New Meaning to Once in a Lifetime

Guest Entry by: Mary O’Brien (tume lady), Madison, WI

If you’re reading this, you already know that being part of the Operation Migration odyssey is a once in a lifetime experience stitched together from indelible memories that touch your heart and make you smile when you reach for them time and again. On Sunday, while attending the Whooping Crane Festival, I had the opportunity to visit the class of 2014 in the pen and wanted to share it with all of you. As some of you know, I make the white costumes each year for OM and I’m proud to have been christened “tume lady” by the crane cam chat group. My best friend Sandy and I took over the costume production in 2006 using Joe Duff’s very own designer gown as a pattern. She lives in New Zealand now, but she’s still a craniac, my biggest fan, and always with me in spirit – So San, this one’s for you.

It’s an honor and privilege to make the costumes and just seeing them with the cranes and soaring along on migration is all the reward one could ever want. But, each year Joe has kindly extended an invitation to get a little closer to the cranes as a way to thank me. Until this year, I’ve declined his offer to maybe take part in a roost check or some other pen activity. Why on earth you ask? Well, I was just a little timid, didn’t want to impose on the OM crew, and worried a little about making a mistake.

Then crane karma that I so strongly believe in led to meeting and getting to know craniac Doug Pellerin who became my inspiration for the Sunday pen visit. Doug is the Fond du Lac volunteer who gets up before he even goes to bed and meets folks at the White River Marsh training site to take them to the viewing blind. His awesome wife Masako (“Mako”) also comes on these excursions and being from Japan where cranes have been revered for centuries, she has a bone deep appreciation for efforts to save the Whooping Crane.

A while ago, I asked Doug what it was like to be in the pen with the cranes. His big smile and shining eyes said it all as he explained that it’s mostly the little things like listening to their peeps, having them peck your costume and look longingly at the front pocket where they know the grapes are kept, or when they stare at your visor trying to see their own reflection or maybe looking for the face that’s in there somewhere. From that first conversation, I knew Doug would be the right person to share a pen visit with.  So, we asked Joe about it at the crane festival and he said you bet!

I met Doug and Mako at 6:00 Sunday morning. There was no training flight because it was too windy.  Tom Schultz was also there with some folks who were going on his bird watching tour. Tom is from Green Lake and was one of the guest speakers at the crane festival on Saturday (Birding Costa Rica); he also helps with the viewing blind tours. While Tom waited for his group, Doug, Mako and I headed for the small parking area where Doug and I got suited up. When Doug opened the back of his SUV, I saw only one costume and helmet. Since I’ve never made a costume for myself, Doug said he would bring one of his for me to wear. As Doug started to pull his costume on, I panicked a bit and asked where the other one was. Doug calmly and with a dead pan straight face said I don’t know, isn’t it there?  Well, it was just a little Pellerin humor to keep me from being nervous. I’ve never actually worn one of the costumes so Doug gave me some pointers.

Mary has made dozens of costumes for us over the years. This is the first time she's ever donned on herself. Photo: Mako Pellerin

Mary has made dozens of costumes for us over the years. This is the first time she’s ever donned on herself. Photo: Mako Pellerin

Meantime Mako set out for the viewing blind lugging Doug’s camera with what looked like a 40 pound lens so she could capture images of us walking to the pen and going in and out of it.

I certainly saw a different side of Doug on Sunday; he’s kind of a character and his quirkiness helped put me at ease. For example, as soon as we suited up it seemed like it would be fun to “moon” Mako before heading to the pen (jeans up of course, but since this is a family site, I won’t include even that image).  As we walked along the path to the pen, Doug explained the chores he would be doing and gave me some pointers on how to enjoy the crane kids without putting them or me at risk. He also reminded me that we would indeed be on CraneCam at a certain point near the pen and while in it – no pressure there!  For the fun of it, we did a yellow brick road arm link as we walked on the runway near the pen. For anyone interested, here’s the link to the crane cam clip of our adventure. http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/52658445/highlight/551248

At the pen, Doug did a final whispered check to make sure I was ready to meet the class of 2014. He also whispered that he intended to go about his chores and that I would be just fine – I needed to hear that! I had already made up my mind that I was going to act like a seasoned crane handler by copying the crane handlers I had watched on the CraneCam and by following Doug and Tom’s advice on not letting any chicks get behind me where I couldn’t see them.

Last minute check in before entering the pen - Photo by Mako Pellerin

Last minute check in before entering the pen – Photo by Mako Pellerin

Here are some precious images of my time with the cranes as snapped by Doug, whom I know was also keeping me in one corner of his vision all the time. We had a pre-arranged signal to use if I felt like I needed leave the pen. But that didn’t happen and it was love at first sight! Because the cranes apparently know when there’s a new tume in the pen, I moved very cautiously, often crouching so the chicks wouldn’t feel threatened. As I told Joe later, they pretty much ignored me except when I was shelling out a few grapes. He said that was a good sign.

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It’s difficult to put into words the thrill of being so close to these magnificent creatures and I’m  tearing up again as I write this. As Doug said, it truly is the little things that blow you away. Here are my best memories. Because I was wearing rose colored nail polish, I thought the chicks might be attracted to it, so I tried to keep my hands covered. But, at one point when I was pecking at the ground with the crane puppet, the nail polish was visible and one of the little guys started pecking my finger tips and then decided to taste my sleeve as well. I was so thrilled I forgot to breathe! When I told this story to Colleen Chase later, she mentioned that one of the chicks seems to have a fingernail fetish – that’s fine, I’m told there are worse fetishes. In a crouched position, my visor was about level with the leg bands which means there was a whole lot of crane chick above my head. One of the chicks did look me over pretty good, coyly turning its head so that each eye could get a better look. And then there was the ham that got tired of me being the center of attention for Doug’s camera and decided to do a little in your face photo bomb.

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Another thing that struck me was their huge feet, how wide their toes can spread, how flexible they are, and how gingerly and gently they walk. I loved the way some of them tipped their rumps up just enough to display and show off their tail feathers. And the feathers themselves are so beautiful up close. The white is starkly so and the cinnamon looks like it was lightly air brushed on as an afterthought by Mother Nature.

Way too soon it was time to leave. After blowing some kisses and putting our helmets back on, we walked back toward the parking lot.

Blowing a goodbye kiss to the cranes – photo by Mako Pellerin

Blowing a goodbye kiss to the cranes – photo by Mako Pellerin

Imagine my surprise when it wasn’t over yet. As the parking lot came into view, there was Tom Schultz and his birding group waiting to hear about our pen visit. Doug and I immediately went into flight mode so they could get great pictures of whooping cranes in flight. Jenny Gibbs from Baltimore graciously sent this image to Doug as soon as she got home on Monday (thanks Jenny).

Doug and Mary flying whoopers - Photo by Jenny Gibbs

Doug and Mary flying whoopers – Photo by Jenny Gibbs

Seriously, I felt like a rock star amid the snapping of cameras and congratulatory remarks and hugs. It was all I could do to fight back the dragon tears that would have totally trashed my mascara. We also had a chance to visit with Brooke and Colleen who joined the parking lot group.

Tom Schultz and birding group welcoming us back – photo by Mako Pellerin

Tom Schultz and birding group welcoming us back – photo by Mako Pellerin

And this image really says it all in response to Doug’s final question to me “well, how was it?”

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It was so awesome! – photo by Mako Pellerin

My humble thanks to Doug and Mako, Tom, and OM for another once in a lifetime opportunity. And to my fellow craniacs, I hope you enjoyed this story and that it gave you a little glimpse into how it feels to be inside the pen for the first time.

Keeping Track (of Whooping cranes)

With a hundred or so birds now using the eastern flyway, it’s difficult keeping tabs on them all. It is expensive to have people follow them north and south and listen for beeps from the leg mounted transmitters when the range of those devices is only a few miles.

The WCEP Monitoring and Management team is responsible for monitoring the birds and has been relying more heavily on satellite tracking devices or platform terminal transmitters (PTT). The problem, of course, is the cost of those units. They have to be small, light-weight and powerful enough to send a signal all the way to a satellite a few hundred miles above the earth. That means the initial unit cost is around $3000 each and the fee for acquiring the data is about $1000 per year. With a service life of 2 to 3 years that gets expensive fast.

There are new units available now that use cellular technology and with the proliferation of towers and the expanded service, these units are becoming more reliable, although, based on the service we get here at White River, that is hard to believe. Using that technology to track wildlife is relatively new so the unit cost is still high, but the annual service fee is only around $400. Adding solar cells to augment their battery life means they also last longer.

Ten of these cellular transmitters (CTT’s) were donated to WCEP, but they are fitted to the birds using backpacks. A signal Teflon ribbon wraps around the wings, holding the unit centered on their backs where they are exposed to the sun and can get a better signal than if they were leg mounted and spent most of their time submerged in water. Using one ribbon means that if one side (of the harness) is damaged, the entire unit falls off instead of dangling from the other wing.

Backpacks have been used on many avian species including a recent study of snowy owls. At ICF they have been tested on released Sandhill cranes and captive Whooping cranes with no adverse effects. Operation Migration has agreed to test three of these units on our birds this year. We will be able to evaluate their affects on endurance, social disruption and discomfort. We will be able to get images of them in flight and compare the birds with and without that extra baggage. They, and the other 4 birds will wear leg mounted VHF transmitters as usual.

Anne Lacy and Eva Szyszkoski from ICF are experienced bird-banders and will attach the units. Davin Lopez from the Wisconsin DNR will assist. Naturally the birds will not like being handled or having something strapped to their backs so it will take some time for them to forgive us and to get accustomed to flying again. That’s unfortunate because they have been following so well lately. It may even affect the first leg or two of the migration but it’s not as if our departure ever goes smoothly anyway. We have dealt with errant birds and delays before, yet we always manage to get the job done. And if we find that it is too invasive, we will simply cut the transmitters off.

There are negatives to attaching anything to a free flying bird, but the risk of injury is low, we have dealt with uncooperative birds before and there is a lot to be learned. And who knows, we might even find out that backpacks are not an issue and can increase the transmitter life and provide more detailed location data. Or we may find that they encumber the birds and reduce their endurance and should not be used. In the end, if we don’t try, we won’t learn anything.

 

Festival Pictorial

The weather over the weekend has been less than ideal – except for Saturday – the day of our festival (thank you Mother Nature!)

Below are just a few images, captured by Deb Johnson, taken before and during the 2014 Whooping Crane Festival in Princeton, Wisconsin.

A large crowd of Craniacs gathered at all three of the flyover locations to watch Saturday's training.

A large crowd of Craniacs gathered at all three of the flyover locations to watch Saturday’s training.

Luckily the weather cooperated and they weren't disappointed. Brooke in the lead with the cranes and Joe in the chase position in one of our new aircraft.

Luckily the weather cooperated and they weren’t disappointed. Brooke in the lead with the cranes and Joe in the chase position in one of our new aircraft.

Afterward everyone gathered at the Princeton High School to have a day of fun at the festival

Afterward everyone gathered at the Princeton High School to have a day of fun at the festival

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Have You Placed Your Bid Yet?

Bidding is NOW open on our 2014 online Facebook auction!

We’re very excited to have 43 WONDERFUL items in this auction, all donated by YOU, our faithful supporters!

Here’s where the items are located: http://on.fb.me/XZmyVm.

Here’s how the online auction works:

  • Bidding opened Tuesday, September 2nd and closes at noon, Central time on Friday, September 26th. *Any bids received prior to Sept. 2nd will be removed.*
  • The minimum bid amount in no way reflects the fair market value of each item. Instead the minimum bid amount was established to cover postage/packaging costs within North America.
  • To place a bid, please leave a comment on the photo of the item you are bidding on, including the amount of your bid.
  • If you are outbid, you may increase your bid by posting another comment, should you choose to.
  • At the conclusion of the auction, you will be contacted for payment information, and upon receipt of payment your item will be sent to you.

ALL funds raised will go to Operation Migration and the Class of 2014 Whooping cranes. If you have any questions, please email Jbellemer(AT)operationmigration.org.

HAPPY BIDDING!

Just a couple of the items available on Tuesday, September 2nd in our online auction!

Just a couple of the items available on Tuesday, September 2nd in our online auction!

It’s FESTIVAL Time!

Tomorrow we’ll kick off our 4th Annual Whooping Crane Festival in Green Lake County, Wisconsin and we’re excited to see old friends and to meet some new ones!

Over the entire weekend, the public is invited to come out to watch flight training each day (weather permitting) shortly after sunrise. As a reminder, the viewing locations can be found on the map on this page.

If you’re coming from the Princeton area and would like to grab a cup of coffee before heading to the flyover site, Twisters on Water Street in Princeton will be opening at 6am, specifically for the craniacs. Their coffee, mocha’s and cappuccinos are without a doubt the best in town.

Yesterday I had the pleasure of being an in-studio on-air guest of Rob and Louise, morning show hosts at WAUH 102.3 FM, The Bug, to talk about the festival. If you’re interested in learning more about this weekend, have a listen!

robnlouis

CHIP IN WINNER!

Here’s a FUN way to support whooping cranes! Have you purchased your chip yet?

Purchase a 2014 Whooping crane Chip from our Marketplace for $20. Each Chip is individually numbered and contains an alpha/numeric code.

As soon as you receive your Chip in the mail, visit www.coinlogin.org to register your name and email, along with your Chip number and code.

Over the next few months, we’ll be holding random draws for some fun items so keep an eye on your inbox.

Once all the Chips are gone, we’ll hold FOUR additional draws:

  • Two for CITGO gas cards, valued at $100 each.
  • $500 CASH
  • A flight back seat with our CEO, Joe Duff as pilot, while he flies in the chase position with the Class of 2014 Whooping cranes!

There are only 1000 Chips available, so be sure to order yours soon so you don’t miss out!

CHIP_IN

Get YOUR Chip Now!

When we launched this campaign last week, we mentioned we would hold random prize draws throughout the campaign, until all of the Chips are sold.

Last evening we selected a number from the 305 Chips, which have been registered thus far and the winning chip is number 979 - Registered to: Bil Aylor of North Carolina. Bil will receive an OM prize pack in the mail shortly. The prize pack includes all of the items pictured below. Congratulations Bil!

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Training Recap.

We were able to train the cranes yesterday as well as Saturday and Sunday, making for a 3-day stretch. With the poor weather lately, it’s good to get 3 days in a row.

Tom and I released the cranes after sequestering number 4-14 in the wetpen. Brooke was waiting outside – aircraft engine revving and ready for take-off and take-off they did!

The six young Whooping cranes flew two sessions: The first lasting 18 minutes and the second just over 3 minutes, making this the longest training session to date.

Here’s a quick video recap and there are some photos below.

Yours truly entertains #4-14 with some floating mealworms while his cohort trains with the aircraft. Photo: Tom Schultz

Yours truly entertains #4-14 with some floating mealworms while his cohort trains with the aircraft.

Brooke and his six ladies fly past the training site. Photo: Tom Schultz

Brooke and his six ladies fly past the training site. Photo: Tom Schultz

Training Update

The weather cooperated over the weekend and we were able to train with the young Whooping cranes on both Saturday and Sunday. Number 4-14 is still on restricted duty but yesterday when I was one of the costumes, along with Tom Schultz, I was able to watch his reaction as his flockmates and the aircraft were going through their paces.

He SO wanted to fly. He peeped loud. Very loud – each time the trike would pass by, and he flapped and ran across the width of the wetpen. His limp is barely noticeable now, however, reinjury is possible so we’ll take it slow, incorporating him back into the line-up.

Once training was finished with the others, we let him out onto the runway to mingle, and to be near the aircraft. He leaped and danced and even took off on a short circuit over the pensite. Joe started the trike engine a couple of times and he didn’t flinch at all.

Here are some photos from yesterday’s training session from both Tom Schultz and yours truly.

Preparing for take-off

Preparing for take-off

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Whoopers 2014 9-7 #4 taking flight4 - landing

Whooping crane 4-14 was very excited to spend some time out on the runway.

Whoopers 2014 9-7 #4 taking flight2

4-14 flies a short circuit around the pensite.

Whoopers 2014 9-7 #4 taking flight3

It was great to see him get out and stretch his wings.

Get Your Bids In!

Bidding is NOW open on our 2014 online Facebook auction!

We’re very excited to have 34 WONDERFUL items in this auction, all donated by YOU, our faithful supporters!

Here’s where the items are located: http://on.fb.me/XZmyVm.

Here’s how the online auction works:

  • Bidding opened on Tuesday, September 2nd and closes at noon, Central time on Friday, September 26th. *Any bids received prior to Sept. 2nd will be removed.*
  • The minimum bid amount in no way reflects the fair market value of each item. Instead, the minimum bid amount was established to cover postage/packaging costs within North America.
  • To place a bid, please leave a comment on the photo of the item you are bidding on, including the amount of your bid.
  • If you are outbid, you may increase your bid by posting another comment, should you choose to.
  • At the conclusion of the auction, you will be contacted for payment information, and upon receipt of payment your item will be sent to you.

ALL funds raised will go to Operation Migration and the Class of 2014 Whooping cranes. If you have any questions, please email Jbellemer(AT)operationmigration.org.

HAPPY BIDDING!

Just a couple of the items available on Tuesday, September 2nd in our online auction!

Just a couple of the items available on Tuesday, September 2nd in our online auction!

Whooping Crane #4-14 Improving

We mentioned last week that our only male Whooping crane in the Class of 2014 had sustained an injury to his hock. Crane #4-14 (aka Peanut) is improving and his limp is getting better. He’s on a daily regime of meds for pain and swelling. Doug Pellerin sent along this photo from yesterday, showing Geoff Tarbox administering a smelt, which contains his morning dose of medication.

Almost every time meds are administered it turns into a fun game of pick up fish. Number 4-14 takes the fish – drops it – Geoff picks it up. Over and over until finally he gulps it down (the crane, not Geoff). It’s even more fun to watch when the six girl cranes are standing by waiting for their chance to play!

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Let the Bidding Begin!

Bidding is NOW open on our 2014 online Facebook auction!

We’re very excited to have 34 WONDERFUL items in this auction, all donated by YOU, our faithful supporters!

Here’s where the items are located: http://on.fb.me/XZmyVm.

Here’s how the online auction works:

  • Bidding opens on Tuesday, September 2nd and closes at noon, Central time on Friday, September 26th. *Any bids received prior to Sept. 2nd will be removed.*
  • The minimum bid amount in no way reflects the fair market value of each item. Instead the minimum bid amount was established to cover postage/packaging costs within North America.
  • To place a bid, please leave a comment on the photo of the item you are bidding on, including the amount of your bid.
  • If you are outbid, you may increase your bid by posting another comment, should you choose to.
  • At the conclusion of the auction, you will be contacted for payment information, and upon receipt of payment your item will be sent to you.

ALL funds raised will go to Operation Migration and the Class of 2014 Whooping cranes. If you have any questions, please email Jbellemer(AT)operationmigration.org.

HAPPY BIDDING!

Just a couple of the items available on Tuesday, September 2nd in our online auction!

Just a couple of the items available on Tuesday, September 2nd in our online auction!

Everyone Loves a Parade!

Well, we’re now at the time of year when training becomes come what may. Actually, it’s started earlier than usual this year. Some mornings we get up, and the wind is calm, but we have lots of fog. And when we don’t have lots of fog, we have rain. And when we don’t have rain, we have lots of wind. And what’s more is, we’re also at the time of year when we’re supposed to have these birds up in the air for minutes at a time. We’ve been able to train one or two times a week over the last two weeks. In fact, Brooke told me one morning (joking of course) that we weren’t going to train until the 21st of September! (our target departure date)

Of course, the concern is, will the birds get too comfy in their pen? Nobody wants a repeat of 2011. Not even these birds, and they weren’t even alive for it.  But you know what I say to that? I say watch the cranes during training. Even after missing almost a week’s worth of training, the morning Richard finally got the birds up in the air, he had them up for almost ten minutes. Four days later, we had them up for 17 minutes. Last Thursday, they were only airborne for about 10 minutes but that was more a function of the weather. We had a long fog delay and by the time it cleared, the air was already a little bumpy. But we didn’t want the day to go to waste, since the next few days were going to be misses. So far, from the moment these cranes took to the sky, they have not disappointed.

Of course, we’re all worried about little Peanut (I’ve taken to calling him ‘Luka’ for reasons of my own). His sprained leg is going to be keeping him down for the next couple of weeks. There’s some concern he’s going to fall behind or get acclimated to the pen. Not anytime soon, I say. For one, we have to keep locking him in the wet pen (which is a first for me) just to keep him from coming out the runway when we open the doors. The fact we even have to do this is a sign that he has his heart on training. In addition, he likes to flap around the pen when he needs to move around. His wing muscles will get a workout from that for sure. He still walks on his goofy leg, though but we’d be happier if the swelling in his leg went down.

That about sums up life in White River Marsh for the moment!  Keep watching that CraneCam!  Who knows what special guest white birds will show up, or when.  I for one, cracked a very large smile when I saw the 2013 birds march down the runway like a parade last Saturday!

The Class of 2013 returns to check out their former training site.

The Class of 2013 returns to check out their former training site.

RIP Martha…

Today marks the 100 year anniversary of the loss of a species. A species once so abundant, they darkened the skies as flocks passed overhead during migration. Estimates once placed the total population at 3 to 5 billion. Billion.

Over hunting decimated the species in a few decades, until one remained – ‘Martha’ – named after First Lady Martha Washington. Martha, the last remaining Passenger pigeon, lived out the remainder of her life at the Cincinnati Zoo. She died at 1pm on September 1st, 1914.

Project Passenger Pigeon is marking the anniversary with a number of initiatives, including the release of a documentary “From Billions to None,” speaking engagements, social media campaigns and the release of a new book about Passenger pigeons. Their goal is to strengthen the relationship between humans and our natural world and encourage sustainable use of natural resources. 

If you are planning to attend our Whooping Crane Festival dinner on Friday, September 12th, our keynote speaker will be Stanley A. Temple, who participated in the making of the documentary From Billions to None. 

For 32 years Stan occupied the faculty position once held by Aldo Leopold and while in that position earned every teaching award for which he was eligible. He and his students have worked on endangered species problems in 21 different countries, and have helped save some of the world’s rarest and most endangered species, especially birds. Stan has received recognition for his work in conservation from numerous organizations, and has authored over 330 publications. He has long been interested in passenger pigeons, having analyzed historical records of the species that were first assembled by A. W. Schorger for his 1955 book on the life history and ecology of the species. 

Stan’s presentation explores the ecology and life history of the passenger pigeon and other extinct and endangered birds, current extinction crises, endangered species recovery, human relationship with wildlife, and sustainable use of biological resources.

I’m looking forward to his presentation. If you’d like to attend, be sure to pre-register.

Here are some additional new stories about the Passenger pigeon: New York Times | Birdwatching Daily |  Wall Street Journal

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