy requirements and attach tiny accelerometers to their wings to test the strain on feathers. We could fit them with subcutaneous instruments to record body temperature or
heart rate but all of that takes expertise and funding that we don’t have.
Leading multiple generations of one species on their first migration also provides an opportunity to investigate the navigation aids that they use to make it back from Florida to Wisconsin on their own. In the early days we led Sandhill cranes from Ontario to Virginia. To avoid flying across Lake Ontario in the late fall we first flew around the eastern tip of the lake, then south west to Virginia. On their return trip the birds headed straight north until they encountered the south shore of the lake in New York State. Then they went around the western end of the lake to make it back. That is almost two hundred miles off the course we showed them, which demonstrates that they do not rely on landmarks as a navigation aid.
That theory is supported by the many migration legs we have made with Whooping cranes at low altitudes or in visibility that would only allow them to see a few miles at the most. On the return trip they can be several miles off that route yet still make it back.
Back in the 1990’s we also conducted a stage-by-stage migration experiment where birds were transported in crates to a stopover and allowed to fly free. Then they were moved to the next site fifty miles along the route and allowed to fly again. We continued this all the way to the wintering grounds hoping the birds could connect the dots on the way back but it didn’t work.
Environmental Studies at Airlie in Virginia, under Brooke Pennypacker’s guidance conducted a passive migration where Canada geese were suspended in a cage from a large helium filled
balloon. It was hoped they could learn the migration simply by observing it without actually having to fly it. That didn’t work either but all of these experiments set the stage for what we are doing now.
In each migration we lead, only a few of the birds make the entire trip on their own. Because of bad weather or fatigue some drop out and have to be moved in crates to the next stopover. This does not seem to impair their ability to make it back to Wisconsin providing they make the trip as a group. Maybe it has to do with shared knowledge and the ones that know that portion of the route take the lead on the way home. There is evidence that birds that return on their own without the aid of others will get off course at the same spot where they had to be crated on the trip down. In fact we had a bird that was not able to follow the aircraft until we reached central Illinois. Thereafter, it followed us all the way to Florida but on the return trip on its own, that is as far as it could go. It spent the summer in Illinois, never making it back to Wisconsin.
Whatever the mechanism, we know that in order to have knowledge of the migration route or an awareness of where they are they must get there under their own steam. Moving them in crates disorients them and that knowledge is broken. This is evidenced by birds that have been pushed to the east by high winds during their first return migration and ended up in Michigan. Their subsequent fall migration followed a course parallel to the one we showed them and they winter in the Carolinas.
In the last eleven years we have had to crate birds on all of the migrations but we have never had to crate them all. Some have always flown the route until this past year. We had to transport all nine birds from their last stop in Alabama, 44 miles to the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. When they arrived there were two adult Whooping cranes there and four juvenile DAR birds along with several hundred Sandhills. All of those possible guides have since left and our birds stayed.
If you draw a line straight north from Wheeler
NWR, you eventually come to Gary, Indiana at the bottom of Lake Michigan. If they decide to take that heading, they will have to make a decision to go left or right when they reach that barrier. If they follow the western coastline past Chicago, they will eventually come within a few miles of White River. If they go the other way, we might have to retrieve them.
It is important that these birds make it back to the White River Marsh so I am almost glad the older Whooping cranes that would be returning to the Necedah area left Wheeler NWR without them. Besides, without guides to lead them back or at least influence them, we should learn more about their route and maybe even what mechanism they used to get there. Ever the optimist, I bet they make it.
When we first started flying back in the 1980’s, the aircraft we flew were known as ultralights. Back then they were completely different from anything else in the air. As the name indicates, they were built to be super light, in the 200 to 400 pound range and were generally powered by go-cart or even chainsaw engines. Occasionally referred to as ‘flying lawn chairs’ or ‘lawn darts’ by conventional pilots, they were low and slow and so different from traditional airplanes that no one took them seriously. They fit into an unregulated category called ‘ultralight’ and as long as we stayed out of controlled airspace and didn’t cause any problems, we were pretty much on our own.
As safety and technology improved, ultralights became more popular among recreational pilots. They were cheaper to buy than Pipers and
Cessna's and could be maintained by the owners rather than by expensive, FAA approved mechanics.
Eventually an entire industry emerged that produced innovative flying machines of all sorts. Trikes evolved first in Europe, where flying conventional aircraft was more expensive so hang gliding became popular. A trike is really an appendage to hold the pilot and the engine suspended from a beefed up hang glider wing.
After thirty or so years of development, the use of space age materials and very innovative design improvements, modern ultralights are state of the art machines. They are safe, reliable, fast and a fraction of the cost of a conventional aircraft. Ultralights have circumnavigated the globe and flown on every continent including Antarctica.
The increase in their popularity meant that ultralights could not continue to be unregulated and in 2008 the FAA developed
a new category called Light Sport Aircraft. This designation was widened to
include enclosed aircraft with two seats and speeds up to 120 knots.
The problem for us is that the Light Sport category was designed for recreation only. Pilots are not allowed to fly them for hire, nor can the aircraft be used for the furtherance of a business. Unfortunately there is no category for us. Our aircraft are too heavy to qualify for the new definition of ultralights and they are not certified so they do not fit in with aircraft like
Cessna's. The same is true for our pilot certificates. Only a commercial license would allow us to fly for hire but there is no endorsement in that category that would allow a commercial pilot to fly a weight-shift controlled aircraft like our trikes.
We are working closely with the FAA to find a permanent solution that will allow us to continue with this project. To that end, yesterday an exemption was posted and is now available for public comment. If you are in support of our efforts to safeguard the Whooping crane and continue the flights we began in 2001, we urge you to lend your voice and encourage the FAA to grant this most recent request as quickly as they did in early January.
You can find the exemption document (.pdf) and submit your comments at this
link – Thank you,
once again for your support!
Evenings and early mornings offer primetime viewing opportunities on the Rowe Sanctuary
CraneCam. The sound of thousands of Sandhill cranes descending upon the Platte River to roost for the evening is almost deafening
and last Friday, 12 Whooping cranes were counted among the smaller grey crane cousins.
If you haven’t yet checked out the views, we encourage you to do so. Even better would be to witness this spectacle in person!
The Rowe Sanctuary offers guided trips to view the world's largest concentration of Sandhill cranes from observation blinds on the banks of the Platte River in south-central Nebraska. Trips are conducted every year during March and early April, when over 500,000 Sandhill cranes along with hundreds of thousands of ducks and geese converge on the Platte. Rowe Sanctuary is located right in the heart of this magnificent Sandhill crane staging area where the birds can be viewed in huge gatherings on their nighttime roosts. Trips to our observation blinds are timed to provide the best opportunities to see this spectacle. Group sizes are limited to maintain the quality and uniqueness of the experience.
An estimated 70,000 bird watchers descend on central Nebraska each spring to
gaze at the gathering of 500,000 sandhill cranes along the Platte in the Kearney
and Grand Island areas.
A typical field trip begins and ends with a walk of between 1/4-1/2 mile over level terrain. Morning trips start before dawn as the blinds must be approached under the cover of darkness to prevent spooking the cranes. In the evening, tours arrive at the blinds before the sun sets to view the Sandhill cranes as they return to the river and stay until dark. Benches are available for resting, but the blinds are not heated so dress appropriately.
Field trips take place each morning and evening from early March through early April. Although we take "walk-ins" when space is available, we encourage you to call ahead to make reservations. Reservations can be made between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. CST, Monday to Friday by calling 308-468-5282.
To see where the Rowe Sanctuary tours take place, and how to get there, visit this Google
Thousands of Sandhill cranes and geese depart in the early morning
News from the North: Necedah National Wildlife
Refuge reports that they have now confirmed 7 pairs of whooping cranes on the refuge as well as 4 individual cranes. One pair has been visible on Rynearson Pool #1 from the observation tower and visitor center.
The International Crane
Foundation reported yesterday that on Tuesday evening they received a roost PTT location for Direct Autumn Release (DAR) Whooping Crane #15-11 near ICF headquarters in Sauk County, Wisconsin! #15-11 wintered at the Wheeler NWR in Alabama with fellow DAR juvenile #18-11 and two-year-old ultralight-led male #19-09. Eva Szyszkoski, ICF/WCEP Tracking Field Manager, headed out yesterday to check the location. She was able to detect both DAR birds (#15 and #18) north of the roost location before the battery in her receiver died! From what she heard, she believes they were likely in flight and the weather yesterday was nice for flying! While she was not able to confirm whether #19-09 was still with the two DAR juveniles or not, she assumed he was.
And now news from the south: During a brief chat with Brooke yesterday, he reported that all 9 juvenile cranes are doing well and going about their daily business of foraging and roosting and don’t appear to be getting ready to go anywhere anytime soon.
And even further south – in Leon County, Florida, Lou Kellenberger tells us that the two now-adult Whooping cranes (#’s 11 & 15-09*) are still at their selected winter habitat just north of St. Marks National Wildlife
Refuge where they spent their first winter. Lou shared the following images with us so that we could share them with you.
11-09 (left) and 15-09* have spent the winter in Leon
YOU did it! You rallied and came through with the much needed 32 remaining miles in just the past 24 hours!
We hope you realize what an accomplishment this is. Since launching the
campaign in 2003 it has only ever sold out once before (2008/09). The
contingent of Craniacs went to work and shared the post among their own
social networks. Folks read the Field Journal post from
yesterday and called the office, or emailed. However you connected with
us - YOU DID IT!!!
We cannot thank you enough for your incredible enthusiasm, support and
stick-to-it-ness in support of this amazing crane.
We're oh so close... Only 32 unsponsored miles
remain and there are just
19 days left
before our fiscal year ends and any still unsponsored MileMaker
miles will show as an ugly red number for 2011/2012. At the moment, that red number stands at
$5,824.00, and we need your help to eliminate the color
red from our books.
the MileMaker page to select your 1/4, 1/2 or
full mile - and don't forget, you just may be the luck recipient of this adorable Whooping crane chick
sculpture when we make the draw at the conclusion of the campaign. Click
here to take out your sponsorship online, call our office 1-800-675-2618
or send your check to the address listed on the
Contact Us page.
Created by OM pilot, Richard van Heuvelen, this life-sized (6.25" tall)
3-day old Whooping crane chick sculpture will be awarded to one lucky
MileMaker sponsor. Be sure to check out some of the other sculpture's
The names of all MileMaker
sponsors will be entered in the March 31st Thank You gift draw as
1 entry per 1/4 mile sponsorship | 2 entries per
1/2 mile sponsorship &
4 entries per one mile
So please help get us out of the red...
only 32 more miles to go!
Conditions for most of the Central flyway last week were ideal for the northward migration of many bird species.
Strong winds out of the south and temperatures warm enough to thaw water
ways is prompting the early return of Whooping cranes to the Necedah NWR in
Juneau Co., Wisconsin.
On Wednesday, March 7th the refuge
Facebook page reported
that five cranes had returned by late afternoon, including: 11-02, 4-08,
26-07, 17-03, and 7-09. I'm sure by now there are others that have returned
If you're fortunate to spot a Whooping crane, please report your sighting
link, which is
permanently displayed on the right side of this page. Once submitted, the
information from each public sighting is automatically distributed to all of
the members of the Whooping Crane Eastern
Please also give the cranes the distance and respect they deserve and do
not approach them closely, even in a vehicle, to avoid habituating the birds
to human presence. Habituation is one of the greatest dangers whooping
cranes face because it puts them at greater risk from vehicle collisions,
predation, and illegal shooting.
eBird is predicting the
coming week to be much the same as last in terms of favorable conditions so
we'll no doubt hear of additional Whooping cranes arriving back at the
summer territories. As for the 9 juveniles still at the Wheeler
NWR in Alabama - we'll have to
wait and see what they decide to do and when.
With all the transformations taking place in our world these days, from over development to global climate change, it is easy to be pessimistic about the future. A negative attitude comes naturally when you compare an increasing number of endangered species with the decreasing amount of habitat available.
As any good mother will tell their children, a bit of pessimism can be a good thing but too much can be debilitating. Without some sort of confidence that we can fix the problems, we lose faith. This is the credo practiced by Dr. Jane Goodall.
We had the great benefit of meeting Jane Goodall a few years ago when she came to Wisconsin to fly with us. She called it a life changing event but really it was our lives that changed.
Jane Goodall spent her youth in the jungles of Africa studying Chimpanzees and changed the way we think of animals. Now she travels more than 300 days a year teaching the world that we can make a difference and that all we need is hope. It sounds like a simple message but there is something in her honesty and conviction that touches you. I am pessimistic by nature but Jane Goodall has changed my outlook.
She is coming to Canada this month as part of her world tour to celebrate 50 years of work with Chimpanzees. This is an opportunity to preview a new movie titled “Jane’s Journey” and to meet one of the most influential people in the world. I encourage you to join Jane Goodall at one of these events and meet a truly remarkable person. But take my warning, she can change your life.
To learn about the Ontario portion of Jane’s tour and to purchase tickets,
visit JGI Canada.
Please also watch the trailer for Jane's Journey.
Sometimes it seems like every season has its very own, very special question. “What do you want for Christmas?”, or “Who do you think is going to win the Super Bowl?” or “File your taxes yet?” For me, up until lately, people have been coming up, poking me in the stomach and asking, “And… when is the baby due!” Turns out I’m one of the few creatures in nature that actually gains weight DURING migration instead of gaining it FOR migration. Who needs to see their feet anyway! But seasons change and the question now is the all too familiar, ”When are the birds going to leave?”
Now back in my school days, knowing the question before the test gave me time to prepare the correct answer. We called it Cheating! But there’s no Cheat Sheet to save me here, no Cliff Notes to lean on. Just cold, hard uncertainty…the kind that forces you to raise your arms and shrug so many times throughout the day that your shoulders ache at night. The response is clearly disappointing and unsatisfying to the inquisitor; not at all the answer they were looking for. This, despite the fact that in the literary scheme of things, a simple “I don’t know” lies somewhere between a poem and a prayer. But it’s OK. We’re all used to asking questions to which there are no answers. It fact, it surpasses baseball as the national pastime.
Of course, the question does tempt one to try to fill the void of uncertainty with a little humor and reach for a laugh with answers like, “Wait here while I go ask them.” Or “Next Tuesday morning at exactly 9:36 sharp.” Secure in the knowledge that sometimes a laugh or even just a smile is better than no laugh or smile at all…and much more fun than “I wish I knew.” But not always. After all, we live in a world that demands certainty, worships it in fact, regardless of all its inherent uncertainties, and although we are loath to admit it, certainty is the foundation upon which we construct our lives. This, despite the fact that the last words heard from the Captain of the Titanic were, “Oh Lord, forgive us for our certainties!” He knew, as do we, of its exquisite intoxication; that it’s the cheapest drug there is… if you don’t count the consequences. Sadly, my own grasp of the stuff has faded with age. But like the Zen Master said to the grasshopper, “Hey man, sometimes ya just gotta believe.”
“No… seriously! When are those birds going to leave?” Well, some folks were sure our chicks would leave with the other whoopers (not). Others were positive they would leave with the sandhills (not not); forgetting, maybe, that comparing our chicks to either is like expecting an apple to roll like an orange.( I mean, how many times have you sat next to a fruit basket and heard an apple say to a grapefruit, “Let’s roll!” ) Still others believe without a shadow of a doubt the chicks will do what the chicks in past years have done at St. Marks and Chass and leave after the whoopers and sandhills, sometime between the end of the third week in March and the end of the second week in April, possibly ratcheting this up a bit allowing for the unusually early spring.
But if we can be certain of anything, it is that Mother Nature is the consummate magician with an infinitely deep bag of tricks with which to dazzle and surprise and fill our lives with unending wonder. Perhaps rather than spending our time trying to figure out just how she does the trick, we should just kick back, put our feet up and enjoy the performance.
...And a bit of friendly rivalry? A bit more than a year ago, Crane costume
stitcher Mary O'Brien issued a 10 mile
challenge during the 2010 migration. Two days later, once Mary's challenge
had been met, Canadian Craniac, Annelise Jorgensen responded by issuing her own
10 mile challenge.
Yesterday morning Mary very generously issued a 10 mile challenge for the
current MileMaker campaign; offering to match each and every 1/4, 1/2 or full
mile, up to a total of 10 miles. By mid-afternoon the 10 mile challenge was met.
However! Late yesterday Annelise reached us to issue what she called a
'copy cat' challenge - once again offering to match every portion or full
mile, to a total of 10 miles!
Currently there are 52 outstanding miles looking for sponsors. IF you can
match Annelise' very generous challenge like you did for Mary, this will
leave us with just over 30 miles. Annelise' message to the Class of 2011
currently still at Wheeler NWR in Decatur, AL is... 'Fly Away Home'!
It would be fantastic if the 2011 MileMaker campaign was fully funded
before they return to Wisconsin!
the MileMaker page to select your 1/4, 1/2 or
full mile - and to see the adorable Whooping crane chick
sculpture that you could receive as
a thank you gift when we make the draw at the conclusion of the campaign.
A couple of days ago, chick 1-11 wrote a letter on behalf of all this
buddies in the Class of 2011 and asked to have it posted here in the Field
Journal. (Click here to read #1-11's letter.)
Within a short while we learned that Craniac, Mary O'Brien from Wisconsin
had responded to #1-11's letter and we got permission from Mary and the
Class of 2011 to share that message with you.
Dear Whooper 1-11:
There’s a lot riding on your beautiful strong shoulders…being part of such
an inspiring legacy is a huge responsibility. We’re counting on you coming
home to Wisconsin, but don’t do it too soon because there’s still snow on
I’m already sewing costumes for the OM crew in readiness for the Class
of 2012. With every stitch I’m reminded how awesome it is to be part of this
epic journey that has captured our hearts for eleven years. So dear
Whooper 1-11, I’m offering a 10-mile matching challenge to help cover some
of your outstanding tuition.
To the hundreds of other faithful Craniacs out there,
let’s just get this
done like we have in the past! In honor of the entire OM team for their
endurance, dedication, stoicism, and fortitude, let’s put 2011 and the
remaining unsponsored miles behind us by blitzing the website with donations
and more challenges the likes of which they’ve not seen before.
As we patiently (or not so patiently) wait for the Class of 2011 to make
a move back north, bet you never thought there'd be something to WHOOP!
about. Well, there is.
Brooke Pennypacker, OM pilot/crane handler/trainer extraordinaire, is
celebrating his __th Birthday today. (Sorry, can't tell you which birthday.
There's a limit to the risk of reprisal I'm prepared to take.)
As Craniacs and Field Journal faithfuls you will know that Brooke spends
more time with each year's Whooping cranes than any other human. As usual,
at the conclusion of the recent migration, we all deserted him and headed
for home. He on the other hand stayed on to monitor the Class of 2011 at the
Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. Brooke's been on site since they took up
winter residence there on February 4th, and, will continue to keep track of
their whereabouts and what they are up to until the urge to migrate back
Brooke has dedicated the past 10 years of his life and career to North
America's third most endangered bird. Show Brooke you care about Whooping
cranes as much as he does. Why not acknowledge his commitment and celebrate
his special day.
WHOOP! for Brooke on his birthday.
P.S. Wondering which birds are even more endangered than Whooping cranes? In
the unenviable number one spot is the elusive Ivory-billed woodpecker.
Second place goes to the California condor.
Because I am the eldest crane in the Class of 2011, I was appointed to
write to you.
As you know, while many of our buddies, Whoopers and Sandhills alike,
have already left on their spring migration, the nine of us are still
hanging out in Alabama. We are having a whooping good time here at the
Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, and so have yet to discuss much less
decide on when we will head back north.
But what I really wanted to talk to you about today is the tight spot
we find ourselves in. You know that we had the crummiest migration weather
ever. That meant our progress south was as slow as molasses in January,
which of course explains why we never made it to our intended Florida
destination. Okay, okay! So our uncooperativeness at the end also
contributed to the OM Team short-stopping us in northern Alabama. Big deal.
We've been just fine here.
The result of this elongated time-wise but shortened length-wise
journey has got us are worried. You see, as it stands, there are still 104
unsponsored MileMaker miles. This means, that as the Class of 2011, we only
have until the end of March to raise enough money to pay off the rest of our
We studied hard and did our very best...honest we did. We know a
passing grade won't be awarded until we're safely back in Wisconsin, but I
gotta tell ya, we're reluctant to leave for White River Marsh until we can
scrounge together the money to pay off our tuition.
All you folks who love to read about our adventures here, to watch us
on the CraneCam and the TrikeCam, and who haven't already helped us to cover
the cost of our education, please, please, please step in and help us NOW.
Won't you sponsor a mile, or a half or quarter mile today? Just
click on the Whooping crane to the right.
Omigosh, you know what student loans are like! If you don't help us
out we'll be starting our new jobs growing the Eastern Migratory Population
in debt up to our necks - and you've seen how long our necks are!! Thanks in
advance for helping. I just know you won't let us down.
On behalf of all my buddies in the Class of 2011
Just before Bev Paulan left the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge
yesterday to return home and her job as a pilot for the Wisconsin Department
of Natural Resources, she sent along a 'parting gift'.
Taken as dusk was falling, the two photos below captured four of the
young cranes in the Class of 2011 as they strolled and foraged before
departing for their evening roost site. Despite the low light, it's easy to
see they have very little of the cinnamon coloring of youth left.
As of March 1st, Aransas NWR officials were still waiting for the final
report of the necropsy on the second chick carcass they sent to Madison,
Wisconsin's National Wildlife Health Center. Weather was a challenge as they
conducted the February aerial surveys, but the census numbers from those
flights should be available soon.
As of the end of February, almost 4 inches of rainfall helped to reduced
salinity levels in the bays at Aransas; good news for wintering Whooping
cranes. In an effort to alleviate the low sources of food for Whoopers, the
refuge conducted more prescribed burns with a total of almost 11,000 of the
planned 14,000 acres now being burned.
It seems the refuge continues to get questions regarding providing
supplemental food for Whooping cranes. In response, the refuge posted this
"At this time, the refuge is concerned about the negative impacts of
supplemental feeding. Previous efforts to supplemental feed were not
considered successful as only a small portion of the birds actually fed on
the shelled corn.
Whooping cranes are territorial and do not naturally gather together
to feed. Encouraging them to do so changes their natural behavior; it also
creates greater opportunities to transmit diseases, parasites, and makes
them more vulnerable to predators.
Furthermore, when left out in warm and moist environments, like
coastal marsh areas, corn can grow Aspergillis molds. Aflatoxins, which are
produced by the molds, can be lethal to Whooping cranes and other wildlife.
Where Whooping cranes may be present, landowners should be aware of the
risks that aflatoxins pose. If corn is being used for feeding other wildlife
in areas where whooping cranes may be present, we highly recommend
purchasing aflatoxin-free corn."
If you are not in the habit of visiting
Journey North's excellent website, (updated regularly by OM Board of
Directors alumni, Jane Duden) then this is the perfect time of year to adopt
When we checked the Journey North site yesterday we learned that two
unidentified cranes from the Eastern Migratory Population (EMP) had
completed their Spring migration back to Wisconsin by February 28th. And it
appears that others in the EMP likely aren't too far behind. The pair
consisting of 1-04 and 8-05 along with Wild1-10 were in Douglas County, IL
as February drew to a close. At the same time, the North Carolina wintering
pair of 28-08 and 5-10 had made it as far north as Bartholomew County, IN.
Already back on their summering grounds?!? Completing their northward
journey in February gives a whole new meaning to 'spring' migration.
Between all the short-stopping by the EMP on their journey south and the
evidence of early departures for their return trip, this is undoubtedly
going to be a year for the record books.
Migration. It is a topic that has been studied and written about
extensively. Then studied and written about some more. It is why we are
here, and why we do what we do. We teach a migration route to young Whooping
cranes in the hope that they learn the route and in turn will teach it to
their offspring. It works. Chicks that have hatched and fledged in the wild
have been taught the route by their parents. Success any way you define it.
The question I have is: what makes a bird migrate? I mean, what is the
trigger that goes off in their head like a starting gun at the beginning of
a race. I know the science behind migration: the seasonal movement of an
animal driven by a search for food and breeding grounds. (I just finished
reading an excellent book on migration, On the Wing by Scott Wiedensaul.
He delves into the whys and wherefores of bird migration in an easy to
digest way.) But I want to know why today of all the days in a season, does
a flock of Sandhill cranes leap into the air with much calling and climb to
join the thermals, heading to unknown northern latitudes.
After early morning chick check today, and over a late breakfast, Brooke
said he wanted to head back over to the refuge. I asked why, and he stated
that due to the clear skies and quickly warming temps, he thought the
Sandhills might leave today and he wanted to catch the departure. Slowly,
over the course of the last month, they have been leaving on their northward
trek. From a peak of 11,000 Sandhills a little over 4 weeks ago, to a total
of 250 at last week’s count, they have been heading skyward, joining the
thermals that will ease their way home.
We arrived at the parking area at 9:30 on the dot, and as we walked out
to the blind, we heard the distinctive flight call of the Sandhills. It is
different from their normal conversational call and if you have heard it
before coming from high above, it is not easily forgotten. Encumbered by my
camera, I told Brooke to run ahead to the blind so he could see the birds
I caught up just in time to see the birds climbing high in search of the
lift they need. They continued circling and soon found the thermal. With no
more flapping, they turned north and drifted out of site with their calls
still trailing behind.
Why this day? What combination of weather and instinct and desire for
home pulled them skyward? I don’t know if there is a definitive answer to
that question. I do know that it is a mystery that greatly appeals to me.
The timelessness of it, the rhythm of it, the continuity from one generation
to the next, are all part of the appeal. The sight of a flock, all calling,
all flapping, then soaring off in a V formation, moves me in a way that is
hard to explain. As I watch this flock, just like every flock of cranes I
have been fortunate enough to see every year for over 30 years, I wish them
god-speed and safe journey, knowing all the hazards that can be encountered
along the route.
Coming back from my reverie, I look back across the field, now empty of
gray bodies and see nine mostly white Whooping cranes, nonchalantly probing
the earth, seemingly not caring that they are now alone on the refuge. They
wait, as do we, for their personal starting gun to go off, signaling their
journey north, and their place in the rhythm of migration.
Associated Press journalist, Ramit Plushnick-Masti, published an
interesting article earlier today entitled, "Texas draught twists
migrations of many birds." The piece speaks about much more than
Whooping cranes, but their plight is discussed too. Read the
full article here.
At last word from Brooke Pennypacker who is monitoring the nine young
birds in the Class of 2011 at Alabama's Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge,
they have yet to show any signs of leaving. Brooke told us the weather
forecast for the next few days does not look particularly favorable for
migration, so it is not likely they will be heading north in the next few
days at least.
There have been public reports of sightings of Whooping cranes in
Illinois. While credible, they have yet to be confirmed. As we reported the
other day, the DAR cranes wintering at Wheeler NWR have already departed,
and Brooke believes that 19-09 has as well. He has been scouting the refuge
with his radio receiver in an attempt to pick up the signals of the two
Whooping Crane pairs that were also wintering at remoter location, but so
far, no success. That could mean either that they just haven't been located
as yet, or that they too have left for the north.
With this year's early northward movement by many avian species it would
not be a surprise to have many of the cranes in both the western and eastern
population also launch their return well in advance of their 'usual' timing
for spring migration.
The International Whooping Crane Recovery Team, composed of 50% US and
50% Canadian representatives, gathered this past weekend in Rockport, Texas
for their winter meeting. Invited to attend and present were representatives
from the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP), Chair, Peter Fasbender
of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and OM's CEO and Project Leader, Joe
“So long, It’s been good to know ya,” is the song the classic American
folk group, the Weavers, used to end every concert with. And I could hear
Pete Seager and Company singing away in the background when about 9:30
yesterday morning a flock of about 60 Sandhills took flight and the DAR’s
with them. They spiraled up into the cloudless blue above, and headed north
to begin their migration.
They, of course, were vocalizing their own accompaniment, more raucous
than melodic. But hey,… whatever works. Soon they were reduced to beeps on
the radio receiver until those too faded into silence. There’s always
something hauntingly sad yet joyous about such an occasion.
The wonder of it all might be best celebrated with a toast to all the
great people and all their great efforts that made this moment a reality.
But still, you’re left with the feeling you had when you put your child on
the school bus for the first time. It’s a jungle out there, and a hell of a
long way to Wisconsin. And I wish I’d gotten to know them better…the DAR’s,
I mean. Sure 19-09 was a familiar ultralight alumni. But those other two DAR
chicks. They were just so darn cute! Meanwhile, our nine little characters
looked up briefly in half interest, then went about their foraging. Perhaps
they were dining on “It’s all about ME” grubs.
Not that the day started out that way. What I mean is, things started out
pretty mellow. At 6:05 am the twelve Whoopers flew in together from Dinsmore
Slough. No Sandhills, no ducks, no geese. Just white! You could almost hear
them singing “We are the World” as they moved as one across the field,
probing and grubbing as they went.
Then at 7:30 the Sandhills arrived. First a dozen, then maybe 20,
followed by more in dribs and drabs until they numbered about 60, loosely
coalescing into three distinct groups. That’s when the DAR’s traded the
novelty of new friendship for the security of old and mingled with the
Sandhills. Meanwhile the nine UL chicks simply wandered through the maze of
grey, out the other side and off to the far side of the field.
All this was punctuated by the arrival of three playful bucks (as in
deer), two sporting wall worthy racks as they sparred for a quick round or
two in the midst of the Sandhills. One could not escape the urge to blame
the complete incongruity of the scene on Monty Python. Soon the bucks ran
off to answer their hormonal call of the wild, leaving the Sandhills to
listen for their call of migration above the ever present din of nearby
traffic, and the occasional lonesome train whistle, the kind that lives in
at least every third country and western song.
But Mother Nature can out shout even the loudest of man produced ear
worms, and when she calls, nature listens and the curtain rises on the
symphony that is migration.
It was lonely for a while. The chicks continued their probing
explorations in their favorite places with complete innocence and trust.
Perhaps too much of both. What will life be like now without the presence of
these other spirits, without their vigilance, their wisdom, their
experience? Though the ties were loose and seemingly non-binding, did there
exist by their presence a karma of protection? Has the threat level just
ratcheted up? Have the challenges and threats just grown exponentially?
I sat in the bush watching the chicks a few hundred yards away, haunted
by all this when seemingly out of nowhere a small flock of Sandhills
appeared from high above. They parachuted down to where the chicks foraged
in complete innocence. Then a larger flock appeared, then another, until
there were over 100 Sandhills standing shoulder to shoulder with the still
The mountain was again coming to Mohammed and perhaps bringing with it
that special something that makes things turn out okay. And as the sun
dropped like a lead sinker into a pool of dirty water, they all flew off to
the slough to roost together.
It was dark when I got out of the van to unlock the visitors center gate,
and as my hands wrestled with the lock, something ran out onto the driveway
10 yards in front of me, stared at me momentarily, then ran across into the
bushes. A bobcat!.
“Rhett, Rhett, …Rhett! If you go, where shall I go? What shall I do?” to
which Rhett Butler replies to Scarlet O'Hara “Frankly my dear, I don’t give
a damn.” And so, that wonderful piece of dialogue in the final scene of
“Gone With the Wind” became forever the unofficial definition of the
condition we call “indifference”.
And it is indifference that so far best describes the interaction our
chicks have had with both the Sandhills and the DAR’s. (the title I use to
describe the group of two DAR birds and 19-09). It’s neither like nor
dislike, happy nor sad. They just don’t seem to care.
The Sandhills and DARs will usually fly over to the chicks in the
morning, surrounding them in large numbers with playful enthusiasm, but the
chicks usually barely acknowledge their presence and continue to forage,
more often than not eventually wandering away as if in need of their alone
time, while the Sandhills follow after them. It is definitely a case of the
mountain going to Mohammed instead of Mohammed going to the mountain. And it
is the same for the DAR’s.
Now 19-09 believes himself to be “Big Man on Campus” and struts his stuff
accordingly, as if wearing a college letter sweater from Migration U., where
you earn a letter for completing a migration. You know the type. But this
attitude elicits no response from the chicks. After all, they earned their
letters for being stuck in a pen for almost 6 weeks without developing any
parasite problems and leaving the pen far stronger fliers than when they
went in thus proving the naysayers wrong once again. An amazingly resilient
group of chicks, these.
But there have been exceptions to this theme of indifference. One night
two weeks ago, #7 flew out with the Sandhills to roost, and on another
night, #5 did the same. Then this week, for three straight nights all the
chicks flew out to the slough with the last remaining flock of Sandhills and
roosted. But the following two nights they remained here to roost alone at
their usual spot. So they are not completely indifferent and they do show
signs of caring.
Perhaps they know just how important it is to care, and they are not like
the Youtube Honey badger who just doesn’t give a #@#%$. (If you need a real
laugh…and who doesn’t, google the Youtube Honey badger and see first hand
what it means not to care).
Maybe they know that caring morphs into not caring and back again just as
day turns into night, and that without all this ebb and flow of caring, not
caring, where would we be? No yard sales, no divorce courts! Life would
simply not be worth living! And sure, not caring can be a valuable survival
tool, but it can also be a disability worthy of a handicap parking sticker.
What we do and don’t care about, after all, is one of the biggest pieces of
the puzzle that is each of us. Surely the chicks are well aware of all of
this. Hanging around for many millions of years has got to teach you
Last night, hidden behind the blind, as the last of the day's light faded
into shadow and I mentally put the finishing touches to this update, I heard
the Sandhill’s preflight cacophony begin to erupt from across the field.
Soon what was left of the horizon filled with the large remaining flock of
grey, embedded with 12 white Whoopers heading off for the night's roost at
I guess some nights you just care more than others.
We are always appreciative when folks send us links to web articles
related to wildlife conservation, particularly those focused on cranes, but
also those about migratory
birds. One such link came to us recently
from Ontario resident and OM office volunteer George McCubbin.
Authored by Joel Boyce, the article is entitled, "Migratory Birds
Struggle to Adapt to New Climate." The article reports on the results of a Swedish survey.
Quoting... The 20 years of
data collected on migratory birds..."suggests that European species have
been adapting to warmer temperatures, but not enough. Set temperatures are
approximately 250km (155 miles) more to the north than at the beginning of
this period. What this means is that since average temperatures for a
particular time of year are warmer throughout the continent, migratory
routes should also adjust. Specifically, each species should be shortening
its trips south during the winter, and spending their summers farther north
The article goes on to say, "But what the Swedish group has discovered
is that, although bird species have been moving northwards, they haven’t
been adjusting their routes as quickly as the climate itself has been
changing. In fact, they’ve only adjusted their wintering and summering spots
by half the distance they should have in order to maintain the same living
temperatures. The danger is that the health of the birds will be badly
affected if they don’t learn to move to a better temperature range for their
Also notable are the ripple effects related to food sources and other
factors. All very interesting given the short-stopping of their fall
migration's exhibited by the Wood Buffalo-Aransas and Eastern Migratory
Populations this past season. What will also be interesting to see is
whether or not the cranes will conclude their return migration at their
usual summering grounds, or begin to seek more northerly habitats.
sponsors have a chance to have their name drawn to receive a valuable
and unique Thank You gift.
pilot and metal sculptor, Richard van Heuvelen, created and donated a
special sculpture of a Whooping crane chick that will go to one very lucky
person. Richard's phenomenal sculptures have sold for thousands of dollars
and you could be the owner of a one of kind piece of his incredible artwork.
While the 2011 migration was shortened when the nine young cranes were
delivered to Alabama's Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, the length of time
to make that journey from Wisconsin's White River Marsh State Wildlife Area
was not. In fact, 119 days elapsed between departure and the 'finish line'.
That means there were expenses for ~30 days more than we anticipated when we
struck our budget last March.
With 130 MileMaker miles still unsponsored, we hope you will jump in
to help ensure the expenses incurred on behalf of Class of 2011 are covered.
The names of all MileMaker
sponsors will be entered in the March 31st Thank You gift draw as
follows: 1 entry per 1/4 mile sponsorship 2 entries per
1/2 mile sponsorship 4 entries per one mile
This year's road has had a number of bumps. Indeed, it has been somewhat
of a 'wild ride' for both the Class of 2011 and Operation Migration. Please
MileMaker sponsorand help
to ensure the migration year finishes in the black.
In the words of Wheeler refuge volunteer Nancy, "The cranes are going to
do what they want to do, and when they want to." And so they do. We never
know exactly where they will be and what they will be doing.
For the most part they are spending the day in the field across the pond
from the viewing tower. But refuge staff has seen them far and wide in areas
we don’t have access to. Yesterday morning I observed the birds foraging
alone in a field, only to fly across the field and join a pair of Sandhill
cranes. After mingling with the Sandys, they meandered away and remained in
the field for a couple of hours.
Last night, when we arrived at our viewing spot, the two DAR chicks and
19-09 were in their same field with the usual contingent of Sandhills. Our
chicks were not seen, but were heard on the telemetry, so we walked over to
another field and, sure enough, there they were foraging alone. After
observing them for a time from our hidden spots in the trees, they took off
and flew over to join the ever-growing flock of cranes.
By the time we walked back to our blind, we could catch occasional
glimpses of white through the sea of gray. It was impossible to count just
how many white birds were there, and when one Whooping crane flew off,
Brooke quickly grabbed the telemetry gear and identified it as the male DAR
chick. On our walk back to the blind, we missed 19-09 flying off with the
female DAR chick.
After watching and listening for a very short while, several groups of
Sandhills took to the air and headed back to their unseen roost site. On
every previous evening but one, our chicks have stayed put and have waited
to roost until after sun has set. On this evening, we could clearly see the
Whoopers preparing to fly. Could it be that Brooke would get his wish of an
earlier roosting time?
Instead of their usual nonchalant grubbing, they stood alert, looking
towards their departing smaller cousins. Soon, they assumed the preflight
posture, leaning ever farther forward, until their necks were almost
horizontal. With one powerful downbeat, they began to lift off and joined up
with the throng, heading to roost. We soon lost sight of them as they
disappeared behind the trees, and for the first time since the release, we
walked out while the sun was still touching horizon.
The news from Brooke Pennypacker, who is monitoring the Class of 2011 at the
Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama, is there has been a behavior
change. Up until this past Sunday, the young cranes have been going to roost on
their own in the evening. They continue to frequent the same spot during the day
as the two Direct Autumn Release (DAR) cranes and a group of Sandhill cranes,
but as evening approached, the three groups would depart and go their own way.
Brooke said the Sandhills generally begin heading for their evening roost site
around 4:00-4:30pm; the DAR birds for theirs about an hour later. Then, around
six-ish, the nine cranes in the Class of 2011 fly off to their favored roosting
location. Monday that changed.
that evening, the Class of 2011 joined the Sandhills at their roosting spot, but
in Brooke's estimation, not until too much time had elapsed. You see, while the
nine young birds altered their roost location, they didn't alter their timing.
They are still waiting until six o'clock or after before they make that move.
Brooke says this habit makes him nervous, and that he wishes they'd pick up on
the roosting timing of their Sandhill cousins. He said, "I'd worry a whole
lot less if they would get safely settled in a roost site earlier, because once
dusk begins to fall, predators come out to hunt for their dinner. As it is, it's
getting pretty dark by the time they decide to call it a night."
Isn't that just like teenagers? When they will learn? Let's hope they pick up on
that survival skill lesson soon.
In a report received yesterday from WCEP Tracking Team, the maximum size of the
Eastern Migratory Population (EMP) as of February 19th is estimated at 107
consisting of 54 males and 53 females. At almost exactly the same time last year the
population size was 106, a growth of just one despite the release of an
additional 18 Whooping cranes this past season.
Accounting for this minimal
growth in the population are mortalities due to shootings, attrition, and that
WCEP has removed four more Whooping cranes from the population that are now
consider dead as they have been missing for more than a year. The four Whooping
cranes no longer included in the population total are 16-03, 14-05, 13-07 and
Also estimated in the latest tracking report is the population's distribution
as of February 19th, 2012 (or last record). The unusual distribution prompted us
to check our past records. The chart below shows a comparison of the flock’s
current locations versus their locations at approximately the same time in 2010.
(Note 2011 location summary not readily available but may be added later.)
to 40 percent of the Eastern Migratory Population (EMP) chose to short-stop
their fall migration considerably north of their usual wintering grounds,
Where in 2010/2011 there were 23 Whoopers wintering in Florida, as of mid
January 2012 there were just 13. Since 2005 Florida has never hosted less
than 23 over-wintering Whooping cranes and has had as many as 46 Whooping
cranes wintering there.
members of the EMP made the complete journey to their usual territories
however. Pictured here are two such Whooping cranes. Their favored spot to
pass away the winter months is in Lowndes County, Georgia.
This photo of the pair consisting of female 39-07* and male 7-07
comes to us compliments of Craniac SB, their 'resident guardian'.
Pair 7-07 &
39-07* were the first to arrive, and they were later joined by 3-07
& 38-08*. For this photo op they were joined by a visiting Sandhill.
A good morning is never guaranteed after a good evening, but yesterday
morning might have been the exception. We got as good a show as has been
performed yet this season at the Wheeler theater in the round.
Brooke and I arrived at our blind around 0730, which is very close to
sunrise. Our radio receiver told us all 12 birds were in the fields near the
pond where the pen had been set up, so we were anxious to get a visual
confirmation of the audible position report.
As we brought our binoculars to our eyes, we simultaneously uttered “cooooolllll!”
as we saw all twelve birds standing in a line among a flock of Sandhill
cranes. Lowering the binocs, we smiled at each other, enjoying the ease of
the morning check. I thought that if every morning was this easy, I would
have no problem removing myself from the comfort of my bed while still in
the pre-dawn gloominess.
We continued to watch our charges as they melted into the gray flock,
sometimes disappearing completely, just to reappear moments later as their
smaller cousins moved aside. Flocks of Greater white fronted geese flew in
making their squeaky, unhinged door call.
As the morning grew brighter, the activity of the chicks increased, with
one or more jumping at the Sandhills trying to show that, “yes I am bigger
and therefore badder”. The Sandhills paid no mind to the chicks, and as the
morning wore on they slowly departed for parts unknown in groups of twos and
threes and sometimes up to twenty.
We were still watching, enjoying the show, not realizing that the best
performance was yet to come.
Around 0800, the two DAR chicks and 19-09 lifted off with a large group
of Sandhills and headed toward the slough. The air was filled with ducks,
geese, gray and white cranes, and the cacophony was almost deafening,
drowning out the morning traffic on the highway.
Still glassing our chicks, we were amused by a Sandhill crane that kept
leaping into the air and tossing a stick, seemingly for the enjoyment of the
ten minutes after the first three birds left, the nine ultralight chicks all
leapt into the air and flew towards us.
My camera was clicking madly as I tried to capture digitally a moment
that is too remarkable to do justice to with either words or images. One has
to experience the moment firsthand to fully appreciate the beauty of nine
juvenile, now wild, Whooping cranes, stretching their 7 foot wings and
climbing ever higher in the brightening sky.
Slowly they came towards us, then overflew us. Mouths agape, we stretched
our necks to try to keep them in our view, and then watched them land in the
pond near the refuge visitor center.
Knowing that the morning could not get any better, we walked away from
the blind, thankful for the show and with the full knowledge that most
mornings are not better than the evening before----but this one sure was.
Chester McConnell noted in a recent post to the
Whooping Crane Conservation Association website that, "Aransas National
Wildlife Refuge biologists now estimate the population of Whooping cranes
[in the Wood Buffalo-Aransas flock] within their survey area to be
approximately 245 individuals." Not included in the 245 are Whooping cranes
known to be at other locations in Texas as well as several other states.
The method of counting Whooping cranes on Aransas Refuge has been
modified. Known as 'distance sampling', census flights along straight lines
set at specific distances within the survey area are flown. Where
previously, an aerial survey consisted of one flight, now, to estimate the
population, the birds are counted on three flights on three separate days.
Aransas officials explained that, “Over the years the Whooping crane
population has been growing, the habitat changing, and the birds naturally
dispersing. The primary goal is to ensure the recovery of the species and to
do that the refuge and its partners must adjust with the ever-changing
Read the report.
Every night in birdland is different than the last. When Brooke and I
walk out to our observation blind, we never know exactly where the chicks
will be. Before we walk out, we pull out the telemetry receiver and listen
to the beeps to get a general idea of the birds’ proximity and direction.
Some nights, all the beeps are loud and clear. Other nights only a few of
the birds are close, and it is never the same birds in the same location.
Last night, on listening to the receiver, all 12 signals (we are also
scanning for the two DAR chicks and 19-09) were of a medium strength. That
told us the birds were near what had previously been their pen site, but not
right at the pen area. In the morning, the signals had been weak, telling
Brooke that the birds were off at the Sandhill’s roost area, approximately ¾
of a mile south of where the pen had been.
Sneaking into the blind Brooke had set up, we saw initially
no birds. Scanning the area, we still saw no chicks, so we left the blind
and walked down a path that would take us towards the fields the chicks have
frequented. We no sooner got on the path, than we spotted some white through
the trees and made a quick beeline back to the blind. Six of the chicks came
walking from the field they had been in the previous morning, then flew
across their roosting pond and over toward a gathering of their gray
brethren. One chick peeled off and landed in the pond, and the other five
quickly melded into the flock of Sandhills.
That left six cranes still unaccounted for, other than the audible beep
on the receiver. The field that the birds feed in during the day has several
dips, and a portion cannot be seen from Brooke’s small blind hidden in the
trees. We can only see them when they fly up out of the wet depression, or
pop their heads up if something causes concern.
Since we could not see the other six, Brooke decided to hike the long
route out of sight of the birds that runs through the trees and over the
hills to a vantage point overlooking the flyway to the Sandhill’s roosting
slough. Each night the two DAR chicks and 19-09 have roosted with the
Sandies, and on two occasions so has 7-11. Bearing that in mind, Brooke
wanted to be pre-positioned in case they flew that way again. I stayed in
the blind keeping watch on the field in case the missing six flew into view.
Shortly after five, right on their usual schedule, the Sandhills started
rising into the air in small groups, calling their prehistoric,
indescribable call. And, because of all that ruckus, I spied three cinnamon
and white heads pop up over the rise across the way as if they were
rubber-necking at an accident. If there were three, perhaps there could be
six. I would just have to wait and see.
My patience was rewarded, because within five minutes, just as a large
group of Sandhills were lifting off, four white shapes emerged from the
depression. Quickly grabbing my binoculars, I saw that three still had buff
colored heads while one was sporting a beautiful red crown and full black
mustache. That left two still unseen. I made a quick call to Brooke to let
him know white birds were headed his way and then went back to check on the
original five across the field. After a rapid back and forth scan, only one
bird was visible. How could I have missed the other four flying away?
Another call to Brooke and then back to scanning.
Wheeler refuge is situated along a rather busy state highway and the
traffic noise can be fairly loud. Sandhill cranes can be louder though, and
every time a group became airborne, the traffic would be drowned out. Over
this whole din I could hear the plaintive and very loud peeps of a chick in
distress. Like any parent, I immediately became hyper-aware, and looked to
see the cause of the angst.
The remaining chick across the field was looking in every direction for
her fellow cohort members and calling loudly to them. With a very observable
double-take on her part, she took off at a very quick walk, going completely
opposite of where I thought the birds had flown. The chick that had landed
in the pond also started walking the same general direction. Then I glimpsed
white far across the pond. I waited until the two chicks were a good ½ mile
away and I crawled out of the blind into the periphery of the field to see
if I could get a beak count.
Since it has warmed up, not only was I looking for chicks, but snakes as
well, since I was now on a nose to nose level with any reptile lurking about
( I am especially paranoid after a sneak attack by a frog last night). While
trying my best to sneak, I looked up just in time to see the last two
unaccounted for chicks take off from their hidden position across the way
and fly Brooke’s general direction. By this time I had gotten to a spot to
count six chicks on the north end of the pond, and finally sighed a grateful
sigh that all 12 birds were found and accounted for.
After sneaking back into the blind, I once again called Brooke, who
having seen the last two fly by his hidding spot, was walking back to my
location. After he returned and before leaving the blind, we watched the six
chicks forage their way back to a good roosting position. Another
interesting evening in birdland and as we walked back to the van, we reveled
in the music of geese, ducks, and frogs, content in our muddy condition
knowing that all the birds were well on their way to independence.
It wasn’t exactly 'love at first flight', but it was an exciting moment
in this new reality show called 'Hard Core Release,' when yesterday morning
our ever curious, yet curiously independent Whooper chicks met the two Direct
Autumn Release (DAR) birds and 19-09, their protective mentor, for the first
The Class of 2011 and the DAR cranes have been casting their collective
eyeballs on each other for a few days now, but had not shown any interest in
getting up close and personal - until Tuesday morning.
Our chicks sauntered slowly across the field where the DAR threesome
stood among their usual flock of Sandhill cranes. For lack of a better word
I say 'sauntered,' because they moved heads down, grubbing and probing for
who knows what. This made it look like they were pulling themselves in slow
motion across the field with their beaks, until they finally made it over to
who some expect will become their new best friends.
As the imaginary orchestra tuned up to accompany the moment with a
Disneyesque movie score titled “Meet the DAR’s,” #19-09 (far left in photo)
raised up his head and greeted each chick with its own special aggressive
slam. Momentarily, the chicks responded with surprise, then immediate
resignation, and then resumed their probing completely unaffected and
disinterested while the Sandhills looked on in what one could perceive as
amusement. Meanwhile the thought balloons over the DAR chicks heads read,
As the music transposed to a minor key you could almost hear the voice of
John Wayne saying, “Welcome to the Wild West, Pilgrims.” But John didn’t
know what life for the chicks with the Costumed People' has been like, and
compared to that, this was like a leisurely stroll down Easy Street.
In time, our chicks and the DAR birds leisurely moved away from each
other. Later in the day though, our little darling #7-11 flew over to the
DAR’s for more face-time, and this resulted in not an ounce of drama. It was
just an, "Think I’ll probe with you guys for a while.” Thus, the
accompanying picture….and as everyone knows, “a picture tells a thousand
The January aerial surveys at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and
surrounds produced a low count of Whooping cranes compared to previous
USFWS biologists' census results revealed that only 193 Whoopers were
sighted, of which 23 were juveniles. Officials estimate that at least 16
others from this population are wintering in areas distant from their
typical locations, some as far away as Nebraska. Five of the Aransas cranes,
including a family of three, a juvenile and a lone adult, are known to be
wintering in south central Kansas.
The low count is worrisome because at the season's start, experts
estimated the population number could be as high as 300. The drought is
drastically changing the habits of the Texas wintering cranes. With a lack
of rain and river inflow at estuaries that the cranes depend on, there is a
shortage of potable water and a decrease in the supply of their preferred
food, blue crabs. As a result, some cranes are deserting the bay areas and
flying inland to search for food and water.
We wait anxiously for the report from the next aerial census which is
scheduled for mid-February.
Click the link to visit the website of the
Whooping Crane Conservation Association (WCCA) to read the most recent
full report on the Wood Buffalo-Aransas Population of Whooping cranes. To
help ensure an adequate food supply for cranes wintering at Aransas cranes,
the WCCA has been urging the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to effect a
closure on crabbing in the area. Click here to
read that article.
The Class of 2011 has a special visitor
this week. Bev Paulan, former OM Ground Supervisor and now a pilot
with the Wisconsin DNR, has been spending some vacation time
checking out what the nine young cranes released at the
Wheeler National Wildlife
Refuge are getting up to.
Bev tells us that on Monday the cranes were mingling with
Sandhills, but spent the best part of their day on their own
loafing, foraging and meandering around the pond. By nightfall they
were feeding in the field surrounding the pond, and right before
roosting, she watched as they flew a lap around the pond.
For a time, the Whoopers could be seen from the refuge blind and
we have Bev to thank for snapping these photos to share with us and
We hope you're remembering that we still need your help to
cover the expenses incurred on behalf of Class of 2011.
Please become a MileMaker sponsor today.
Perhaps you will be the lucky recipient of our most unique
Thank You gift ever. (See the details below)
When we launched the campaign, Give a WHOOP! 2011, we announced that
there would be a draw from among all those who contributed one or more $10
WHOOPs for an incredible Thank You gift.
The draw was made on February 5th subsequent to the Class of 2011
reaching their final migration stop. We are delighted to report that the
lucky recipient of a one week stay in Costa Rica is Theresa Perenich of
In addition to airfare for two and the use of a rental car (max. value of
$2000.00), Theresa will enjoy the fabulous accommodations of
Mot Mot Manor,
a 2 bedroom/3 bathroom villa overlooking the Nicoyan Peninsula. Picture her
on the expansive patio beside the private in-ground pool with an exotic
beverage enjoying a BBQ dinner. (This wonderful vacation stay was
provided through the generosity of an anonymous donor.)
But wait....there's more!
This is not the only Thank You gift on offer this season.
sponsors also have a chance to have their name drawn to receive a valuable
and unique Thank You gift.
pilot and metal sculptor, Richard van Heuvelen, created and donated a
special sculpture of a Whooping crane chick that will go to one very lucky
person. Richard's phenomenal sculptures have sold for thousands of dollars
and you could be the owner of a one of kind piece of his incredible artwork.
While the 2011 migration was shortened when the nine young cranes were
delivered to Alabama's Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, the length of time
to make that journey from Wisconsin's White River Marsh State Wildlife Area
was not. In fact, 119 days elapsed between departure and the 'finish line'.
That means there were expenses for ~30 days more than we anticipated when we
struck our budget last March.
With 155 MileMaker miles still unsponsored, we hope you will jump in
to help ensure the expenses incurred on behalf of Class of 2011 are covered.
The names of all MileMaker
sponsors will be entered in the March 31st Thank You gift draw as
follows: 1 entry per 1/4 mile sponsorship 2 entries per
1/2 mile sponsorship 4 entries per one mile
This year's road has had a number of bumps. Indeed, it has been somewhat
of a 'wild ride' for both the Class of 2011 and Operation Migration. Please
MileMaker sponsor and help to ensure the migration year has a smooth
Brooke Pennypacker reported this morning that cold, high NW winds
restricted flying of most of the birds at the Wheeler National Wildlife
Refuge yesterday. He noted that even the Sandhills didn't make an appearance
at their usual haunt until late afternoon and then only stayed for about 20
minutes before leaving for the roost site.
much of the day, the Class of 2011 stayed in the wetland region they had
been using, moving only to an area that was somewhat out of the wind. Brooke
has been waiting for an opportunity to take the travel pen down. Yesterday
that happened, but the young cranes only remained out of sight long enough
for him to extract the electric fencing surrounding the pen that had
previously been disconnected and left lying on the ground.
The current weather front is predicted to move out tonight to be replaced
with warmer weather delivered by winds that will shift to come out of the
Those conditions are forecast to last for at least two or three days, and
Brooke expects that is likely to prompt more departure activity. Like other
species across the country who have launched their return north more than a
month ahead of 'usual', many of Wheeler's wintering Sandhills have already
We will be checking with Brooke each day for a 'status report', so stay
tuned to the Field Journal for the latest Class of 2011 news.
Yesterday morning around 8:00am CST, the nine young Whooping cranes in
the ultralight-led Class of 2011 were released from their temporary pensite
at the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama. Along with OM's Brooke
Pennypacker, on hand for the event were WCEP Tracker, Eva Szyszkoski from
ICF, Interns Olivia and Ben who were up from Florida's Chassahowitzka
National Wildlife Refuge, and Bill Gates, Biologist at the Wheeler Refuge.
The cranes had their health checks as well as their permanent bands
affixed on Thursday, the 9th, and normally would have been held in the pen a
bit longer to allow them more recovery time. Brooke advised that moving up
the timing for their release was based on several factors.
He said it appeared the young cranes had made a speedy recovery from
being handled. Also, because many of the Sandhill cranes were leaving and
the behavior patterns of the two Direct Autumn Release juveniles present
were changing, the timing was auspicious. These reasons, along with a
predicted weather front moving in that was likely to motivate birds to head
north, prompted the decision to effect the release a day or two early.
When the pen gates were opened, the birds came out
walking and flapping. No residual soreness or limping was seen and all the
birds flew, three of them for an extensive period. They appeared to be
enjoying their new-found freedom and eventually they flew to a nearby
wetland. With the release of the Class of 2011 into the wild, the estimated
maximum number of Whooping cranes in the reintroduced Eastern Migratory
Population is 112.
Brooke remains on site to monitor their activity. Once
they have removed themselves to where they are out of sight of the travel
pen enclosure, he will be able to go in to take it down and pack it up so it
can be hauled out.
"So far the cranes are foraging and hanging around in
flooded fields close to the pen," said Wheeler Biologist, Bill Gates. The
photos we share with you below came to us compliments of Bill. Photo credit:
USFWS - William R. Gates
Pen gates open and the Whoopers leave their pen.
One crane jumps and flaps as Brooke watches others.
Four young cranes stroll and forage in nearby wetland.
Headed for the wetland with 'landing gear' down.
Testing their wings and enjoying their new-found freedom.
Click this link to
photos, including those captured during the health checks and banding
procedure. We will post more news on the Class of 2011 here as it comes in.
Although Whooping cranes are critically endangered, that status does not
apply to the birds that WCEP is introducing into the Eastern Flyway. The
Endangered Species Act protects the birds, and it also applies to the
habitat they use. If the birds wintered or nested in private wetland, there
are serious implications for the owners. Naturally that led to some concerns
when this project was first proposed.
Luckily there is a provision within the Act that allows for an
experimental, non-essential designation. These birds are considered
experimental and not critical to the survival of the species so they have
the status of “threatened” which relieved a lot of tension for everyone
involved. That agreement was signed by seven states along the migration
route, thirteen more into which the birds may disperse, as well as two
Canadian Provinces. However, if they wander out of that range, it becomes a
problem so they must be permanently marked with leg bands. In addition, they
need to be fitted with better radios than the snap on type they wear during
the migration, and a few get satellite transmitters called PTT’s.
In order to fit the bands the birds have to be held, and that gives the
Health Team the opportunity to examine them prior to their release. Dr Glenn
Olsen came down from the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland
to conduct the health exam. He was accompanied by Brian Clauss who is
particularly good at holding the birds still while all this takes place.
Having done that myself, I can tell you it’s not like holding your dog while
the vet administers a shot. It takes skill and balance and just the right
pressure in just the right area to avoid injury.
Eva Szyszkoski from ICF who leads the WCEP Tracking Team came up from
Florida to apply the bands which are glued on in several stages so they will
never come off. Also two staff members from Chassahowitzka National Wildlife
Refuge in Florida where the birds were supposed to winter came up to help.
Normally after being handled, the birds are wary of anyone dressed in a
costume, but according to Brooke, it all went very smoothly and the birds
were taking treats from him after only a few hours.
Despite the talent and experience that assembled at Wheeler NWR to ensure
the safety of these birds, to them it was nothing more than an indignity and
some extra hardware to carry.
Above: The cranes are hooded prior to the health check and
banding process beginning. Below: Eva Szyszkoski attaches their permanent bands and
Brian Clauss (right) holds a crane while Dr. Olsen conducts its
health check. Below: The crane colts sporting their new leg jewelry appear
none the worse for wear.
is a word that adequately describes all the stuff that needs to be done at
the end of the migration. First of all the birds had to be carefully moved
to Wheeler NWR. Their pen was set up in a wet area of an open field with a
panoramic view of feeding Sandhills and a few Whooping cranes. Part of the
pen includes some water, and they were happy to poke and prod.
When we backed the vehicle in to unload the crates, the back axle dropped
into a rut. No amount of pushing helped. Lisa, one of the refuge staff
members, hooked a tow rope to her pick up. It wasn’t hard to pull the
vehicle out, but the road we were on was curved. I was pointing one way and
she was, out of necessity, pulling from another. As we cleared the mud the
tow rope wrapped around the tire and ripped out the brake line.
Once the trucks were out of sight we could release the birds and watch
them play in the muck while we said our goodbye.
After that came a whole list of chores, like getting the brakes fixed,
winterizing all the motorhomes and delivering them to where they will be
needed next year. While Brooke relocated his mobile living quarters to
Wheeler, a caravan left heading in the general direction of Washington, DC
with Richard, Geoff and Caleb. The aircraft trailer was packed then delivered
to Florida where it will next be used at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in May when
we celebrate International Migratory Bird Day. If you are in the Orlando
area on the weekend of May 12, come join us.
I spent twenty years as a commercial photographer and always felt torn
between two disciplines. In order to achieve the perfect image, you had to
balance the science of of film and light with the emotion of the subject.
One was technical and the other creative.
Yesterday we placed the birds in individual containers and quietly loaded
them into the van. In doing so, all of us had to balance the science of
migration with the disappointment of not having completed our mission.
Normally the end of the migration in Florida is when we say goodbye to
the birds we have nurtured for nearly ten months. That pang is balanced by
bravado and the satisfaction of having completed our goal. This year we have
one without the other and all that is left is the bluster.
Once we get past the short-lived self pity and look objectively at the
situation, we see that it doesn't matter much that we didn't make it all the
way to Florida. The birds will still migrate north. They may need a little
assistance but they will still be a part of the population.
The Rearing and Release Team within the Whooping Crane Eastern
Partnership (WCEP) made the decision about where these birds would spend the
The most important consideration is that we have a new reintroduction
site in Wisconsin that we hope will encourage birds to breed in an area free
of the black flies that seem to threaten the population at Necedah. The team
wanted to give these birds the best chance to get back there, and Wheeler
NWR is the option closest to the ultralight-led migration route.
While the rest of the team said their goodbyes and packed up all the
trailers and motorhomes, Brooke will stay on and monitor the birds over what
is left of the winter. We will keep you posted, but we expect them to
start heading north soon. Many of the birds of all species didn't make it
all the way to their wintering ground this year because of warn weather and
many are heading back already.
If you ever get to this part of Alabama you should visit Wheeler National
Wildlife Refuge. Currently there are thousands of Sandhill cranes there
along with seven Whooping cranes. It is divided by the Tennessee River and
has a variety of beautiful habitat and a very friendly staff.
Although we didn't know it at the time, our last flight with the Class of
2011 was on January 29. I was the lead pilot that morning, but I wasn't
alone. In fact I had three passengers with me.
Disney's Worldwide Conservation Fund has supported this project from the
beginning. They fund many wildlife programs around the world and they asked
us to bring Safari Mickey along as an ambassador. The best place to see the
action is from above, so he accompanied Mr. H. which is a replica of a
chimpanzee that Dr. Jane Goodall carries with her as she spreads her message
of conservation and hope. Jane travels more than 300 days a year so Mr. H.
gets around, but he has never flown with birds before.
The third passenger tucked in the middle was Vic, or Very Important
Crane. Vic has been on the migration before and he has visited the United
States, Mexico, and South America as he was sent from school to school.
Camp this morning was a veritable hive of activity as the crates and
vehicles to be used to transport the nine Whooping cranes in the Class of
2011 were made ready. While this was going on, some crew scrambled to gather
up and pack the last few of their personal items in order to transfer them
to the vehicle in which they would be travelling back home. Others stored
away no longer needed equipment in the bins, boxes, and chests that are the
items off season homes in the aircraft trailer.
As I sat in my motorhome plugging away on my laptop the windshield
presented me with a front row view. I could see the crew trotting back and
forth from one vehicle/motorhome/trailer to the next, and the scene was not
dissimilar to watching harried commuters heading in all directions, briskly
passing each other as they rushed to catch their train.
Then, abruptly, as all the vehicles pulled out to head for the pensite a
couple of road miles distant, silence descended.
It is 53F degrees here and completely overcast. The grey, heavy looking
clouds make it more likely than not that the current lull in precipitation
we have been experiencing will end soon. We are glad for the cooler
temperature today, it will help to ensure the birds will not overheat in
their crates. (Air conditioning running in the transport vehicles prevents
that from happening during the road trip.)
As you might imagine, we have been responding to dozens and dozens of
media calls over the past few days. After gathering the information and
commentary they wanted for their stories, they would invariably close by
asking how we, the migration crew, felt about the shortened migration.
I'm confident that I can say there is universal disappointment. We were
charged with a task - leading the cranes from Wisconsin to the
Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership's
choice of wintering sites. That we ten times successfully completed that
task before is small consolation for not being able to repeat that feat this
However, perhaps Joe best summed up the rest of our thoughts when he
"Yes, of course we are disappointed, but in reality it makes little
difference to the cranes. There is something, not entirely known, that
stimulates a southern migration in birds. It may be temperature, or the
angle of the sun, or a surge of hormones, but at some point that urge wears
Because of weather delays and south winds, we may have passed that
point with the Class of 2011. In addition, these cranes are reaching the
time in their lives when they become independent of their parents. In the
end, none of this means much to the birds. They are still part of the
Eastern Migratory Population and will still migrate back north. All that is
left for us to do is to cross our fingers and hope they make it back to
White River State Wildlife Area."
Reports continue to come in about both Sandhills and Whoopers that have
curtailed their migration this season. Some, like almost 40% of the Eastern
Migratory Population, have shortened their southerly migration by hundreds
of miles. In the western flyway, the same phenomena is being seen in the
Wood Buffalo-Aransas population. Cranes that would normally winter on
coastal Texas have short-stopped on the Platte River in Nebraska and also in
The latest news out of Aransas, Texas about the western population of
Whoopers is that only 193 cranes were counted on three aerial surveys
conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in January. This versus the
300 cranes that were anticipated to winter there. Sixteen more cranes not on
their usual wintering grounds were accounted for, some of those being the
cranes that had not ventured further south than Nebraska.
In an article by Colin McDonald published in the
San Antonio Express-News, officials at the
National Wildlife Refuge were quoted as having said, ".....they do
not believe 91 birds have died, as they have collected only two carcasses."
Click the link above to read the full article.
We will continue to report here on the Class of 2011 including more about
move to the Wheeler National Wildlife
Refuge. IF we can get a signal from the new pensite at the
Wheeler refuge, we will attempt to provide you with one last viewing
opportunity of the Class of 2011 via the
CraneCam. IF that becomes possible, it will not be until later this morning
at an as yet unknown time.
The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership's (WCEP) annual two day meeting
concluded Thursday. Staff members of WCEP's nine member organizations
attended the meeting in person or joined in electronically. On yesterday's
agenda was the selection of a release site for the ultralight-led Class of
Of necessity, all options involved crating and transporting the nine
cranes by road, and the pros and cons of each of three potential release
sites (Florida's St. Marks and
Wildlife Refuges, and Wheeler
National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama) were discussed. In the final analysis,
it was felt that the pros outweighed the cons of selecting the Wheeler NWR.
OM team members will be putting the wheels in motion to carry out that
decision. Arrangements were made late yesterday with Wheeler's staff for our
second travel pen to be erected there on an area of the refuge where two
adult pairs of Whooping cranes have been sighted.
up the time it would take for the trip to the refuge including the drive in
to reach the potential pensite, plus the time to unload and set up the pen,
and then the return trip. Even with a very early start it was obvious that
we'd be in the heat of the day before we'd be in a position to crate the
cranes for the move. (The high today is forecast to be in the mid 60's)
Crating can be stressful for the cranes, so accomplishing that in the cool
of the early morning hours to eliminate concerns for overheating is a better
option. This means the actual move will take place Saturday morning.
Once the Class of 2011 is
at Wheeler NWR, they will be held in the top-netted travel pen until the
WCEP team arrives with their permanent bands and they are attached to each
crane. After a day or two for the birds to recover from being handled and to
adjust to their new leg jewelry, Brooke, who will be staying on site with
them, will effect the release.
The discussions at the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership annual meetings
being held over two days (yesterday and today) included consideration of
choosing an ultimate destination for the ultralight-led Class of 2011.
While the details of when and how are still being ironed out, we can tell
you that the nine young of the year will be crated and taken by road to the
Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge here in Alabama. Wheeler is near Decatur,
AL about 45 miles (as the crow flies) northeast of their current pensite
More will be posted here as decisions are made, logistics worked out, and
that information becomes available.
The 'First Sunday Presentation Series' at the
St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge
offers, "Whoop-De-Doo!, a presentation about Whooping cranes designed
especially for families.
The event will be held this coming Sunday, February 5th in the
Environmental Education Center "Nature' Classroom" at the St. Marks National
Wildlife Refuge. The presentation
will begin at 2:00pm. Adults and children (age 8 and up) alike will enjoy
this presentation. Children must be accompanied by an adult.
Presenters at the First Sunday event will be Christine Barnes and Gordon
Perkinson, Educators and Crane Handlers. (Photo right) Until early January
2012, Gordon and Christine travelled with the OM Team on the 2011 ultralight-led
migration. They visited schools in the vicinity of the migration route to
give presentations to students of all ages.
Previously trained as crane handlers in Wisconsin, Gordon and Christine
have assisted OM's Brooke Pennypacker with winter monitoring at the St.
Marks refuge for the past three years. More recently, they assisted with
morning pen checks and evening roost checks during the migration's down time
in Franklin County, AL. You won't want to miss this opportunity to hear
about their first-hand experiences with rare Whooping cranes.
Due to limited seating those wishing to attend must pre-register by
calling the St. Marks refuge at 850-925-6121. The St. Marks National
Wildlife Refuge "Nature's Classroom" is located at 1255 Lighthouse Road. For
more information click here.
The past eight months have been quite the ride. I’ve met all sorts of new
people, made countless new friends and seen beautiful areas of the US I
otherwise never would have known about.
I could elaborate on those experiences, but I’ve chosen to reflect on
other experiences. I want to talk a little about the ‘big kahuna’ of my time
with Operation Migration. I want to talk about my experience raising the
I have certainly developed sympathy for any caregiver who has ever raised
a child. Knowing how stressful caring about another creature’s wellbeing can
be, has filled me with remorse over all the stress and heartache I have
given my parents over the years. But at the same time, it makes me swell
with love knowing they dedicated their lives to making sure I was always
happy, healthy and cared for.
As for the birds, no one knows how they will reflect, if at all, on their
surrogate parents. All I can do is be proud of the fact that I always did
everything I could to ensure the birds were as healthy and happy as I could
I have seen the chicks almost everyday for these past eight months. I am
blessed to have watched them grow and develop. The cohort has gone from tiny
little puffs of downy feathers barely able to hold themselves up, to
near-adults. From peeps to growls and alarm calls the birds have turned into
a picturesque group of Whooping Cranes.
I am a little upset about having to leave them to the big wild world. I
always knew that was the ultimate goal and that the birds would one day be
on their own to survive - but I guess kids will always be kids to parents.
I’m sure when my parents look at me they still see the little boy - -
just like I still see the goofy little chicks when I look at our cranes.
THEY GROW UP SO FAST!
After spending so much time with these birds it is amazing how much you
learn about them as individuals. They have so many minor but individual
traits that seem insignificant at first, but gradually become glaringly
Parents and friends of twins I’m sure feel the same way when strangers
comment on how impossible it is to tell the two apart. “What are you
talking about? They don’t look anything alike. Maria has one freckle on her
left cheek and Susan has two on her right cheek…it’s so obvious!”
I can pick out every bird from a quick look at their face, a quirky
behavior, heck, even the way they peck at things can be a giveaway to their
I don’t really know where I intended to go with this posting, or how to
wrap it up. I guess I just felt some desire to and throw out any thoughts I
had about saying farewell to the Class of 2011.
I suppose I can hope for a few things. I can hope for their survival in
the future. I can hope for their successful reproduction. I can hope for a
successful reintroduction. And, if I’m really lucky…I can hope to maybe one
day catch a glimpse of 'my children' foraging in a field or flying overhead.
If you ever see one of 'my kids'…don’t be shy about letting me know.
“Hey Caleb, saw your Baby Girl 12-11 today. Don’t get too jealous and
overprotective but…I saw her hanging out with some boy Whoopers from the
wrong side of the flyway. Remember, you can’t always be daddy and guard her.
She looked great... so don’t worry - be happy.”
After reading Joe Duff's Field Journal
posting of January 29th we received this thoughtful comment, and asked
the author for permission to share it with our website readership.
I am biologist in southern Indiana, and although I'm not an
ornithologist, I do subscribe to the bird lists here. As you are aware and
have reported, we have an unusual number of cranes, both Sandhill and
Whooping, that just haven't migrated beyond Indiana this year. There are
other migratory bird species staying in larger than normal numbers as well.
The weather has been mild, with the grass still green and the ground
unfrozen. Some early spring flowers are blooming more than a month early.
Now the sun feels stronger, with day length increasing.
As Joe said, the signals for stopping and starting migration are not
completely known, but I would be surprised if the birds that have spent the
winter here [in Indiana] migrated much further now, even if the
weather becomes more winter-like for the next month or two. Are they done
going south, and is this as far as they got? So your group of Whoopers may
just be joining the bird herd this year, much to everyone's frustration.
It is good that cranes are so flexible with migration patterns, since
over their millions of years as species they have seen ice ages come and go,
and who knows what else - climate changes that are on par with the one we're
inducing, surely. Timely adaptation to such changes must be part of their
repertoire. Even if they never get to Florida this spring, they will be
flexible enough to find Florida on their own in a future migration, right?
When I was a graduate student in the mid-1970s I had the privilege to
hear the famous biologist and bird researcher William T. Keeton talk about
his work on homing in pigeons.
He said (something close to), "What a bird CAN do and what it WILL do
are two different things." He said people thought pigeons couldn't find
their way home when it was overcast, but in fact they just didn't like to
fly then. He trained them to fly on overcast days, and discovered that could
home just fine, and then studied how they navigated without the sun, defying
decades of research by others.
Birds do what they will, thank goodness - we certainly aren't smart
enough to make all the "right" decisions for them. Knowing when to follow
their lead is tricky when you've been training them so meticulously to
follow yours. Sounds as if you've reached that point.
Thanks again for all your heroic work helping the Whoopers hang onto
this world, hopefully for a few million more years to come.
Today, for the first time since departing Wisconsin on October 9th of
last year, checking the weather and wind conditions was not my initial task
of the morning. How strange it was not to start the day with a sense of
anticipation and hope.
With the ability to achieve the last of our yearly tasks on the Whooping
crane reintroduction project being entirely weather dependent - that is, the
annual ultralight-led migration - we always recognized that conditions could
render completion of any fall odyssey an impossibility. Yet, although that
recognition existed, as we chalked up one migration after another and began
our 11th season, it dwelled mostly in our subconscious.
Now, having been beaten by weather after a decade of countless challenges
overcome, I can't help but look for some kind of consolation however
small. Perhaps that is in the scorecard....OM 10 - Weather 1.
Some people wish they could travel the world or win a lottery, but if I
had a genie's blessing this morning, I would have used all three wishes to
help me understand what these birds were thinking. After almost twenty years
of flying with birds, I could make an educated guess, but none of what I
have to offer accounts for this behavior.
This morning we woke to perfect conditions. The air was cold and still and
better than any day we have had in months. It was my lead and I landed next
to the pen and called for the release of the birds. They took off in a burst
and rather than risk hitting the ones in front of me, I held back until they
passed overhead. I climbed up behind them and took the lead as we banked
right and began a slow climb past the home of our stopover host. The birds
took advantage of the turn and cut the corner to catch up. They were strung
off the wing like pearls in the morning sun.
After one turn we were on course and two dropped back. Normally this
would encourage these birds to turn as well, but they ignored the
stragglers. This allowed Brooke and Richard to move in and collect them.
The climb was smooth and clean and the birds were strong and locked on as
we inched up at a hundred feet per minute. We reached 600 feet and the
thought crept into my head that maybe we were getting the break we needed so
badly. Maybe that was all it took to ruin everything because for no reason
at all, they broke. It wasn’t because they were falling behind or the climb
was too much for them. And it wasn’t one of those tentative departures we so
often see as the birds test their ability to take the lead and change the
direction. Instead they peeled away like a fighter jet rolling into a dive.
I intercepted them and they followed me back on course. I hoped it was
only a momentary lapse into old habits - but they broke again - and again.
Brooke and Richard were getting farther away as I circled twenty times with
the same result. When I would catch up to them and re-take the lead, it was
always #7 leading the V formation. At one point, when I placed my wing in
front of her, she opened her beak and jabbed the wingtip in an angry
challenge for the lead. She would follow for a while as long as we were
heading in the direction she chose, but even then she would break and take
the rest of the flock with her in sheer defiance of the aircraft.
I tried to dethrone her by pushing her out of the lead with my wing, but
the second in command was #5, and he was just as bad. After what felt like a
hundred attempts, I tried to lead them back to the field and land. I planned
for Geoff to put numbers 5 and 7 back in the pen and then to leave again
with the others. As we passed overhead I began a descent, but they all kept
Afraid to get too far ahead with only two birds, Brooke and Richard came
back to try and help. I caught number 7 seven miles to the north and
again took the lead, but each time she would steal them away and head north.
I tried leading them east, then west, hoping they would eventually fall into
line, but they would turn with such purpose it was obvious I had little
authority. As I chased them, she would swing them around on a course due
Richard and Brooke joined the fray. We tried to coax them down to tree
top level as if we were about to land. They would follow, looking down to
see what field we had chosen. We hopped hills and trees leading them back to
the pen but a mile out they recognized the rouse and broke again.
After two and a half hours we managed to bring them back to the pen one
or two at a time. All except for #10 who had enough after an hour and
dropped into a pond like a helicopter. Caleb and Gerald picked him up and
brought him back to the pen.
Migration is triggered by stimuli that are still not understood, but at
some point it ends. A period of sedentary behavior follows while they spend
time foraging at their wintering grounds until that urge hits again for the
return trip. Maybe we have stayed too long in Alabama and for them migration
is over. Or, maybe they were just too long in one place. Maybe if we had a
few flying days in a row to gain back their confidence, or maybe we just
have a few too many aggressive birds with minds of their own.
Whatever the cause, it is obvious we will not get these birds to Florida
this year in time to acclimate them to the wetlands of St. Marks and
Chassahowitzka. We have to admit that it is time to concede to the greater
influence of nature, and for this year, stop trying to engineer a behavior we
don’t really understand.
The annual Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership meetings take place this
week. We will be attending by phone and a decision will be made as to what
to do with these birds. They normally undergo a gentle release into the wild
and we still hope that is possible, but just where it will take place is yet
to be determined. We will keep you posted.
After more than two hours of crane rodeo, and countless turn backs by the
birds, the pilots finally managed to get all of the Class of 2011 back on
the ground. All nine are in their pen where they started from just before
7:30 this morning.
It was an unbelievable migration morning, one never experienced before.
Hopefully sometime later this afternoon today's lead pilot Joe will shed
some light on the action that took place out of our sight and hearing. It
will undoubtedly be one for the record books.
The clear skies and total calm of 4AM remained unchanged at sunrise. With
a forecast of 5mph NNW winds aloft, the cranes and planes took to the cold
air (20 degrees) at 7:22AM. Lead pilot, Joe, got away with what sounded like
all the birds, and those that fell back were being chased for pick up by
Brooke and Richard.
From the chat over the aviation radio it appeared they had turned on
course when Joe's birds started to breakaway. The handheld radio has limited
range and the cranes and planes must be at it's outer limits as
transmissions are faint and broken. From what we can discern, there is a
crane rodeo going on.
We'd like to say, "Walker County, AL here we come," but from the sounds
of it, that would likely be premature. Tune in to the
watch this morning's action. And check back here in the Field Journal for
more info of this morning's 'migration adventure'.
The forecast that looked promising late yesterday turned into a huge
disappointment this morning. The prediction for light and favorable NW winds
had vanished to be replaced with the reality of SW winds of 8mph.
Then, just after sunrise, a dramatic change took place as the winds swung
around the compass. This prompted all three trikes to launch even as the
ground crew zoomed off to get into position.
We listened to the pilots' over the aviation radio as they called off
their air speeds and described the conditions they encountered at various
altitudes. Initially, despite it being a little rough and there being
perhaps a little too much push, they thought a flight might be doable.
As they continued to test conditions they worried about the velocity of
the tailwind eliminating any possibility of leading the birds back to the
pensite should they scatter. In the final analysis, that, combined with the
potential risk to the birds due to the less than optimal terrain between the
pensite in Winston County and our Walker County destination led to their
unanimous decision to call it a Down Day.
Some days 'frustration' is spelled 'r-a-i-n', today it's spelled 'w-i-n-d'.
The weatherman made good on his promise of NNW winds this morning but
they came with too high a velocity for the cranes and planes to handle. Even
if we could have handled the winds, the low ceiling would have prevented our
getting into the air today.
A very poor cell signal is preventing our CraneCam from broadcasting from
the Winston County pensite. The next opportunity for viewers to see live
video of Class of 2011 will be via the TrikeCam when weather allows us to
Suzanne Hall Johnson's 5 mile MileMaker challenge has been met - thank
you to her and those who took up the gauntlet. Each day we edge closer and
closer to having all 1,285 air miles sponsored, but there are still 185
miles up for grabs.
If you are not already a MileMaker sponsor please consider becoming one
Perhaps you already are a MileMaker but could help the Class of 2011
by sponsoring another mile, or part mile? This link will take you directly
Our sincere thanks to you all on behalf of the Class of 2011.
Join in the activities, take in the exhibits, or visit the historic
lighthouse built in 1832. St. Mark's 68,000 acres are home to an enormous
diversity of plant and animal life so why not make this your opportunity to
tour one of the oldest refuges in the National Wildlife Refuge System.
The Port Aransas 16th Annual
Whooping Crane Festival begins on February 23rd and has activities
scheduled through Sunday February 26th. It's a super event for birders,
photographers, and anyone who enjoys all things nature related. Click here
for more info.
We will not be adding any migration miles to the five the pilots managed
to eke out yesterday. Winds on the surface are relatively cooperative, but
aloft it is another story with the south sending up it's blustery and rainy
CRANES TEXAS HABITAT WOES UP THE VALUE OF THE EASTERN MIGRATORY
An article recently published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel authored by
journalist Lee Bergquist was titled, "Risks to cranes in Texas raise
profile of Wisconsin program."
In the article, noting the reason for starting new flocks [of Whooping
cranes] in places such as Wisconsin was as an insurance measure should
catastrophe strike in Texas, President and CEO of the International Crane
Foundation, Richard Beilfuss, was quoted as saying, "We think it vindicates
the decision. There is plenty that can go wrong down there - hurricanes, an
oil spill and drought."
It’s like the man said, “You don’t know how deep the puddle is until you
step in it.” And every day on migration, we step into another puddle. First
we dip in our toe, then our foot, and before long we find ourselves
completely submerged discussing marine biology with Jacques Cousteau.
But the key to a successful migration is momentum. It is the magic carpet
which carries us over the daily challenges and takes the sting out of daily
disappointments. It gives our endeavor its rhythm and flow and stride. It is
robust yet delicate and fragile. It is hard won and yet easily lost, and
once lost, so difficult to regain.
We arrived here in Alabama in December with momentum. Since then, time
and inactivity have striped us of it, and each new flying opportunity is a
struggle to get it back.
In our case, our momentum is based on one thing….the birds’ willingness
to follow the aircraft. Simple as that. But their desire to follow
diminishes as the days become weeks and no migration legs are flown. The
spaced repetition we employed to impose our blueprint upon their natural one
has faded, and so our work must begin again. That’s just the way it is and
this morning was no exception.
But writing an update describing the experience so soon after taking the
plunge is a little like asking a post delivery mother to write an essay on
childbirth while the doctor is still counting her baby’s fingers and toes,
or Abbot asking Costello who’s on first. So here goes another try at that
Finally!!! Did I say Finally???? Finally, we had a real, honest to
goodness fly day…something we have been dreaming about for what seems
forever…which, as everybody knows, is a long, long time. The air on the way
to the bird pen was sweetly smooth except for the hint of turbulence caused
by our own anticipation. Would the birds follow? That was the nagging
question, because as I said, the key a successful migration is beautifully,
maddenly, unbelievably simple: the birds just have to follow the aircraft.
Would they follow today? The last two tries did not go well, gaining only
about 9 miles of migration.
Geoff pulled open the pen door as I swooped in for an aerial pickup, and
six birds lifted skyward though one left late and remained low. Two birds
remained in the pen and refused to join the effort, so the seven and I
headed off . At first the birds formed up well, and aside from the usual
coaxing maneuvers, things looked promising, though #12 began her routine of
catching up then dropping down.
After a while, #7 began her routine of breaking off and heading back to
the pen taking another bird with her. I turned back to round them up, but
after several such exercises I left them for Joe. Richard, meanwhile,
dropped down and picked up #12 and headed for Walker County.
All went well until #5 got the urge to turn back, and back we went to
recover him. He’d get back on the wing for a while then again turn back,
losing altitude then climbing back up and regaining his position on the
wing. Losing sight of him in this rough terrain was not an option.
Then another bird began to break back with him each time, and it was time
for me to remove him from the equation. I found a private airstrip and
radioed Caleb and Hudean to meet me there. The plan was to land, crate #5,
and take off again for the next stopover site with #1, #3 and #4.
However, it was later decided to set up a pen at the grassy airstrip and
hold the birds there for the night. Richard dropped off his bird to join the
others. While the pen was being erected I hid the birds in a nearby field
where they enjoyed a couple of hours of grubbing, ant hill sieges, and
exploring, while I, dressed in my cold weather flying gear, sweated away a
few of the too many pounds I have gained on migration. Then Joe arrived and
we led the birds to the pen where Caleb awaited. By early afternoon they
were joined by #7, #9 and #10.
We gained little in mileage but have hopefully have made a positive gain
in our effort to recover some momentum. Now we wait for another good flying
day and another opportunity to sound that puddle. Now, where did I put that
They say the best way to tackle a big task is to chew off small bites. We
thought an average 50 mile migration leg was a small bite, but as it turns
out, today that even that size bite was too big for the cranes to chew.
Following a long and frustrating rodeo, and a story that lead pilot
Brooke will likely title, "Confusion," the pilots only managed to get the
Class of 2011 another 5 miles south.
We now have another 'short-stop' pensite, this one just over the line
into Winston County, AL.
With long-awaited favorable flying conditions the order of the day, the
ground crew and tracking van headed out of camp to get in their respective
positions. The three trikes launched not long after sunrise to fly to the
new short-stop pensite nine air miles away. At the moment, from what we can
gather, there's a crane rodeo underway.
The lead pilot's report describing today's activity and flight will be
posted here late this afternoon/early evening.
NEWMileMakers Needed Taking up Colorado Craniac, Suzanne Hall Johnson's challenge would be a
great way to celebrate the cranes and planes getting into the air today.
Suzanne will match up to 5 MileMaker miles (or part miles) sponsored by NEW
MileMakers. Taking up her challenge doubles the value of your sponsorship!
Click here to read all the details about
(you could be the lucky recipient of a special Thank You gift) or click here
select the mile you'd like to sponsor.
Please be nice to your local weatherman. Perhaps then he'll freeze-frame
the forecast he's made for tomorrow morning. At worst we should be launching
a test trike, and at best we could be flying a migration leg. (Fingers
Unfortunately we do not have a departure flyover viewing location for our
It sure would be nice, just once, to be able to write up a Predicting
entry that says, "We're flying tomorrow - no doubt."
That will likely never happen, but at this point I'd even be happy to
settle for second best, i.e. "Tomorrow looks like it could
be a good fly day." Even that is not the case for Monday, the prediction
for which due to a high Wind Advisory, will echo too many 'going no where'
predictions that have come before.
The Wind Advisory calling for 20 to 30mph winds with gusts to 35-45mph
covers all of north Alabama. There will be 40 to 50mph WSW winds at
altitude. We rate our chances of flying a migration leg Monday morning as
zip to none.
Ours is a year round effort on behalf of Whooping cranes. Through the
spring when the young-of-the-year hatch, the months of summer training, the
fall migration, followed by winter monitoring in the early months of the
following year, members of the OM team are on the job.
While one facet of our work, the ultralight-led migration, attracts the
most attention, it is all the months of effort preceding that time that
makes the feat of aircraft-led avian migration possible. And it is the weeks
of winter monitoring after that time that ensures that the young cranes, and the
year's enormous devotion of time and effort that was invested in them, are further safeguarded until the
Class of 2011 has
grasped the necessary skills to survive on their own.
This means there is much need for financial support. There are several
ways you can contribute to making Operation Migration's efforts in the
Whooping crane reintroduction project possible.
Please click on the links below to see which method of financial support
would best suit you. We really need and would sincerely appreciate your
Campaign - sponsor a mile(s), or half or quarter mile of the migration.
WHOOP! - Whoop just for the fun of it, or dedicate your WHOOP! to
someone important to you.
To belabor some clichés, We are in the 'lull' after the storm, but we're
not out of the woods yet. The National Weather Service has issued a Wind
Advisory for our area for tomorrow evening through to 6am on Monday. The
advisory is calling for sustained winds of 20 - 30mph with gusts approaching
As for the conditions between now and then, that is, tomorrow morning,
the foul system that moved in overnight bringing with it 40 to 50mph winds
at altitude continues to linger over us.
As the weather forecasts stand at the moment, it is likely to be at least
Tuesday before the cranes and planes can be in the air again.
A large, trailing and strong storm system moving across the northwest
corner of Alabama is giving us very high wind conditions and by 5am,
delivered a thunderstorm with lightning and heavy rain. The flash flood and
tornado watch for Franklin County and many other counties in Alabama and
southwestern Tennessee that was originally scheduled to be lifted at 5am has
been extended until noon.
Weather conditions at the pensite to the south of camp are less severe.
Brooke is camped nearby and advises that an early check of the pen and the
Class of 2011 revealed all is well.
WINTERING CRANES Thisposting is apropos of yesterday's Field Journal entry
remarking on there being so many Whooping cranes still in Indiana in mid
Yesterday, an article that appeared in the
JournalStar.com about a similar occurrence with Sandhill cranes in
Nebraska landed in my inbox. It seems about 1,000 Sandhills have chosen to
winter along the Platte River instead of their usual habitat hundreds of
miles to the south.
Addressing this unusual behavior, ornithologist Paul Johnsgard, was
quoted as saying, "I've been there 50 years and I've never seen it."
Rowe Sanctuary Manager, Kent Skaggs said, "That's something that doesn't
occur. Plenty of open water and leftover corn in harvested fields has kept
the cranes here along with the mild weather."
South and west-southwest winds on the surface and aloft respectively
along with imminent rain will keep the cranes and planes on the ground for
another day at the new 'short-stop' in Franklin County.
EASTERN MIGRATORY POPULATION UPDATE
Here is a summary of the most recent data received from the WCEP Tracking
As of January 16th, the maximum
size of the Eastern Migratory Population was 103 Whooping cranes; 53 males,
50 females. The estimated distribution of the population at the end of the
report period or last record is:
On reviewing this report it
struck me as unusual that as of mid January only 13 Whooping cranes had
reached Florida. Curiosity getting the better of me, I asked Caleb to do
some research. He checked back through the years of our Field Journal
entries to find the tracking reports of previous years that were closest to
the mid January date so we could compare. Below is the result.
2011 - 16-Jan
2010 - 12-Jan
2009 - 27-Jan
2008 - 2-Feb
2007 - 23-Jan
2006 - 15-Jan
2005 - 12-Jan
As you can see, never has there been so many birds still so far north at
this time of year, leading of course to there never being so few in Florida
by this time. 39 Whoopers still in Indiana? ...and we thought our progress
Later migration departures? Ample fresh water/food sources? Warmer
winter? Evolving to more northerly wintering habitats with climate changes?
Can a definitive answer even be extrapolated?
This morning was a good illustration of why we say we never know for sure
whether or not we'll be able to fly any given morning. We can check the
weather sites over and over, and postulate all we want, but in the end,
until a trike is in the air at flight time, we can never be sure.
Case in point. We were excited to see the weather sites this morning
calling for a significant improvement over what they were reporting
yesterday afternoon. In fact, the conditions they were calling for had us
believing it would be a fly day.
As usual the team got ready and well before sunrise, the ground crew and
the tracking van were on the road to get in position.
All three trikes pushed out of the hangar and Joe and Richard took off
first. We watched as immediately after launching they bounced and bobbled in
rough air. It was scant minutes - so fast in fact that Brooke hadn't as yet
even gotten into the air - before they announced that they couldn't
get any speed up and unanimously called it a Down Day.
Contrary to what was reported, 0 - 3 WSW surface winds, Richard measured
the winds at close to 10mph out of the southeast. Aloft, instead of finding
what was supposed to be ~5mph westerly wind, the trikes encountered SE 30mph
winds. While Richard said the air smoothed out at 1500 feet, his speed over
the ground was down to 11mph.
photo, taken by Brooke Pennypacker, shows the Class of 2011 in their mobile
pen at our new Franklin County 'short-stop.
We'll have 3 to 4mph WNW surface winds tomorrow - which is good, but
we'll cross our fingers that the predicted 15mph westerly winds swing around
just a few degrees to the north before morning. That would conceivably give
us some flying weather and a chance at actually completing the Franklin to
Walker County leg.
Not guessing at what tomorrow will bring - we're crossing our fingers
Two days ago we finally got going again. On that day we had to land
unannounced in a field on top of a hill. While there, I noticed it could be
a good site for the cranes. I happened to be opposite Brooke on the other
side of a ravine and had to walk one bird out of the brush and back to where
he waited with four other cranes. Or so I thought.
Just as we, that is, me and #1 arrived over in the same field as Brooke
and his four birds, off trike and birds went into the air. That was all #1
needed to see and away he went too. By the time I clamored back to my trike
and got airborne, Brooke was landing too, but in another pasture as the four
birds had landed next to a pond and #1 had landed near the river.
Thus began a long day of crating birds and getting them back to the pen.
Caleb and I then drove back to apologize for trespassing. While making our
apologies, we also became acquainted with the land owners of the site where
we first landed, and they indicated they were very willing to let us use
their property in the future.
Now for today. It began very well with seven birds on my wing, one with
Joe, and one with Brooke. We were well on course for our next destination
when some or all of my birds would turn back only to be rounded up again and
This happened repeatedly, and soon we were losing ground instead of
gaining. At some point, now almost back at our departure point, four of the
seven broke off and headed for the pen, but me and the other three continued
on without them.
The wind starting kicking up as we progressed southward, and it became
clear that our reaching the next stopover location was not likely to happen.
That led to the decision to land the birds in our new found friends' field.
Joe, who was well ahead with his bird, landed there first. When I finally
arrived with my three, one landed, then another, however #4 refused to go
down and it took a dozen circuits before she could be convinced to land.
I wanted to stay airborne so I could fly back and help Brooke who was
trying to find and help the remaining four birds in the cohort back to the
pen. By the time I arrived, #5 had landed in a nearby field nearby, another
had landed with Brooke, and the other three had to be rounded up and brought
back to the pen.
Once the four 'returnees' were in the pen, Geoff and Brooke jumped in the
white van to go and pick up #5 and I flew over head to guide them to him.
Once they reached #5's location, I returned to the airport and landed. But
on hearing that #5 had again taken off, I got back into the air only to find
that he had landed next to the pen. With him returned to the pen, I finally
was able to return my trike to the hangar.
We all waited for Joe to fly back and Gerald and Caleb to drive back from
the new Franklin County 'short-stop'. Before leaving there, they had set up
our second travel pen, and walked today's four flying cranes, numbers 3, 4,
6, and 12 into their newest residence. Numbers 1, 5, 7, 9, and 10 have gone
to join their classmates, but their trip is being made by road.
Another long day, but the upside is that we'll have fresh start from a
Where to start? First of all - for those of you who had trouble accessing
our site this morning, our server went down overnight. Thankfully it's now
back in business.
With the weather sites showing our cold temperature was delivered
compliments of a 9mph north wind, and that altitude it was also blowing out
of the north at 15 to 20 mph, it was going to be a 'test trike' morning.
Richard van Heuvelan launched to test the conditions and radioed back
saying, "I think its doable." The scramble to get in position was on.
Launch was at 7:39 and
lead pilot Richard got off with eight of the nine birds following. One
crane, #10, hung back at the pen. It wasn't long before the 'crane
rodeo' began. After much back and fro-ing and circling Richard finally
got the birds turned and headed off to the south - with what we thought
was six cranes. Then we watched as Joe and Brooke each picked up one
wayward bird, and they too turned southward and we watched them
disappear into the distance.
Meanwhile, up ahead,
Richard was having a time of it. He had one crane (at least) that kept
breaking and he had to keep circling to get it back on the wing. Brooke was
fighting to keep his bird with him when some of Richard's birds broke and
headed back... which Brooke then tried to scoop up. At the same time, Joe
was managing to get his bird a little further along the way, and eventually
put down with that bird at the same location Richard and Brooke landed to
hold their cranes on the last flight attempt.
We cleared the potential
use of that site with the property owner at that time, and we're now
referring to it as the "Franklin County short-stop". With Joe on the ground
with his one, Richard make a low pass with his remaining three and Joe
called them down. I think the four at the short-stop site (where we
will set up our second travel pen) are numbers 3, 4, 6 and 12.
And now, another 'meanwhile
back at the airport/pen', Brooke returned with his small flock and Richard
followed shortly thereafter to help him and Geoff return four cranes to the
pen. That just left one still 'free ranging' Whooper and Richard went back
aloft to direct Brooke and Geoff driving the white van to its location. I
think - 'think' being the key word here, the cranes now back in the
Franklin County pen are numbers 1, 7, 9, and either number 5 or number 10.
It is either #5 or #10 that the crew is currently tracking in a nearby
That's the story as it
stands. Tune back in later in the day for, as Paul Harvey would say
is..."..the rest of the story," and perhaps a number of corrections.
Odds for a flight tomorrow are not great. Without some overnight change
we'll be looking at 3mph SW winds on the surface at our departure point
shifting to SSW winds blowing 11mph as we move southward. Although aloft the
wind direction will be NNW, it appears that we'd encounter a velocity
increase at altitude as well; up from 15 to 20 to 20 to 30mph.
So, are we going to fly a migration leg in the morning? If I had to bet
my last nickel on it.... I wouldn't.
It started with plink-a-plink but soon turned to plunk-a-plunk. Then came
a building crescendo of whooshes; seemingly the giant never needed to
inhale. Then, as he took big breaths in and let them out, the motorhome
began to pitch like a sailboat at sea in a good size swell.
The rain storm that wanted to be a thunderstorm when it grew up got its
wish. No need to scour the weather websites for clues this morning.
Got to run. Have to check the bow lines and throw out an extra anchor.
For the last eleven years I have maintained that the word FRUSTRATION is
commonly misspelled. It’s actually two words and should be spelled,
W-H-O-O-P-I-N-G C-R-A-N-E. In fact, a number of other words should be
spelled the same way but, most of them only have four letters.
Today was one of those WHOOPING CRANE days, but in all fairness, I can’t
blame them. After staying in one location for more than a month, it is not
surprising that they might have forgotten the art of migration. When Geoff
opened the pen and Richard did a low pass, they all took off except number
10. He finally got airborne on the second pass but he didn’t stay long. He
broke along with a few others.
I stayed high so I could assist Richard with a running commentary of
where the birds were and which way to turn. A few would break and then cut
the corner to catch him again. As he gathered them up and lost them, it
started to get complicated and hard to keep track of who was where. Brooke
chased #12 but before he could catch her, she landed in the middle of a
forest only a half mile from the pen. Another two birds (numbers 3 and 4)
landed in a flooded field a mile to the south. After a couple of low passes,
it was obvious they were far too happy playing in the water to follow the
Eventually Richard and Brooke collected a total of five birds between
them and headed on course. With one bird in the forest, two in the water and
one still missing, I turned back to help Geoff.
The birds in the water were not going anywhere so, after a cursory look
for the missing bird, I landed in the field next to the forest. I followed a
trail and soon found # 12, I led her out of the trees and over to the
aircraft. She took off with me, but as I turned for the pen she turned the
other way and landed back in the trees in the exact same spot. I flew back
to check on the two in the water, but they were still ignoring me as I
passed low overhead.
By this time Caleb and Gerald Murphy in the tracking van had zeroed in on
the two, but they were up on a ridge looking down. They could see the birds
in the distance but could not figure a way in. I talked them into a farmer’s
lane and as they asked for permission to retrieve the birds, I went back to
check on # 12.
I landed next to the forest again and walked up the same lane. # 12
followed me out and again we took off. As I circled back, another bird
dropped into the formation with us (#10) but I had no idea where it came
from. I led them both over the pen, but neither landed as I hoped they
would. Instead, # 12 headed back to the forest while # 10 vanished as
quickly as he had appeared.
By this time Brooke and Richard were having problems with the five they
had headed south with. Eventually they landed with all of them, but they
were in separate fields; Brooke with four and Richard with one. They were 10
miles away and needed help, so Caleb, Gerald, Geoff and I all met at the
airport. We loaded up five crates and sent Gerald to meet Richard and
Brooke. We recruited Hudean Wilson to go with Geoff to speak to the
landowner at #12’s location, and Caleb headed back alone to retrieve numbers
3 and 4 from the flooded field.
I took off and talked Geoff into a field a mile to the east where number
12 was again in the forest. Then I flew south to help Caleb. The path into
the flooded field must have been two miles long. It passed through several
pastures, a herd of cows and over a stream. Once he finally got there, Caleb
had to carry two crates down a long hill and tuck them into the trees so the
birds wouldn’t get nervous when they saw them. I tried to find a place to
land so I could help, but the terrain was just too hilly. I headed back to
search for the missing # 10.
While circling, I heard Richard and Brooke over the radio. They were
airborne again and struggling with birds. Theirs is an entire story on its
own and I only heard snippets over the radio, but eventually they landed in
another field where they managed to crate all five birds. Then Gerald
brought them back to the pen.
While that was happening Caleb called to say that he had managed to get #4
in a crate, but that #3 realized he was next, and took off. Caleb had a
strong signal from his transmitter so I headed south again to help him
search. I found # 3 two fields over and talked Caleb in to retrieve him.
This is a complex story with many players and lots of locations, and I am
running out of ways to say, “meanwhile back at the airport.” So, meanwhile
back at the airport, Geoff and I took the truck and another crate to meet
Caleb. We rendezvoused on a back road and transferred the two crates
containing numbers 3 and 4 into the truck. Geoff headed back to the pen with
those two birds while Caleb and I started to search for #10, the last
missing bird. We kept getting an intermittent signal while we drove back
roads for an hour.
We triangulated what we thought was his location, but couldn’t find a
road to take us there. The only access seemed to be a railroad track, so we
parked the tracking van and set out on foot with our costumes and a handheld
receiver. We walked a mile and came across a trestle with a large sign that
warned of extreme danger and a threat of prosecution for passing. We could
hear the train horn in the distance so off we went, covering the railway
ties two at a time. We clambered down the embankment while the train passed
and then continued to follow the signal.
Meanwhile back at the airport, Richard had returned and landed to refuel.
He took off again with a tracking antenna mounted to the front of his
aircraft. By the time we reached the next road crossing on the railway
track, Richard called to say that he had found #10 a mile from where we were
searching, but at least in the same direction. We made the trek back to the
van, and followed his direction to the bird. Brooke was also just arriving
so he and Caleb collected # 10 and we all headed back to the pen with the
It was now 2:30 in the afternoon and all the birds were back where we
started. It was an exhausting day and I spent most of it searching for birds
and thinking of new euphemisms for Whooping crane.
As opposed to yesterday when, never had so many team members been in so
many different places at the same time, we will all be stuck in the same
The morning delivered rain along with high headwinds winds both on the
surface and aloft making flying out of the question.
WOOD BUFFALO-ARANSAS POPULATION UPDATE
Below is the most recent report as distributed by USFWS out of Aransas,
"This has been a busy month for Whooping crane activity since our last
report. Aransas National Wildlife Refuge has received an additional 0.72
inches of precipitation and salinity levels remain higher than ideal. We
have continued to help alleviate the low food resources by adding to our
prescribed burn totals. This week alone we have burned an additional 4682
acres of Whooping crane habitat. Biologists observed the Whooping cranes
eating roasted acorns and are seeing continued usage.
The chick carcass that was sent to the National Wildlife Health Center
in Madison, WI last month had inconclusive findings on the intermittent
report, and we are awaiting the final report, which will include virology
The latest data from Texas Parks and Wildlife officials indicate that
red tide is still persisting in the bays but in lower concentrations.
Biologists continue to keep a vigilant watch for signs of illness or
An auto survey was conducted by biologists on December 22, 2011
throughout the Blackjack peninsula and a total of 45 Whooping cranes were
observed. For reasons beyond our control, we are not able to secure a
government certified pilot and aircraft to complete a survey, but are
working diligently to alleviate this issue.
Whooping cranes observed at the refuge have bright white feathers
indicating their overall body condition is good. Despite potential threats
this winter, Whooping cranes continue to thrive, and managers are doing
everything possible to ensure their continued success."
After a check of the weather sites it doesn't appear we have much of a
chance of being in the air tomorrow. We're looking at unfavorable winds on
the surface and the same aloft and very strong. Toss the threat of rain into
the mix and it is more likely than not that we'll be holding in place
Once the five cranes that flew with Richard and Brooke were crated, they
headed back to the airport. On his way back, Richard broke off and spotted
#10 less than a mile from the pen. After re-fueling, he got back in the air,
while I went to collect Brooke who was returning the five to the pen with
the help of Geoff and Gerald.
Brooke, armed with a clean crate and an aviation radio headed out in the
white van to be directed to #10's location by Richard flying circles up top.
Joe and Caleb were called back from where they were searching on foot to
assist. As I type this I can see Richard's trike off in the distance
flying circuits over the crane's location. He will likely stay 'on station'
until the costumes reach the bird, just in case he decides to take to the
When I see Richard's trike heading back this way, I'll heave a sigh of
relief, knowing that #10 has been safely retrieved. And....here he comes
There really should be a Field Journal posting today from each team
member. The cranes have provided each and every one of them with some
Slowly but surely the round up following this morning's rodeo and aborted
flight is starting to wind up. As I write this, numbers 3 and 4 are being
released back into the pen to join #12. Numbers 1, 5, 6, 7, and 9 are
minutes away from arriving to be reunited with the waiting trio.
If you just did the math...that totaled eight of the nine in the Class of
2011. Number 10 is still AWOL, but Caleb, with Joe who has transferred from
the white truck to join him in the tracking van, had a signal from 10's
transmitter. Now we are waiting anxiously and not so patiently for what we
hope will be the good word from them.
All indications pointed to our having flying conditions this morning;
zero to 2mph WSW surface winds at departure point turning into north winds
at destination. Aloft, the weather sites reported 15mph NW winds.
A short wait for the worst of the frost to pass and at it was a launch with
the Class of 2011 at 7:30. At the departure flyover viewing site we listened
on the aviation radio as the pilots talked back and forth spotting birds for
one another as a not unexpected rodeo ensued.
After what seemed like an interminable wait, we heard that Richard was
finally able to head out with five cranes, although to do that he was well
to the west of the 'planned' flight path. Brooke, flying chase, trailed
Richard and his little band of birds. Meanwhile back at the pensite, Joe
flew round and round and back and forth trying to locate the 4 birds that
had broken away and dropped down (numbers 3, 4, 10, and 12).
Even as the aerial search was taking place, Richard and Brooke were
having a time of it with their five (numbers 1, 5, 6, 7, and 9). They would
follow and then break again and again. Worried the birds would go down, at
one point they even discussed turning and leading them back to the pen. But,
eventually all five birds and both trikes were on the ground about 8 air
miles out. Gerald Murphy was dispatched in the white van with crates for a
Back at the departure point, directed by Joe flying over head, Geoff and
volunteer Hudean Wilson set off in the white truck to the location of #12.
With the permission of the landowner to go on his property, Geoff crated her
and delivered her safely to the pen, and Joe landed back at the airport.
While all that was happening, Caleb, in the tracking van met another
landowner who opened the gate to the field where numbers 3 and 4 had landed.
Caleb managed to walk #4 away and get her crated and tucked in the van, but
#3 apparently wasn't done with his little escapade and took to the air.
That prompted Joe to get back in the air to do an aerial search for #3,
this time with Caleb giving directions about his flight path to Joe. Once
Joe got a visual on the crane, he was able to direct Caleb in so he could
retrieve the AWOL bird.
That leaves #10 still unaccounted for, and all hands are headed for the
airport to re-group. Once all retrieved cranes are back in the pen, the
entire team will be fanning out with tracking equipment to search for him.
Just in. Some, (or all) of the five with Richard and Brooke have taken to
the air again. We're waiting for the details.
This account will give you an idea of this morning's activity but doesn't
begin to tell the whole story. The pilots will have to fill in all the
blanks later today - likely much later today. If this all sounds chaotic not
to mention nerve-wracking, (I used to have fingernails and hair) it is
because it was, er, is.
And another 'just in'. On his way back with #4, Caleb picked up a signal
on #10, so Joe and Geoff are off to see if they can pinpoint his location so
he too can be retrieved.
They say, "Don't count your chickens before they hatch," so, while we are
more optimistic about our chances for a flight tomorrow than we were this
morning....we're resisting counting.
The surface winds are forecast to be WSW, but very, very light. The
question is will a headwind...even a light one be enough to discourage the
young cranes, especially as shortly after take off the trikes need to get
them to climb quickly to get over a ridge just to the south of us.
Aloft, the winds for the morning are more favorable than they were today
as they have dropped down but are still out of the right direction.
Unless there is a drastic change for the worse, I'll be at the departure
flyover location in the morning - with my fingers crossed. Hope to see y'all
We wish mightily that yesterday afternoon's prediction for this morning
had been wrong - - but unfortunately it wasn't.
We were hopeful this morning when at o'dark thirty, contrary to the
weather sites displays showing WSW 8mph surface winds, all was calm with
both the runway windsock and the flag atop the pole hanging dead still. All
indications at that time were that we'd have calm to light surface wind
conditions at our departure point and all along the route to our destination
in Walker County, AL.
With the weather websites showing NNW 20-30mph winds aloft, we waited
impatiently for sunrise so a test trike could go up. There was a wait for
the frost to dissipate, then, at 7:27 CT, Richard van Heuvelen, the
designated lead pilot for this leg, followed by pilots Joe Duff and Brooke
Pennypacker, took to the air for a first hand check of the conditions aloft.
Over the aviation radio we heard Richard report he was down to 21mph over
the ground at 1000 feet, and quickly thereafter Joe chimed in with, "I'm
only getting 17mph at 400 feet." Richard radioed back, "Now I'm down to 14."
On the ground we watched as the trikes flew above the runway, or more
correctly, hovered, as they appeared to be almost 'flying in place'.
From start to finish it was only a very few minutes before the three
pilots reached a consensus and declared, "We're down."
With WSW winds on the surface forecast for flight time tomorrow topped
off with 20 to 30mph WNW winds aloft, we're not counting on Saturday being a
fly day. We'll be up and at'em early just in case, but it doesn't appear
this system will move on before Sunday.
With westerly surface winds blowing up to 12mph and WNW winds aloft
ranging between 20 - 30mph, Friday the 13th is indeed unlucky for the Class
of 2011. There will be no cranes and planes in the air today, this first day
of the resumed migration.
The snow showers we had here ended overnight, but the cold air mass that
brought them also delivered sub-freezing temperatures that have produced
black ice in many areas around the county and elsewhere. The cold
temperatures are predicted to remain with us, with west winds on the ground
of up to 20 mph, which in turn, translates into a wind chill in the single
digits. Interestingly, just before sunrise it was just 10 degrees warmer at
Florida's St. Marks National
Wildlife Refuge this morning.
Check back here late afternoon for our best guess for a flight tomorrow,
Saturday. For those individuals hoping to join us at the departure flyover -
whatever day that happens - here is a link to the
location. We're hoping for a great turnout to give us a rousing send off
from Franklin County.
Please don't forget there are still 170 unsponsored
MileMaker miles in Alabama alone - if you can help just click the link
or give our office a call at toll free, 1-800-675-2618.
Chomping at the bit to get going would be the best way to describe how
the migration crew is feeling at the moment, but it looks like we could be
chomping for a while yet.
We are under a high wind advisory this afternoon with strong westerly
winds riding the coattails of a strong cold front going through. Along with
the wind and cold, snow showers are a possibility but accumulations are not
With the windchill, it feels like 24F right now, and that is about the
temperature that is forecast for sunrise tomorrow. That, along with clear
skies and a light 4mph wind out of the NW made the odds for a flight in the
morning look promising until we checked the expected conditions at altitude.
If the prediction for 35mph WNW winds holds true, it is not likely that
Friday the 13th will be a fly day.
As of yesterday, the entire team is 'back on station' and immediately
pitched in to help Caleb and Brooke to finish off getting everything ready
to resume the migration. Both winged and two-legged creatures are raring to
go, and by the end of today, all that needs to be done will have been
For many days now a weather cell has hovered over our heads here in
Franklin County giving us degrees of rain ranging from sprinkles to coming
down in buckets. All that precipitation has been accompanied almost without
exception by fog, heavy enough at times to obscure the end of the runway
nearest our motorhomes.
We'll be re-starting the
Migration Timeline 'clock' as of tomorrow, Friday morning, and our
EarlyBird bulletins will resume then too.
Check back here late this afternoon for our Predicting entry...that is,
what our best guess will be for our chances of a flight on Friday morning.
If only the weather would be as kind to us as was the FAA.
The cranes and planes have 592 air miles and a potential 11 stopovers
between them and their final destination, and, 235 of those air miles
are still unsponsored. (16 left in both Kentucky and Tennessee;
172 in Alabama, and 31 still unsponsored in Florida.)
If you haven't already, please help the Class of 2011 and Operation
Migration by becoming a
Equally as appreciated would be a
General Donation to help offset fixed costs
including the recent unexpected expense for legal fees as a result of the
Folks who would like to express their gratitude for its favorable and
speedy decision might consider
WHOOP! of Thanks to the FAA.
Although the migration was hanging in limbo, thoughts about the end of the
journey in Florida, and the people waiting there for the Class of 2011,
weren't far from our minds. We were all too conscious of the teams of
dedicated people waiting anxiously at the Class of 2011's two wintering
locations; the St. Marks and
Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuges.
of those people, in the person of Chassahowitzka Intern Olivia Bailey, was
able to take advantage of our time on the ground in Franklin County, AL.
With the blessing Deputy Refuge Manager, Boyd Blihovde, Olivia drove up for
a several day stay with us in Alabama.
During her visit, along with a 'Whooping crane 101 orientation', we were
able to introduce her to the young cranes, some of which she would soon be
helping to tend to as part of her winter monitoring duties. Olivia, whose
field of education is ornithology, caught on fast, and quickly convinced us
that the cranes will be in good hands at Chass over the winter.
Being the 'new costume in the pen', Olivia was given much the same
treatment that Gordon and Christine experienced until the birds became
accustomed to them. Some of the cranes, particularly 10-11, went after her a
few times and tried to beat her puppet down. Luckily for Olivia the
onslaughts were not as aggressive as a couple that Christine was on the
receiving end of.
When we conducted the usual pen check this morning, (Olivia's last chance
to work with the cranes before returning to Florida), I managed to snap a
few photos of our cohort hanging out and interacting with the costumes. We
fortunately timed the morning pen check for between downpours which, as you
can see left the pen somewhat muddy - much to the joy of the birds who were
happy as clams, enthusiastically poking and probing to find the odd goodie.
Here you can see 1-11 is not too impressed with the
new costume. He gives her a textbook crown display.
This photo is a close up of the debonair 5-11 with his
Saying hello to Brooke via a few pokes to his helmet
It's amazing how noticeable the birds mustaches are now. The
first hints of black began to appear at our first stop in WI, but
now they are really established.
Lately, with pumpkin season over and watermelon
unavailable, we've been treating/entertaining the cranes with corn
cobs and different varieties of squash. Brooke tossed an acorn
squash across the pen and the excitement was on!
Finally, I can't show pictures of the cranes in our cohort
without including a shot of my little baby girl 12-11. Too cute.
The story lead on the website
reads, "It's a mixed bag for our most charismatic of North American
waders this week. While the ultralight aircraft leading a flock of your
Whooping cranes to Florida may again take to the skies, that good news is
tempered by the effects of the drought in Texas, which has already led to
the death of at least one Whooping crane there."
Too little rain has resulted in marshlands being too salty for blue
crabs, Whooping cranes' main source of protein, to flourish, and the drought
conditions have affected the supply of Wolf berries, another staple in the
diet of wintering cranes. Exacerbating the reduction of food sources for the
cranes is a toxic algae bloom in the salty water. Aquatic life retains the
algae's toxin and it is passed up the food chain to the creatures who feed
on it - such as when cranes eat clams.
Aransas National Wildlife Refuge Manager, Dan Alonso, was quoted in an
USA Today as saying, "We're very apprehensive, very concerned, and
are monitoring the population very closely to see what it is the reaction
might be." Alonso noted further that, "This year, at least one crane
has already died."
Click here to read another web news article on the subject.
With the long awaited good news received yesterday from the FAA in hand,
our focus returns to the resumption of the migration with the Class of 2011.
Underway are all the logistics for getting the balance of the crew in back
in place, as well as the necessary preparation of equipment and vehicles
before we can once again take to the sky and roads.
What we still need everyone's help with, is to ensure the dollars are
there to cover the cost of our journey leading the nine young Whooping
cranes hatched this past April and May - soon to become the newest members
of the reintroduced Eastern Migratory Population.
the program that allows folks to select and sponsor a migration air mile (or
part mile), is far from being totally underwritten. At the moment, there are
still more than 270 unsponsored miles, added to which will be the additional
expense as a result of the unanticipated ground time spent in Franklin
In the words of Anne Harrington from Palo Alto, California, taken from her
email which we received this morning, "Here's something to help get you
moving again. I'm sure this delay has resulted in added expense - not to
mention some extra grey hairs. I will match the sponsorship of five full or
partial MileMaker miles."
Click here to become a
MileMaker Sponsor. If you would like to help us defray operational and
other costs, including the legal fees incurred arising from the FAA
situation, please click here to make a
Thank you in advance for your financial support. As in years past, we are
confident that Whooping cranes and OM can rely on you.
It is in times of crisis that you learn who your friends are.
When the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) began its investigation,
many of you came to our support, or more accurately, to the support of the
Whooping cranes, and we will be forever grateful. It was surprising to us
just how many people stepped up to help. And that support came not just from
our donors and supporters, but also from hundreds and hundreds of people
from all walks of life who demonstrated that they too care about the
survival of the species.
An online petition launched by one such person garnered 1400 names in
only two days. Our website GuestBook seized up and nearly crashed as it
filled with supportive comments. Three State Governors and several
congressmen contacted the FAA in support of this project. Several other
influential people, including a former U.S. President, also encouraged a
speedy resolution, and hundreds of media outlets from all over the county
covered the story.
The FAA made it clear that they were trying to resolve the matter, but we
are certain the outpouring of support helped to make that happen more
quickly than the normal process. The waiver we have been granted is a
temporary exemption allowing us to complete the current migration, but the
FAA indicated they will work with us to develop a long term solution.
All of this took place over the Christmas break and shortly thereafter,
so we left many of the team members at home with their families while we
waited it out. Now that we have permission to fly again, we are pulling the
team back to our stopover site in northern Alabama. While we will be ready
to go very shortly, the weather forecast looks dismal until at least
Thursday. We are anxious to be on our way and to leave Franklin County,
Alabama behind us. That is not to say we are not grateful to everyone there
for their generosity and hospitality - it has been outstanding.
There are no guarantees, but the southern half of our migration
traditionally moves faster than the northern portion. After all that has
happened, certainly the birds deserve a break, and a few good days of flying
weather would be welcome. It is time for them to be wintering in Florida and
learning the ways of the wild. Our job is to get them there as quickly as we
can andwe thank you all for helping to make that possible.
We learned late this afternoon that the Federal Aviation Administration
(FAA) had granted Operation Migration a one-time temporary exemption to
allow its pilots to finish the 2011-2012 crane migration. The waiver extends
through the end of March.
A statement released by the FAA on Monday afternoon said in part: “Because
the operation is in ‘mid-migration,’ the FAA is granting a one-time
exemption so the migration can be completed. The FAA will work with
Operation Migration to develop a more comprehensive, long-term solution.”
We appreciate the agency’s efforts on our behalf, and we thank everyone;
supporters and the public for the overwhelming outpouring of support on
behalf of Whooping cranes and Operation Migration.
In the hundreds of emails we have responded to in the last week there
have been some common questions that I thought I would answer here in case
others were wondering the same things.
Firstly, the birds are doing fine. They are well looked after and as
entertained as we can keep them. Since they were hatched in April and May,
they have spent most of their time in a pen, so for them, it’s part of a
normal life. (Note: Click the link for a live, real-time view of the Class
of 2011 in the pen in Franklin County via OM's
It would be nice if they had a wet pen to roost in, but since we started
the migration on Oct 9th they have lived without it. That’s the case with
every migration but as soon as we reach the wintering site, they have access
to water again. Their propensity for wetland habitat is instinctive and we
don’t have to re-teach them to water roost.
In the past we have short-stopped the birds near Dunnellon in Florida,
just one stop away from their winter home at Chassahowitzka. This was done
to allow the older birds to stop in at the pensite, as they often do on
their way south, and then to move on to their preferred wintering sites.
That practice left the pensite clear and free from the interference the
older birds can have on the chicks.
We have done that short-stop since 2005 and it has been for as long as 27
days with no ill effects. The only problem is getting them to follow us
again but so far that has not been an issue.
One of the FAA concerns is that Light Sport pilots are not allowed to fly
for hire. In fact, a pilot must hold a commercial rating before they can be
paid to fly. Many commercial pilots have offered to fly for us and finish
the migration. We are very grateful for the offers, but it is not as simple
as that. It takes at least a year to learn how to fly with birds. It is
certainly not rocket science, but you must work with them for at least a
season to learn their flight characteristics and how to deal with them, once
you are back on the ground.
Secondly, we fly trikes which are controlled much like a hang glider.
They don’t have a stick and rudder and the controls are completely backwards
to what most pilots are accustomed. As an example, it becomes second nature
for a pilot to pull back on the stick or yoke to go up. In our aircraft that
makes you go down. In a conventional aircraft you move the stick to the
right to go right. In ours you move the wing to the left to accomplish the
same turn. Flying a conventional aircraft and a trike is a lot like driving
a car and a motorcycle. Once you learn how it is not difficult, but there
are not a lot of airline captains with trike time.
The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership is holding meetings to decide what
to do if the FAA will not grant us a waiver. The FAA states that process can
take up to 120 days, but we are hoping that it can be expedited. We will
keep you posted but in the meantime, thank you all for the support.
The 2011 ultralight-led Whooping crane migration is currently on hold in
Alabama while the Federal Aviation Administration sorts out a regulatory issue involving OM’s pilots and aircraft.
The FAA is working with OM to resolve the issue as quickly as possible.
In the meantime, this year’s cohort is safely penned in Franklin County,
Alabama, watched over daily by OM personnel.
The issue in question is whether or not OM’s pilots are flying “for
hire,” or, for the furtherance of a non-profit. OM aircraft are licensed as
Light Sport Aircraft (LSAs) which came into effect in 2008. FAA regulations
prohibit flying LSAs for hire or as part of business activities. The FAA has
begun the process of evaluating a waiver to OM, exempting its pilots and
aircraft from that rule.
OM has always maintained that its pilots are hired for a wide range of
non-flying skills and duties, and that they volunteer their time as pilots.
In 2010, the FAA Flight Service District Office (FSDO) in Milwaukee
investigated the status of OM’s flight operations and accepted OM’s
explanation. We were told by the FSDO director that “no further action would
be taken.” Based on that ruling, we began the 2011 season.
In August 2011 the FAA
inspected our aircraft, which passed with flying colors. In November a Letter
of Investigation was sent to each pilot. After discussions with the FAA in
December, Operation Migration voluntarily ceased any flying while the matter
is resolved. We hoped that would happen during the Christmas break, but it
is taking longer than anticipated.
The FAA is in support of this project and is working hard to resolve the
matter in our favor. We appreciate their efforts.
We are also working with our WCEP partners to develop a contingency plan for
completing the migration without aircraft, if necessary.
An FAA waiver would be based on two main factors: safety and public good.
OM has never had an aircraft-related accident and its contribution to
wildlife conservation is well-established. If you would like to offer
support for OM in this matter, post a comment on our
comments will be collected and forwarded to officials at the FAA.
Some states have a Sandhill crane hunt, and in some cases the hunt
season for Sandhills and other game coincides or overlaps the period of time that Whooping cranes
Sure Before You Shoot" is a video produced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service to help people identify/distinguish between Sandhill cranes and
Whooping cranes as well as other avian species. Please watch the video if you are
a hunter, or if you have friends who are hunters, please pass it on.
Spring 2010 was an exciting time at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge
(NNWR) as 12 pairs of Whooping Cranes nested and initiated incubation. One
of those pairs, 9-03, and her mate 3-04 nested for the fifth time. The
female has a checkered past.
As a young bird she had wandered far and wide and had been in, or flew
over, just about every state in the eastern United States and at least two
provinces in Canada. Of all the birds I have helped to reintroduce into the
Eastern Migratory Population of Whooping Cranes, she is by far the most
interesting, and one that I had a post-reintroduction experience with.
I monitored her one whole winter in North Carolina where she wintered
with two other Whooping Cranes on a beaver pond in Jones County. Some of you
might remember my story in OM’s website Field Journal about her leaving on
her northern migration and flying over my house to say farewell. But I have
only abstracted a few tidbits in this introduction. ”And now for the rest of
the story” as radio personality Paul Harvey used to say.
Number 9-03 hatched at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center on May 5th 2003.
She was described as, “ the most independent member of her cohort and strays
farthest from the trike during taxiing.” Obviously her wanderlust could be
predicted at a very young age.
She was a small female, but a super forager, and Brian Clauss from
Patuxent observed that if, “You could drop that bird in the middle of a city
and she'd find something to eat!" She made her first trip to Wisconsin on
June 19, 2003 aboard a Windway Capital aircraft in a box especially designed
for young cranes, and joined the rest of her cohort in one of the training
site pens at NNWR.
Her summer was uneventful and she learned to fly and follow the
ultralight. She left Necedah on October 16, 2003 and flew all but 18 miles
of the ultralight-led migration, arriving at the Chassahowitzka National
Wildlife Refuge in Citrus County, Florida on December 8th after a 54 day
migration. Yes, I said a 54 day migration.
Winter at Chassahowitzka was uneventful and 9-03 left the refuge on March
30, 2004 at 9:33am with 7 other cranes. By midday on April 1st, the eight
birds had made it to Macon County, North Carolina, 462 miles north of the
departure point. This put the young cranes east of the mountains and 85
miles from their original migration route. By late morning, winds had
increased to 15-25mph from the northwest - a strong headwind - and on
reaching western North Carolina they were met by a low cloud-ceiling and
On April 3rd the Whoopers were still in North Carolina along a river in
the Nantahala National Forest when they were discovered by a person who
started crossing the river intent on approaching the cranes. Fortunately, a
conscientious passerby stopped the person before he was able to get close
enough to catch one of the birds - which was his stated purpose.
On April 4th another unthinking person who lived nearby arrived on the
scene in his car, with his wife and three children. He drove as close as he
could get to the young cranes, and the five exited their car and approached
the cranes. The wary cranes had had enough. They flushed immediately, and at
5 p.m. as they climbed out of their less than serene setting of the past 3
days, one of them hit a power line.
One observer reported that all eight cranes continued to climb however,
and as darkness fell he watched as they circled overhead, gaining altitude
for almost an hour, before setting course toward the north. Richard Urbanek,
a USFWS biologist/tracker, was nearby and was able to track them through the
forested area for only a short time before losing their radio signals.
I go into this detail because many of us think that this one instance in
the cranes’, and especially 9-03’s, first northward migration accounted for
their odd migration routes and behaviors over the next few years.
Number 9-03 carried a satellite transmitter that allowed her and the
others traveling with her to be located on a frequent basis. She, and 4
other cranes wound up in Michigan that summer. Included in that group were
1-03, 5-03 and 18-03, who would stay with her as they migrated south that
Number 5-03 was killed, probably by a bobcat, on the night of November
13/14 on the Cape Romaine National Wildlife Refuge in Charleston, South
Carolina. The three remaining cranes moved northward the next day to
Georgetown County, SC. After several short northward flights they ended up
in Jones County, NC on November 20. There they roosted in a beaver pond
loaded with crayfish and never traveled more than a couple of miles to
various grain fields during the rest of the winter.
Living about two hours away, I took on the job of monitoring them a
couple of times a week. They developed a routine that saw them fly out in
the early morning to glean what they could in nearby corn fields. Eventually
they discovered a hunter’s seed plot very near their beaver pond roost area.
The plot included milo, corn, and millet. It was there that I saw them for
the last time that winter. They left on their northward migration on March
You might have read my story about being there that day and having them
come into a mixed grain field and land near a small pond where I was hidden
in a hunter’s tree stand. They didn’t bother to graze, staying only about 15
minutes. They took off and circled the field a couple of times and headed
off to the northwest.
I listened on my tracking radio receiver for about half an hour until the
signals died out. I had about a 30 minute walk back to my car and then a two
hour drive home. For some reason I never turned off the radio receiver, and
as I turned into my driveway it started beeping. For the next 30 minutes I
listened as the cranes flew over my house. Had come to say goodbye? It was a
The three cranes stayed together until they reached Ontario, east of Lake
Huron. On May 8th, number 9-03 was seen alone on the north shore of the St.
Lawrence River northwest of Lake Ontario, just across the New York border.
She next turned up in Vermont on June 9th, and went from there to Lewis
County, NY. While she traveled around the northeast, 1-03 and 18-03 were
captured in Michigan and relocated back to Wisconsin.
In the fall of 2005 9-03 was still in New York state, having last been
seen there on October 27th. In December she showed up in Beaufort City, NC.
Her satellite transmitter had run out of battery power so no one knows where
she was in the interim. On December 9th she was captured, fitted with
another transmitter, and moved to Madison County, Florida. This is where the
persistence story begins as the tracking team tried to reorient her to the
desired migration route. Later that year she visited the pen at
Chassahowitzka where she had spent her first winter in Florida.
In the spring of 2006, 9-03 migrated north with a young female, 20-05, on
March 27. They were seen together in Tennessee on March 29th and 30th. She
again didn’t make it back to Wisconsin, once again ending up in New York,
but this time with the young female she had led astray. On May 6th both were
captured and moved by plane to NNWR. This move was the second attempt at
reorientation. The two cranes stayed together in central Wisconsin all that
9-03 and 20-05 migrated together in the fall and appeared at the
Chassahowitzka pensite on December 20, 2006. The reorientation was beginning
to work it seemed. It was the first time she had returned to Florida since
she was led there by the ultralights. They to cranes stayed in the
Chassahowitzka area and the nearby mainland for the winter.
On the 2007 spring migration 9-03 and 20-05 left Florida on March 19. The
younger female, 20-05, went to Wisconsin, while 9-03 went on a grand tour to
Michigan, New York, Ontario, and then back to New York. She still had not
found her way back to Wisconsin on spring migration.
In October of 2007 she was captured yet again and flown back to
Wisconsin. As they say, ”the third time is the charm”, and in this case the
third relocation worked. She immediately stole male 3-04 from female W1-06,
the first wild-hatched chick. The question was…would the bond last and would
they migrate together?
In fact they did migrate to Florida that fall and stayed together during
the winter. In the spring of 2008 the big question of where they would go
was answered on March 27 when they showed up at the Necedah refuge. On April
9, 9-03 was observed incubating eggs. She and 3-04 incubated until May 3rd
when their nest failed. They spent the summer on the refuge and migrated
together to Florida that fall along with 9-03’s old friend, 20-05.
In late February 2009 the three cranes left Florida and 9-03 and 3-04
arrived in Wisconsin on March 23 and were already incubating eggs by April
8. Their nest failed again on May 3rd, but this time their eggs were
salvaged. Both eggs hatched and became ultralight chicks 6-09 and 8-09 in
the ultralight-led Class of 2009 – both chicks are still in the population.
The parent pair re-nested, but their second nest failed on June 14.
The pair left Wisconsin on December 7, 2009 and was seen by plane on
January 20, 2010 in a swamp in Lafayette County, Florida where they spent
the rest of the winter. On March 9, 2010 they were observed during their
northward migration in Richland County, Illinois and were found to be
nesting on April 5 on the Necedah refuge. That nest failed on April 11th.
By April 29-30th they had nested again. This time they hatched two eggs
and the family was spotted by OM pilot Richard van Heuvelen during a
monitoring flight on May 31. Unfortunately, one of their chicks had
disappeared by the 6th or 7th of June. The other chick, a female, designated
W1-10, fledged in August and in the fall, left on migration with her
Persistence does pay off! The work of a lot of dedicated and talented
individuals re-oriented 9-03 to a life of migrating as desired from
Wisconsin to Florida and back by capturing it 3 times and moving it once to
Florida and twice to Wisconsin. They made it possible for her to meet and
pair with 3-04. Once that bond was established she followed the male who is
faithful to his own natal area, as are most male Whooping Cranes. Together
they have produced 3 living off-spring in the Eastern Migratory Population.
I say again, PERSISTENCE PAYS OFF!
Author’s Note: I am indebted to Jane Duden of Journey North for her fine
history of each of the Eastern Migratory Population of Whooping cranes from
chick to the present. Without her work it would have taken weeks to
reconstruct the history of 9-03 and her associates.
(Walter Sturgeon is a member of Operation Migration’s Board of Directors,
and for the past 7 years, his 30 years of crane experience and many other
skills have been invaluable assets in his role as a volunteer member of the
“These newly hatched Whooping crane chicks have no parents. So we teach
them what they need to know to survive. But they neither see us, nor hear
The room is silent as students ponder, then watch and listen in rapt
attention as the story unfolds.
We are Gordon Perkinson and Christine Barnes, Operation Migration’s
education team, and we offer presentations in schools along the migration
route. Our presentation lasts about an hour, and consists of a variety of
interesting activities, including interactive sharing of knowledge and
information, a slide show, and videos. We introduce and/or reinforce
age-appropriate vocabulary and concepts.
On this 2011 migration, we have
visited 15 schools and met with over 1670 students and their teachers.
Principals, other education staff and interested community members have
sometimes joined our groups. And what a wonderful time we have had along the way, working with
children in Illinois, Kentucky and Alabama! We have worked with a single
class of 23 students, and an entire school of 667 students packed into an
auditorium. We have presented on a school night at a nature center with 70
community members and twenty-four high school students and their teacher
Many classes follow the cranes’ journey and are very well-prepared. Some
are new-comers to the Whooping cranes’ story, and are fascinated from the
beginning. Students ask many thoughtful questions at the beginning and end
of the presentation, which we either answer or give back to them for their
own investigation in class or on their own. Nearly every student in the
schools where we presented was respectful, enthusiastic and engaged. It has
been a privilege to work with each and every one.
As we present the cranes’ story, there are audible gasps among the
participants – the life-sized photo of a 5 ft. tall crane with an 8 ft.
wingspan amazes most, and the youngest children need to be reassured that
these birds will do no harm from their wetland home.
There is laughter at the photo of the tired crane chick, asleep in its
food bowl. Listeners’ faces reflect their sadness, and sometimes there are
tears, when we share the blatant disregard for wildlife and law, and reveal
that misguided persons with firearms still shoot and kill these magnificent
birds. And ironically, as we end 2011, yet another Whooping crane has died
at the end of a gun in Indiana.
We speak of the inspiration of the founders and staff of Operation
Migration and its WCEP partners to dream the impossible dream and move
forward to save a species from extinction. The individuals who work on this
project see a need and an opportunity to make a difference, and many make
personal sacrifices to do so.
We talk with students about how this can be their story, too – how they
can strive to be scientists, mathematicians, teachers, environmentalists,
conservationists. We encourage the children to reflect on what each one can
do to make things better each day, or what project their class, or even
their entire school can do.
The lights are low, the room is silent. They neither see us nor hear us:
from the back of the room, the solution to the opening riddle enters: a
silent crane handler in costume. For the first time, students understand, on
some level, the reintroduction project’s extraordinary effort to teach the
cranes while preserving whatever wild instincts exist innately in these
birds. It is, after all, their only hope.
In the end, we talk with the children about the bigger picture: this is
not just about Whooping cranes. It’s about learning to live together on our
beautiful planet Earth in a respectful, caring and reflective manner – being
aware of our actions and what consequences, intended or not, may unfold as a
It is a story about making mistakes, and working hard to fix them before
it’s too late. In fact, the journey of the Whooping cranes is an
acknowledgement and commitment to the sanctity of life.
Editor's Note - The Education component of the 2011 migration was made
possible thanks to a joint grant from the
National Fish and
Wildlife Foundation and
Southern Company through the Power of Flight program. Both organizations
have also supported Operation Migration's ultralight-led project in past
years and they have our sincere gratitude for their generosity and abiding
interest in the welfare of endangered Whooping cranes.
Regrettably, the first news of 2012 we bring you is sad and upsetting.
Another Whooping crane has been shot.
We were advised late yesterday that 6-05 was found dead in Indiana by
resident Dan Kaiser. Dan found the crane in Jackson County, not far from the Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge, a former stopover location when the
ultralight-led migration used a more easterly migration route.
This is the second shooting of a Whooping crane in Indiana. The first
occurred in 2009 when 17-02, the seven year old matriarch of the "First
Family", was killed.
In 2006, female 17-02 and her mate 11-02, (dubbed the First Family) the
only successful breeding pair in the reintroduced Eastern Migratory
Population at the time, hatched, reared, and migrated a chick, Wild 1-06.
Their offspring, Wild 1-06, was the first wild, migratory Whooping crane
hatched in eastern North America in more than a century.
17-02 was shot and killed in central Vermillion County, IN. The pair had
been observed by WCEP trackers in late November, but by December 1st when
subsequently checked, 17-02 was missing. Tracker Jess Thompson eventually
found her remains in a ravine near a rural road.
Two culprits were eventually identified (one a juvenile) and they pled
guilty to the shooting. Their punishment, which drew the outrage and the ire
of many in the wildlife conservation community, was one year of probation
and a $1 fine.
In the face of the struggle to safeguard these rare birds from
extinction, this shooting, added to the three cranes shot in Georgia in
December of last year, the two in Alabama in February 2011, and most
recently, two (and perhaps three) in Louisiana, at best, can only be
described as disheartening. Ironically, the Louisiana cranes, killed by
juveniles firing from a vehicle, died on the same day OM launched its 2011 ultralight-led migration in the hope of boosting the numbers of the
slowly growing reintroduced population.
At the time of the Louisiana shootings, Dr. John French,
Research Manager, at the U.S.G.S. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in
Maryland where the majority of all reintroduced Whooping cranes are hatched
and reared, said....
cranes - including each of those senselessly killed by people - represent an
investment of hope for Whooping cranes to wing their way back to a more
certain future. And with only about 430 Whooping cranes now in the wild,
each bird counts.
Each such death is a robbery of the investment made by the American public,
and negates countless hours of careful work by scientists, aviculturists,
volunteers, and others toward the conservation of this magnificent bird."
At present, we have no further details on the killing of 6-05 beyond what
has appeared in various news stories. Below are links to several articles
that have been posted to the internet.