Carry On…

The 2015 southward aircraft-guided Whooping crane migration is complete. It was the longest yet at 115 days due to rain. South winds. Politics.

Fitting perhaps, for as everyone now knows, it is the last.

18 years ago I first volunteered to work with Operation Migration. I had no idea what talents I could bring but they welcomed me. I had come from a radio background and what place in Whooping crane conservation might that even be somewhat helpful?

Back then, OM was still working with Sandhill cranes and I fell in love with them. Quickly.

I began writing posts about our work online and people became engaged. Interested. Craniac’s were born!

I’m often asked if “what is your most memorable experience”? After 18 years, how can I possibly choose just one?

I had the opportunity to work with some incredibly dedicated and passionate people. The honor and privilege of working with some pretty amazing birds. To do something good for the environment. To try to undo some of the damage our predecessors unknowingly did to our natural world.

Our volunteers and supporters made this all possible. We could not have accomplished this without you. Your generosity, kindness and encouragement lifted spirits and instilled hope. Friendships were made. With you, we celebrated the successes and mourned with the losses.

To the many school teachers who followed along throughout the years and introduced this project to your students. They. Will. Remember.

And of course the Whooping cranes – Regal. Noble. Majestic. Magnificent.

Fly free my feathered friends. Live long. Carry on…

St. Marks Arrival – Photo Round-up

Yesterday’s arrival of another small cohort of Whooping cranes at the St. Marks Refuge wasn’t at all like arrivals in the past. I’ve included a selection of photos below, which I hope will provide some details…

Instead of being shepherded to the winter site by aircraft, the Class of '15 arrived in crates. Here the crew prepares to open the crates about a half mile from the pensite.

Instead of being shepherded to the winter site by aircraft, the Class of ’15 arrived in crates. Here the crew prepares to open the crates about a half mile from the pensite. Photo: Joe Duff

Released...

Released… and stretching their wings. Photo: Joe Duff

Away they go - checking out their new surroundings. With the brood call playing on a loudspeaker in the pen a half mile away, they head in the right direction. Photo: Joe Duff

Away they go – checking out their new surroundings. With the brood call playing on a loudspeaker in the winter release pen a half mile away, they head in the right direction. Photo: Joe Duff

Jeff, Colleen and Brooke make the walk with them. Photo: Joe Duff

Jeff, Colleen and Brooke make the walk with them. Photo: Joe Duff

Our first glimpse of them as they clear the treeline in the distance. Photo: Heather Ray

Our first glimpse of them as they clear the treeline in the distance. Photo: Heather Ray

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Taking your cranes for a walk isn't at all like taking your dog for a walk. Photo: Heather Ray

Taking your cranes for a walk isn’t at all like taking your dog for a walk. Photo: Heather Ray

As usual #2-15 leads the way. She's followed closely by the only male crane #11-15. Photo: Heather Ray

As usual #2-15 leads the way. She’s followed closely by the only male crane #11-15. Photo: Heather Ray

Approaching the release enclosure. Photo: Heather Ray

Approaching the release enclosure. Photo: Heather Ray

One youngster lands inside next to Bev & Richard while the others are a bit reluctant and keep flying. Photo: Heather Ray

One youngster lands inside next to Bev & Richard while the others are a bit reluctant and keep flying. Photo: Heather Ray

They landed adjacent a small pond, which is a favorite foraging location for the older Whooping cranes. Photo: Heather Ray

They landed adjacent a small pond, which is a favorite foraging location for the older Whooping cranes. Photo: Heather Ray

Eventually, Brooke was able to coax them toward the gates of the pen. Photo: Heather Ray

Eventually, Brooke was able to coax them toward the gates of the pen. Photo: Heather Ray

Whooping crane #1-15 was the second crane to enter and immediately began her typical leaping and dancing. Photo: Heather Ray

Whooping crane #1-15 was the second crane to enter and immediately began her typical leaping and dancing. Photo: Heather Ray

#1-15 is still leaping as the others are all eventually coaxed in through the large gate. Last crane to enter, was of course #2-15 and she did so at 11:11 am. Photo: Heather Ray

#1-15 is still leaping as the others are all eventually coaxed in through the large gate. Last crane to enter, was of course #2-15 and she did so at 11:11 am. Photo: Heather Ray

Finally, all are in the top-netted section of the release pen, where they'll be until the final health check and banding takes place later this week. Photo: Heather Ray

Finally, all are in the top-netted section of the release pen, where they’ll be until the final health check and banding takes place later this week. Photo: Heather Ray

VISITORS! The four adults/sub-adults appear just as the gate to the top-netted section is closed. Pictured are: 5-12, 4-13, 4-14 & 7-14. Photo: Heather Ray

VISITORS! The four adults/sub-adults appear just as the gate to the top-netted section is closed. Pictured are: 5-12, 4-13, 4-14 & 7-14. Photo: Heather Ray

Curious about the new arrivals they approach the colts to check them out. Photo: Heather Ray

Curious about the new arrivals they approach the colts to check them out. Photo: Heather Ray

Hey look! The new kids on the block finally arrived! (been there - done that) Photo: Colleen Chase

Hey look! The new kids on the block finally arrived! (been there – done that) Photo: Colleen Chase

Two adults check out the colts. #4-13 left/foreground. Photo: Colleen Chase

Two adults check out the colts. #4-13 left/foreground. Photo: Colleen Chase

 

FINAL LEAD PILOT REPORT – EVER…

Today it was my turn to lead  the final flight into St Marks NWR. But just as the weather has robbed us of so many days on this migration, it also cheated me out my last opportunity to fly with birds – ever.

Instead of a BANG – 23 years of hard work and sacrifice ended with a whimper.

We took off this morning with very little hope of success. On a normal migration day, we would have checked the conditions and gone back to bed. But there were 6 young cranes and many supporters waiting on us – so we tried.

The airstrip is in the middle of a forest so it was fairly calm on the surface. But as soon as we cleared the tree tops, the cross wind hit and turned the trikes sideways. The air was rough and it took full force on the control bar to keep it level.

I climbed just to see how high we would have to get birds to reach smooth air but when I topped a thousand feet it was still rough. The wind was out of the northeast and the GPS told me it was blowing at 29 mph. When I turned back for the airport, I was covering ground at 14 mph.

We tied down the trikes, drove to the pen and began the sad process of boxing them for the last 25 miles. It is such a short distance, it will not hamper their ability to navigate back to Wisconsin and we will likely track them anyway.

So that’s it. Our careers as avian aviators has ended. The ultralight method was crucial to establishing the core population. We have a hundred birds migrating in the eastern flyway. The first in the area since the 1870’s. It will be the basis of our future work but right now most of us see looking back, not forward.

We will now change techniques to see if we can encourage better breeding, but it won’t be the same. It’s the proper thing to do but somehow it should have ended differently. There should have been clear skies, a colorful sunrise and a string of couragious birds off my wingtip. But nature doesn’t work that way and I should have known better…

PREDICTING…

I wish I had something more definitive to tell you but at this point, while winds for the morning will be from the north, it appears they may be a tad stronger than we’d prefer but they may just be smooth.

If this is the case, we’ll be putting the aircraft up to check for ourselves at sunrise (7:24 am ET). Richard and yours truly will be at the pen ready to call the birds down. Colleen and Cindy will be ready to release the cranes from the Leon County pen.

Jeff will be in the tracking van, ready to follow below and Brooke and Joe will be the pilots. Jo-Anne will be at the San Marcos de Apalache park in the town of St. Marks to give everyone a play-by-play.

IF we do succeed in guiding the Class of ’15 the final 24 miles to their new winter home, once they’re secured everyone will head over to the St. Marks Refuge headquarters to answer any questions visitors may have.

We’ll also have one of the aircraft on display so be sure to check it out!

IF we don’t fly, the team will still gather at the headquarters and then we’ll participate in the St. Marks Wildlife & Heritage Outdoors festival.

We hope to see you there! Here’s a link to a map so you know how to get from the flyover location to the refuge: Directions

Now – everyone cross your fingers and hope for smooth & calm northerly winds for tomorrow morning…

St. Marks NWR WHO Festival

2016 marks the centennial of the Convention between the U.S. and Great Britain (for Canada) for the Protection of Migratory Birds. The Migratory Bird Treaty and three others that followed-with Japan, Russia and Mexico, form the cornerstones of efforts to conserve migratory birds that migrate across international borders.

St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge will recognize the story of 100 years of migratory bird conservation at its annual Wildlife Heritage & Outdoors (WHO) Festival, to be held on Saturday Feb. 6, 2016.

Activities for all ages will take place at this year’s festival and include live music, live animals, and a great line-up of exhibitors.

Festival hours are: 11am to 4pm. Click for location and directions or to read all the details.

Sadly, Another Loss

Last week we received news that there had been another crane predated at St. Marks NWR. This time it was 9-14 – a slightly older (by two days) sister to 10-14, whom was predated January 1st.

Both were heavily scavenged but tracks in the area indicate a bobcat was the culprit in both cases.

The team is taking advantage of the downtime this week to attempt to capture the bobcat and release it elsewhere.

The evening of the same day we received this news brought a PTT hit for female Whooping crane 3-14. She, along with male 4-12 had been at the winter pen area and had been associating with both 9-14 & 10-14.

The location of the hit indicated she had moved north by approximately 80 miles and was very close to where we were at the time so Jeff, Cindy and I ventured out with the radio receiver and antenna.

A quick email to St. Marks trackers confirmed we were indeed looking for two Whooping cranes as 3-14 and 4-12 (dubbed the Royal Couple) have continued their close relationship since arriving at St. Marks and both were not present in the area when the remains of 9-14 were discovered.

Within a few minutes of arriving in the area, we found them both. We can’t help but wonder if they may have witnessed the predation of 9-14 and decided it was time to leave the area…

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Male Whooping crane 4-12 on the right and female 3-14 on left in south Georgia. Photo: H. Ray

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