Save YOUR Spot to WHOOP it Up!


Registration for the Port Aransas, TX Whooping Crane Festival is now open! 

This year’s festival runs February 19 – 22nd and we hope you can join us at this event!

The Port Aransas Chamber of Commerce celebrates Whooping cranes on their winter habitat with an annual festival honoring these grand birds. In addition to the Whooping Crane, an awesome array of wintering migratory birds flock into the wetlands and onto the Texas shorelines of Mustang Island in and around Port Aransas, Texas. This festival is a must-attend for all birders!

Check out the Whooping crane viewing opportunities to see some of the amazing cranes in the Wood Buffalo – Aransas flock. You may just be fortunate to spot a family of Whoopers!

Port Aransas is on the northern tip of Mustang Island, about 30 minutes from downtown Corpus Christi, three hours from the Rio Grande Valley, three hours from San Antonio and four hours from Houston or Austin.

Early registration closes at midnight February 9th so book now to reserve the tours you want to participate in and speakers sessions you want to attend (Hopefully, one of them is OM CEO, Joe Duff). While you there, be sure to swing by the Bird’s Nest Trade Show at the Port Aransas Civic Center and say hi to Colleen, Joe and yours truly. Our friends from Eagle Optics will also be there so you can try out some great binoculars or spotting scopes.

It’s been more than 10 years since we’ve attended this fun event and I can’t wait to see how it’s grown.

The Back-Office Story

This post is a little different than most – it’s not about Whooping Cranes, marshes, migration routes, aircraft, or even a plea for donations. It’s about what’s going on in the background, especially during what many consider OM’s “off-season”, i.e. that time when all the Craniacs are waiting for the next class of chicks to hatch and begin their training in Wisconsin.

First, to clarify, it’s not really off-season – Brooke is diligently monitoring the 2014 cohort at St. Mark’s. But when the CraneCam goes offline, I think most of us think “whew! now OM can rest up for next season!” Many of you are aware that I’ve been hired to replace Liz Condie, OM’s long-time CFO, now that she has retired. This has afforded me a view of the inner workings of the OM “back-office,” and I can tell you that there’s no one resting on their laurels!

I worked at the Port Perry office recently for a couple of weeks so that I could get acquainted up-close-and-personal with my new responsibilities and co-workers. The office is just the right size with small office areas for each of us, plus room for storage, a tiny kitchen area, copy machine and printer area, and of course a wash room, which is Canadianese for rest room. Chris sits in the front, my space is behind hers, Heather’s is behind mine, and Joe, the “big boss” is in the back behind Heather. Most of the time our areas are wide open to each other which has plusses and minuses. On the one hand, it’s easy to coordinate and collaborate; on the other hand, it’s easy to interrupt others when you have a question. All in all though, it’s pretty perfect for our size staff.

From my desk I can swing around to my left and see Joe busily thumbing a note on his phone and see Heather working on two computers at once. If I swing to the right I can see Chris hard at work answering the phone, updating QuickBooks, opening mail, doing payroll, and paying bills, seemingly all at the same time!

I have decided that Chris is the unheralded hero of the office. She is the glue holding the back-office operation together when everyone else has gone on migration. (Which is not to say that Joe and Heather (and now me) aren’t doing their share of administrative work from the road!) But Chris works in the office alone every day, holding down the fort until the crew returns. I’m not sure if she’s busier when she’s covering the office alone or when everyone returns and wants to ask her about this, that, and the other thing!

I had no plans to “un-retire”, but working with the rest of the OM staff is really a joy and most of the time it doesn’t feel like work at all. We are a team, all pulling together in the same direction for the same purpose – safeguarding the future of Whooping Cranes. Thanks, OM, for this opportunity!

Share Button

Symbol of Peace Gone Wrong

After last year’s dove debacle at St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis (or his handlers) decided that helium filled balloons would be less terrifying for the children who accompany him on the last Sunday in January as he sends out the traditional message of peace.

Last year, onlookers were horrified to see the two doves released by the youngsters, immediately get nabbed by a gull and a crow. Hey, that’s the way the food chain works in the natural world. So last Sunday, instead of doves, balloons were released in Vatican City.

Doesn’t Pope Francis, who took the name of Francis of Assisi, the saint renowned for his love for birds and other creatures of the wild realize that balloons released pose a far more dangerous threat to all wild creatures?

Once deflated they and the ribbons they are attached to litter our environment. The brightly colored globs of rubber get hung up in tree branches, or land in the ocean. If they’re not washed ashore, they’re very likely consumed by sea turtles or other mammals who mistake them for food.


Last year, while preparing the training site at White River Marsh – almost 5 miles away from the nearest town, I found a deflated blue balloon on the runway. Complete with white ribbon, it was no doubt part of some type of celebration.

I couldn’t help but wonder if the person(s) who released it gave any thought at all to what happens to it once it leaves their grasp and floats off into the atmosphere?

We need to get word out that balloon releases are harming and killing our wildlife. If you’d like to help prevent future balloon releases at Vatican City, please mail the press office for Pope Francis:

His Holiness, Pope Francis
Apostolic Palace
00120 Vatican City

If you hear of a planned balloon release in your area, speak up. Tell them how harmful these events are and point them in the direction of 

Amazon SMILE!

There are many ways to support Operation Migration and one of them is through the Amazon Smile program.

If you’re an Amazon shopper did you know you can designate Operation Migration as your favorite charity and that 0.5% of everything you spend will be donated to OM?

0.5% may not seem like a lot but it does indeed add up. In 2014, OM received four contributions from Amazon Smile, totaling $849.03 – all because our supporters registered OM to be the beneficiary of their Amazon Smile purchases. Registration is easy and you can use your existing account if you have one. CLICK this link to get started

Another great way to support our work while going about your daily business is through GoodSearch. Just by using GoodSearch’s Yahoo engine when searching for anything on the internet, OM will earn 1 penny for each search. There’s also GoodShop and just like the Amazon Smile program, a portion of every purchase you make through the Good Shop portal will come to Operation Migration.

Last year, we received $1079.09 from the GoodSearch program!

Special thanks to everyone that took advantage of these programs in 2014!


Photo Round-up

Brooke sent along the following images captured last week.

Enjoy! (don’t forget, you can click each image to enlarge)


4-13 challenges the costume and shows that he knows how to jump rake.

4-13 challenges the costume and shows that he knows how to jump rake.

Either 4-12 or 4-13

Either 4-12 or 4-13. One of the most noticeable characteristics of an adult Whooping crane is the red patch of skin (not feathers) on their head.


Share Button

Louisiana Whooping Crane Shot

Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) Enforcement Division agents are looking for leads regarding an endangered whooping crane that was found shot in Vermilion Parish.

The crane was found just south of Zaunbrecher Road and north of Gueydan on Nov. 2 with an apparent bullet wound to her upper left leg. The bird was transported to the LSU Vet School where she was euthanized on Nov. 3. A necropsy result received on Jan. 8 confirmed that the crane was shot in the leg.

A reward of up to $10,000 is being offered by various groups for information that leads to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible for the illegal killing of this whooping crane.

CLICK to read full report

Crane Bling

They say that clothes make the man.  If that were true, I’d be stocking shelves at Goodwill or playing Casper the Friendly Ghost at some theme park.  But for women?  Well, it’s jewelry. “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.” That’s because diamonds are “Forever” and love ain’t.

The pressures on relationships today are greater than those that created those diamonds in the first place. You see the advertisements on TV. “If you’ve been divorced in an auto accident, call the law offices of Laighbach and Waggett NOW.” So if God hadn’t created jewelry stores, men would have had to. There’s just nothing on this planet that can instantly transform a dull, inconsiderate, philandering, always in the dog house, Quasimoto husband or boyfriend into a Prince Charming better than a piece of jewelry given at just that critical moment. And for the ladies, it sure beats bending down and having to kiss that frog, fingers crossed and hoping for the best.

“We’re just putting too much jewelry on those birds!” protested a male WCEP member at a recent banding meeting. He was obviously divorced. It’s hard to say if the chicks really consider their new leg bands jewelry, but it’s fun to imagine so.  Sure. Sparkling diamond rings, glittering gold bracelets and cleavage hugging pearl necklaces don’t have antennas sticking out of them, but if you’re a whooper chick with no Voter ID, you take what you can get.  Instead, brilliant bi and tri colored vhf and satellite transmitters adorn the sexy legs of five females while poor boy Peanut and another chick (who really is a chick) must settle for the vhf on one leg, transmitter-less color combination ID bands on the other look. Who ever said life was fair.

Here are a few photos. You be the judge.

Legbands of 3-14

Legbands of 3-14









Outreach Efforts

Saturday, January 17, Mary & Bob Vethe and Mary O’Brien staffed an Operation Migration display and information table as part of the Prairie du Sac Eagle Watching Days event in Wisconsin.

All of our volunteers do an incredible job of explaining the Whooping crane reintroduction effort to visitors of all ages at various festivals throughout the year and we’re very fortunate to have them out there spreading the word.

Young craniacs trying on the crane handler costumes.

Young craniacs trying on the crane handler costumes.

Bob Vethe and the Whooping crane project display.

Bob Vethe and the Whooping crane project display.

Share Button

The Lowest of Lows

Brooke Pennypacker has one of the greatest jobs in the world — and one of the worst. He gets to wear a costume and subversively immerse himself in crane culture as a member of the flock. That’s a rare opportunity that we are privileged to share because it grants us insight into the life of a wild creature in its natural environment. It’s akin to what Jane Goodall was able to do with chimpanzees at Gombe National Park in Africa. Of course she did it for a lifetime and changed the way mankind thinks of animals. On the other hand, she didn’t get to fly with them.

The time spent in their company, the learning to communicate without talking and the adventure of leading them on their first migration are the great parts of the job. The bad parts are waiting days for good weather, but the worst are when you have to tramp through the marsh to retrieve their remains.

Late last week Brooke had to perform one of the worst parts of his job. He tracked the transmitters of 2-13 and 7-13 into a wetland a few miles north of St Marks. It was a mixed habitat, part marsh, part gravel pit surrounded by woods and thick with undergrowth. There were lots of white egrets and other birds there but it wasn’t a great place for cranes. Still they seemed to frequent the area so there must have been something there to attract all the wildlife. Unfortunately, that wildlife included bobcats, which seem to be growing in number in that part of Florida. Brooke reports seeing more of these effective predators every year. Some are large but many are not much bigger than a domestic cat and even in open habitat, it’s easy for a cat that size to hide.

When Brooke found the remains of 2 and 7-13 there wasn’t much left. They had been scavenged and likely dragged into the woods. They were a mile apart and one was not much more than feathers scattered over a hundred square feet.  One had its VHF transmitter crushed and there were teeth marks on another leg band from something fairly small. Still, those marks could have been from a scavenger or the original predator.

As per the protocol, Brooke left everything untouched and came back later with a Fish and Wildlife Service Law Enforcement officer. The remains were collected and shipped to the National Wildlife Health lab in Madison, Wisconsin.

Many people have told us they wish they could be Brooke. They are envious of the opportunity to interact with the chicks from the time they hatch until we see them off into the wild. In a small way it’s a lot like being a parent. You make sacrifices to ensure they have the best possible chance at survival and then carry the load when it doesn’t work. The difference in being a crane handler, rather than a parent is that most of us are lucky enough to send our children into a reasonably safe world. Our birds however, face daily challenges just to stay alive. Sometimes I am glad I am not a bird and sometimes I am glad I am not Brooke.

Share Button

Caption This!

Colleen sent along this great photo she captured on 29 December, which shows the 2014 chicks and adult Whooping crane 4-12 chillin on the oyster bar in the release pen.

It’s just begging for a caption. Do you have one? Leave yours in the comments!

Caption this

Caption this

Share Button

Wildlife Forensics

From across the pond at BBC News comes a story about investigating crime against wildlife. A team of scientists from the School of Science, Engineering & Technology, Division of Computing and Forensic Sciences, Abertay University in Dundee have discovered a way to obtain fingerprints from the flight feathers (as well as eggs) of birds of prey.

This means that any birds discovered dead could lead investigators to identify and apprehend the suspect – IF they have handled the bird at all.

CLICK to read the full story at BBC News

Fingerprint on a Red kite feather

Fingerprint on a Red kite feather

Tracking Lessons

I’ve had a few tracking lessons while on migration but usually it’s been Richard, Brooke or Geoff doing it, while explaining to me what they are doing. To say I was not confident I could find a bird alone was an understatement.

While I was in St Marks, every morning, when we got to the blind, my first job was to turn on the receiver and scan the area. All the verbal lessons in the world don’t equal doing something yourself, and Brooke is a good teacher. He walked me through it and then let me do it. It’s amazing how better connected my hand and brain are than my ears and brain.

First I made sure our chicks had stayed put, then I listened for 4 & 5-12, then for the class of 2013.

On January 3rd, George Archibald brought a group of people out to the blind. Karen Willes was one of them and as we stood in the blind and watched the 2014 Whooping cranes she received a text message saying that 11 & 15-09 had just arrived at the Cow Pond in southeast Tallahassee.

Digiscoped using an iPhone and Swarovski spotting scope. Photo: Karen Willes

Digiscoped using an iPhone and Swarovski spotting scope. Photo: Karen Willes

These cranes had been in Indiana and we were resigned to not seeing them this winter. We were all happy they had decided to return. Karen was, of course the happiest! She puts so much time and energy into keeping them safe and educating the people that come to see them!

11 & 15-09 roosted at the Cow Pond for two nights and then did not return. There were reports of seeing them or hearing them but they were not returning at night to the roosting spot they’d been using for years.

Whooping cranes 11 & 15-09 at their Cow Pond location. The sign in the foreground asks visitors to please stay behind the sign and tells them about this special pair of cranes.

Whooping cranes 11 & 15-09 at their Cow Pond location. The sign in the foreground asks visitors to please stay behind the sign and tells them about this special pair of cranes. Photo: Karen Willes

Last Wednesday, Brooke asked me if I would go look around the area for them. I picked up the tracking van and started cruising the area they have been known to frequent. I drove around for about two hours before hearing that wonderful little faint “beep” among the static. I marked the spot on the gazetteer and returned the van to St Marks.

Saturday I picked it up again and found them further east of the spot they were at Wednesday. It was 5:15 pm at that point. When I came back at 6:15 pm they were gone and I could not find them.

Brooke wanted to know where they were roosting so on Sunday I started looking for them at 2:30 pm and eventually located them. I went over to the Cow Pond around 5:30 and visited with the folks that were waiting and hoping to watch them come into roost. I asked Karen if she wanted to go out with me the next morning to find them, her answer was “YES!!

On my way home a short time later, I checked the location I’d last seen them at and sure enough they were still there. I headed for home, pretty confident that I’d found the roosting spot.

Bright (well not so bright, it was still dark) and early Monday morning I picked up Karen and headed to the spot I’d last heard them the night before. Sure enough they were still there, so we now knew where they were roosting!

A friend of mine has lived in this area his whole life and works for Leon county, and I swear, he knows everyone in the County. He gave me the names of the farmers that lease this land and the name of the City of Tallahassee supervisor in charge of the area. By 7:30am Karen and I were getting the official tour! He showed us where they were roosting, a small pond that only appears after heavy rain. Not the best place for a bird to snooze! He then showed us their favorite foraging spots.

Karen got a decent picture (below) of them as they foraged for whatever it is they find so yummy in these fields. It was great to find out the men that work this area are fascinated and have fallen in love with them.

Captured with a 100-400 zoom lens with a 1.4 extender. 11 & 15-09 forage in Leon County.

Captured with a 100-400 zoom lens with a 1.4 extender. 11 & 15-09 forage in Leon County.

I dropped Karen off and headed south to St Marks to look for 2 & 7-13. Not a beep to be heard – from the lighthouse to the far west end of the refuge so I headed down the coast about 30 miles. Last year at the St Mark’s WHO Festival a gentleman showed me a picture he’d taken in East Point of what sure could have been a Whooper flying. After losing 8-13 and with 4-13 turning traitor to hang out with this year’s chicks and 4-12, I wondered if 2 & 7-13 had decided to go exploring.

It was my kind of morning, grey and really foggy. A beautiful peaceful ride, but no beeps. I turned into a little beach access drive to report to Brooke and turn around, and as I was talking to him a sheriff’s car pulled in behind me. I told Brooke, and asked him to come bail me out if he did not hear back from me soon and hung up to go see what was up.

The officer seemed uncomfortable and stuttered a bit as he asked me what I was doing with the big antenna on the roof of the van. (I guess I have a fairly innocent face) I explained I was looking for birds and handed him an OM pamphlet, at which point he grinned and looked so relieved. He said they had been on the lookout for credit card thieves. The little scanners they attach to a gas pump that steal your card number have to have their data collected wirelessly and someone who saw the van wondered if I was collecting credit card numbers. I’m really happy to say I did not see the inside of Franklin County jail and did not need to be bailed out.

Tuesday morning I went out and found the Cow Pond birds signal in their usual foraging place, they had flew from the Cow Pond around 7:30am. They returned to the Cow Pond early in the afternoon and stayed to roost!

After I left there I headed down to St Marks again and searched the refuge for 2 & 7 from the class of 13 again with no luck.

I can’t tell you how fun it is to go looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack and I can’t wait to do it again! This is great practice for the Spring when our 2014 crane chicks will need a bit of tracking to see where they go!

Thanks for the lessons Brooke, and when can I come get the van again?!

Share Button

Now That’s a Migration Flight!

Uncovering the mystery of migration is something that we humans have been trying to do, well, probably for forever.

Researchers with the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences recently retrieved two tiny geolocators, which had been placed on Semipalmated Sandpipers in June 2013. One of the units experienced a failed battery and had to be sent back to England where it was manufactured so that the data could be retrieved.

The second unit – worn by a male Semipalmated Sandpiper told researchers the tale of an incredible, year-long journey, which encompassed 10,000 miles.

CLICK to read the full story

Tennessee Sandhill Crane Festival

The 24th annual Sandhill Crane Festival takes place this coming Saturday and Sunday in Birchwood, Tennessee. The Birchwood Community Center will serve as festival headquarters, with free shuttle buses running all weekend to the Hiwassee Refuge and the Cherokee Removal Memorial Park, both located within a few miles radius of the community center.

Festival hours are 8 a.m.-5 p.m. each day. The event originated in the early 1990s when increasing numbers of eastern sandhill cranes began stopping at the Hiwassee Refuge to feed and rest while migrating between their northern nesting grounds in Wisconsin and their southern wintering grounds in Florida.

These days, as many as 12,000 sandhills congregate on the 2,500-acre refuge located where the Hiwassee River joins the Tennessee River. While some of the cranes use the refuge as a stepping stone to Florida, a growing number remain all winter and don’t head back north until mid-February or early March.

Biologists expect between 8,000 and 10,000 sandhill cranes at the refuge for this weekend’s festival. In addition to sandhill cranes, visitors also can expect to see bald eagles, all sorts of waterfowl and wading birds, and even a smattering of whooping cranes — a federally listed species whose white plumage contrasts with the blue-gray color of the sandhill cranes.

Along with wildlife viewing, there will be music, special programs, and children’s activities throughout each day at the Birchwood Community Center, 5623 Highway 60, Birchwood, Tenn. The American Eagle Foundation will present a live-raptor show each day at 2 p.m. At 1 p.m., Saturday, there will be a presentation titled “Archaeology in the 21st Century: A New Look at Hiwassee Island.”

The Rest of the (Banding) Story…

It is said that getting old is not for sissies. Neither is working on a crane reintroduction project.  It is, in fact, an emotional rollercoaster ride where the time spent in the valleys far exceeds that spent on the peaks, while you’re traveling at warp speed hanging on for dear life and trying not to throw up. The ride never begins, “Once Upon A Time” and the endings are rarely happy ones. It is true there are many wonderful happy ones, but when they do come, you find yourself hitting the ground for cover while someone yells “Incoming!” for you know that disappointment and gut wrenching sadness is on its way.  Were Paul Harvey alive, he’d call it, “The rest of the story.”  Here’s the rest of last week’s banding story.

As you know, we banded our chicks in preparation for the next chapter on their road to freedom and independence.  However, there was another darker side to the morning. As you may remember, last year’s yearlings #4 and #8-13 also flew in that morning landing just outside the north side of the pen.  I had spent some time with them the day before when, in the thick fog and thunderstorms, they landed with cohort mates #2 and #7-13 in a nearby marsh.  They were all in fine shape and still connected to the costume.

Whooping crane 8-13 in the foreground and cranes 2, 4 & 7-13 in the background. Captured 4 January by Brooke Pennypacker

Whooping crane 8-13 in the foreground and cranes 2, 4 & 7-13 in the background. Captured 4 January by Brooke Pennypacker

In fact, they had been flying over the pen almost daily but were discouraged from landing by the calls of 4-12, which is, in itself, strange because he roosted with them one night last week. Go figure.

The problem was that #8-13’s transmitter was flawed and had not been functioning for some time.  We decided to take the opportunity to catch her and replace it prior to banding the chicks.  However, as Eva, Scott and I approached her it was evident she was limping badly. Once caught, it was clear her right leg was severely broken.  Scott and I rushed her to Shepard Springs Vet Clinic a short distance away where our good friend, veterinarian Norm Griggs and his staff immediately attended to her needs.  Sadly, the severity of the break was such that nothing could be done to save her and she was euthanized.

Scott and I returned to the pen to assist with the banding. Eva was instructing Tim Dellinger in the WCEP method of banding.  Tim is an experienced bander having worked many years on the Florida non-migratory Whooping Crane Reintroduction Project which was discontinued in 2005 after 14 years during which time 289 whooping cranes were released, only a little over 12 of which survive today.

Also, when Scott and I arrived, Eva and Tim were putting a VHF transmitter on #2-14.  It was the same transmitter I had removed from the scavenged carcass of our last year’s #5-13.  Because we were short one transmitter, Eva modified this transmitter for reuse the previous night. The loss of #5-13 and #8-13 dropped the survival rate of the Class of 2013 to 50% in less than a year. Only 10 whoopers returned to the State of Florida this year. Now there are 8, though this is one more than returned last year, although one of those, 1-01, had to be captured and placed in a zoo due to tameness.

The point is, this project gives us much to be proud of. The hard work of so many wonderful people is embodied in every magnificent whooping crane on the landscape. Each bird is a symbol of hope; that tomorrow can be better than today and that we can, in fact, dig ourselves out of the environmental hole we have allowed ourselves to fall into. But this effort is not a Fairy tale. In Greek mythology, the gods condemned Sisyphus to an eternity of pushing a boulder to the top of the hill only to have the gods roll it back down.  But in his case, at least he had a boulder to push his shoulder into. We have a peanut… and we are forced to push it to the top of the hill with our nose. Is it any wonder that clean air smells funny.

Share Button
1 2 3 4 89