Nice Reward

As you know, yesterday we had hoped to train one more time to allow #4-14 (aka Peanut) another opportunity to fly with the aircraft – this time by himself. Unfortunately, once the fog began to clear the wind had picked up, preventing a training flight.

Those of us waiting at the public flyover location were treated to an exceptional sunrise made even more spectacular when sub-adult Whooping cranes 4-12 and 5-12 flew into view.

Whooping cranes at sunrise. Credit: H. Ray

Whooping cranes at sunrise. Credit: H. Ray

Backpack Transmitters Removed

If you were watching our camera yesterday morning you will already know that we removed the backpack transmitters from 2-14, 7-14 & 9-14.

Yesterday morning all of the birds took off ahead of the aircraft ?on their own ?for a short circuit around the pen lasting 30 seconds. On the next flight with the aircraft ?the three birds fitted with backpacks dropped out after 30 to 40 seconds, while the other 3 flew for 5 or 6 minutes ?extending out a mile or so.

This ?was their fifth training session since the units were fitted and we have not seen any improvement in their flight ability. The weather was still holding so Joe gave the order to remove the backpacks and try again. Brooke removed them without the need to pick the birds up and it was done on the runway in ?about ?30 seconds per bird.

They were allowed to rest and preen for 5 minutes, then Brooke attempted another flight. This time all of the birds, except number 9-14, followed for five minutes or more. Number 9 did take off with the aircraft but failed to keep up. Instead, she flew three circuits around the pensite while the other birds were with the aircraft. This was longer that we saw any of the backpacked birds fly since they have been wearing them.

Given that they had just been grabbed and only had 5 minutes to adjust, it was surprising that even the other two flew as long as they did. To us, this was a clear indication that the backpacks were inhibiting them and demonstrated that it was not a result of a reluctance to follow us. In fact, number 2-14 has always been a good follower. Even with the backpack, she always attempted to follow, and did follow well as soon as it was removed.

This morning Richard van Heuvelen was our lead pilot and all six flew with him, extending out a couple miles from the site and for a duration of 20 minutes and 9 seconds. Pretty conclusive evidence that the backpack transmitters were inhibiting their normal flight ability.

We hope to allow #4-14 out tomorrow (weather permitting) to see if he’ll fly. He’s been grounded for ~3 weeks after sustaining a soft tissue injury to his tarsus in the pen one evening during a storm with strong winds. He still has his legbrace on, which should help to keep his leg stable upon landing.

Here are a couple of images I captured this morning from the public viewing area at Mile Rd. and County Road D.

IMG_3778_1 IMG_3965_1 IMG_4000_1


There are just a few HOURS left in our 2014 online Facebook auction!

We’re very excited to have 48 WONDERFUL items in this auction, all donated by YOU, our faithful supporters!

Here’s where the items are located:

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)


NEW Target Departure Date

As we’ve demonstrated on all the past migrations, setting a target departure date is a futile exercise. But, if nothing else, it gives us something to aim at when all of our other targets are moving. The last one passed with us grounded like a Whooping crane with a backpack transmitter. In fact, that’s why it was postponed. The weather has cooperated lately and we have had four training sessions since we committed a crane indignity and grabbed them. In that time they have become accustomed to the attachments and a little less offended with us. They have now passed the stage of distrust and are willing to follow. The problem now is the transmitters.

Backpack transmitters are used on many wild birds because their antennas point in the right direction to reach the satellite receivers, they can be fitted with solar chargers and they are larger for more batteries. The down side is that they are fastened on using Teflon straps around the wings and they seem to disrupt the airflow over the bird’s back. That pulls the feathers up destroying the lift and well as creating drag.

In this photo you can see how the laminar flow over the back of the lead crane is disrupted by the backpack transmitter. Photo: Doug Pellerin

In this photo you can see how the laminar flow over the back of the lead crane is disrupted by the backpack transmitter. (Click photo to enlarge) Photo: Doug Pellerin

Whether it’s the weight, the straps, or the disrupted laminar airflow, the birds are unable to fly they way they once did. Yesterday we made several training flights circling the pen site as the backpack fitted birds cut the corners and landed back on the runway. The other three locked on to the aircraft and followed it for 13 minutes.

This is an experiment in which we hoped to show that backpacks are a viable attachment method for transmitters, or that they caused problems and should not be used. Flying with the birds, we could have videotaped them at close range and watched for aggression towards the birds with the antennas sticking out of their backs. But so far our backpack cranes have not ventured more that a few hundred yards from the pen.

If the weather continues to cooperates, we will give it one more try. What we see will dictate what we do. Just for our own amusement, we have set next Monday, September 29 as our target departure date.

Two-fer Training Days

It’s been a full week since our young Whooping cranes were handled to have their legbands and backpacks put on and they’re starting to trust the costumes again after many pounds of grapes, blueberries and mealworms.

We’ve been able to train with them for the past two days and yesterday all six were airborne, albeit briefly. Number 4-14 is still on the mend and is sitting out training sessions for a few more days. He’s walking very well with his specially fitted hock brace and we’re confident he’ll be back in the air soon.

Here are some photos captured by Doug Pellerin who was in the blind yesterday morning.

Whooping crane number 8-14 comes in for a landing

Whooping crane number 8-14 comes in for a landing

Richard van Heuvelen flies past with four cranes.

Richard van Heuvelen flies past with four cranes.


Cranes 2-14 & 7-14 pass by the blind


Early Migration

It would appear that the wild flock of Whooping cranes are already on the move. Refuge staff at Aransas are reporting that four adult Whoopers in the Wood Buffalo-Aransas flock have been spotted in Texas already.

We’ve had exciting news here at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge: four adult whooping cranes arrived about a month ahead of normal early arrival time! These four birds were first sighted on Friday, September 12 by an area fishing guide and confirmed with photos by Refuge staff on Monday, September 15. Although not unheard of, this early arrival is fairly rare. The average early arrival date for wintering whooping cranes is around the second week of October. We haven’t had any other migration reports as of yet, but as frontal passages become more frequent, migration should begin in earnest.

What a TREAT!

Those of you who watch Operation Migration’s live CraneCam are probably aware that I got to don my costume several times this past week and enter that most hallowed ground that is called simply “The Pen.” What an experience!

The first time was the day after the birds had been dressed out in bling: leg transmitters for all but Peanut (#4-14) and backpack transmitters for three birds (2, 7, and 9). Heather and I released the birds for Joe who conducted runway training, meaning he just ran the trike back and forth up the runway without taking off. For the most part they followed, although #7 was highly insulted by her ordeal and took several days to get over it. And #10 was so obsessed with her leg antenna so she pretty much preened it for the whole time.

The top of the antenna is a spring so that it doesn’t break when it is bent this way and that, and I was taken by the sound when they preen it – it’s a sound like running your thumb across a comb. That’s something I never heard on the cam.

Another thing I noticed was how, when they peep, you cannot tell which bird is peeping. The don’t open their beaks and it almost sounds like they are ventriloquists, throwing their peeps all around the pen.

For at least two days of my visits, #7 stayed at the back of the wet pen. She wanted nothing to do with costumes! On the way to the site each day, Brooke said we would stay in the pen and feed grapes and mealworms so that the birds would again warm up to the costumes. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it!

Finally, on Friday (I think – it’s a blur) I strolled over to the far side of “the beach” (far from the cam, that is) and all the birds followed me. I mean ALL! #7 nonchalantly strolled up from her staked out position in the wet pen to visit. She quickly returned to the back, but at least she was coming around!

Bonding with Peanut has been, how should I say this… interesting. For a few days Peanut hated my puppet or me or both. He wailed on my puppet, bit it, poked my head, and bit my arm. Now don’t get nervous – the pokes can hurt, but the nips do not. They are gentle, kind of like when your dog (if you have one) mouths you in play. Regarding the pokes, I’m glad I was wearing a helmet!!!

Yesterday I was watching them eat grape-treats and noticed that you can see the entire grape go down the side of their neck – whole! A big bulge travels down the right side of the neck with each grape. It was fascinating to watch! I’ve heard Heather and Colleen mention this in the past, but had forgotten about it until I witnessed it with my own wide-as-they-can-be-open eyes.

As I write this, I just returned from doing “roost check” with Colleen. All is well with the birds. #7 is no longer shy; #10 is no longer obsessed with preening her leg antenna; Peanut is no longer wailing on me, and he’s walking great with his new leg brace.

It was just grapes and mealworms all around. What a TREAT!

Delayed Migration Start

October 13th is the date we would expect to begin the migration if you average all of our actual departure dates over the last fourteen years. Prior to that, we set a target departure date so we have a deadline when the equipment and the crew are ready. In truth though, it is a good example of the conflict between the ambitions of people and the hard rules of nature and the weather. We can plan all we want but that has no influence over the weather or the birds.

Today was our target departure date for the 2014 migration but it stormed all night, the ceilings are low and wind is gusting to 15. In addition to that, we still have a lot of work to do. The birds received their transmitters this past week. All of them except number 4, whose leg is injured, where fitted with leg mounted VHF units and three of them had backpack satellite devices attached. That meant they had to be grabbed and held for 20 minutes and to a Whooping crane, there is no greater indignity. Their trust in us evaporated when we caught them by the bustle and escorted them out the gate to the waiting handlers who slipped a hood over the eyes and gathered them up.

With patience, they will get over their distrust but some of them are sore from struggling and each one has a different tolerance for new hardware they carry. Add to that a long string of windy mornings and we end up with birds unsure they can fly and reluctant to follow us.

None of this is new. We have faced delayed starts almost every year for one reason or another, yet we manage to get it done eventually. October 13th is a long way off so we will plod ahead. One morning the birds will feel better about us, the winds will calm and off we will go. Nature has its own speed and we would all fare better if we worked with it and not against it.

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So Far So Good

I’ve just finished reading Mary O’Brien’s post and I am grinning from ear to ear.  I can’t tell you how wonderful this lady is! She puts so many hours into making the costumes for the crew with such love, it boggles the mind. That trip to the pen was so overdue! Mary we all love you and think of you every time a costume is put on.

CraneFest was a blur this past weekend, it was the best ever, so many people came from so far to support the birds and crew they love. The cities of Berlin, Princeton and Green Lake have fallen in love with Whoopers and the craniacs have fallen in love with these wonderful towns. It was a weekend that will be remembered.

(Well, I’m writing this part of my post in a whisper. I’ve made it through the first week up here and have not washed a pan with motor oil or put the tracking van in the ditch. Maybe I’ve broken the tradition of starting migration with a bang… I hope.)

What a wonderful week it has been getting to know this year’s class. They are the greatest birds ever! (OK, I know I say that every year) Number 3-14 is the girl that loves to explore a bit of fingernail showing, she is so gentle it makes my heart melt, but I have to admit that number 4 is fast becoming my favorite. Dubbed Peanut by Brooke because he was the smallest chicklet, the only male in a harem of females. Poor guy, his legs were wonky when he was young and he hurt his right leg playing in the wind in a storm about 3 weeks ago.  It has not healed as quickly as hoped and was re injured a week ago as he played on the runway.

Wednesday, he went to see Dr. Barry Hartup at the International Crane Foundation. After being boxed, splinted and boxed again I was prepared for a cold shoulder this afternoon at roost check, these birds can and do hold a grudge after being handled. I can’t tell you how tickled I was to have him come over as I crouched down to study that leg, and want to pick on my puppet. We beat up a few blades of grass together then took turns pounding a clod into the mud.  He won, he drowned it. With some luck we will see Peanut flying with his girls in a few weeks.

What a great start to this migration. Here’s to a safe first journey for these girls and their Peanut, the pilots and the ground crew that do their best to make sure that Whooping Cranes will be around for future generations to fall in love with!

Whooping crane 4-14 aka Peanut with his new hinged leg brace.

Whooping crane 4-14 aka Peanut with his new hinged leg brace.

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