Day 8 – Not so Positive After all

After a week on the ground, one would think the young cranes would be bursting with excitement and ready to exit the pen but this morning, they seemed a bit confused and needing some convincing from Colleen and I that it really was time to take off after the aircraft.

In their defence – this was the first time ever they’ve launched from the travel pen so I suppose I can understand their confusion.

Very quickly they were all in the air and attempting to follow Brooke toward the west. Brooke made a sweep turn to the south to allow them to catch up but two fell back and landed in the field – to the west.

Shortly after take-off all six Whooping cranes against the beautiful Wisconsin fall foliage. Photo: Jo-Anne Bellemer

Shortly after take-off all six Whooping cranes against the beautiful Wisconsin fall foliage. Photo: Jo-Anne Bellemer

The air coming off the hill north of the pen was creating a bit of turbulence and it appeared the other four were getting bounced around a bit. Eventually, the swamp monsters retreated and were replaced by the familiar costumes as Brooke came in to land next to the travel pen.

Once he was on the ground number 6-15 and the other crane (I couldn’t make out the legband) quickly launched from the field they’d landed in and joined us back at the pen.

We’ll try again – soon, we hope.

The Pitot Tube…

“To catch the crane, you must think like the crane.”  That’s what I used to jokingly tell people when they asked how one went about catching a crane. Kneeling down and touching crane tracks with my ring finger, pretending to touch this finger to my tongue, and then confidently proclaiming, “Yup, they’re fresh…” – also a favorite.

The latter is total nonsense. One cannot determine the age of a crane footprint by oafishly poking at it and ingesting soil. On the other hand, understanding how the animal(s) that you work with think is, to some extent, both feasible and essential to effectively accomplishing your objective(s). The ultralight pilots regularly demonstrate such insight into “the mind of the crane.” Those of you who regularly watch the CraneCam know exactly what I’m talking about. Got an uncooperative bird that won’t get back in the pen? The pilots get them in. Got a crane that doesn’t want to take its meds, regardless of how well you’ve concealed them in a treat? With the application of a little crane psychology, the pilots convince the birds that they in fact want those medicated treats, badly, and before you’ve figured out which bird is next in line they’ve got them each medicated and are signaling that it’s time to leave.

Basically, cranes make everything more difficult than it needs to be – if they were any other way they would cease to be cranes – and these guys get a bunch of ’em to follow an ultralight from Wisconsin to Florida.  To call that impressive is an understatement. But while we’re on the topic of ultralights… there’s the pitot tube.

What is a pitot tube?  Basically, a pitot tube is used to measure airspeed. You’ll notice these little tubes on the front of the ultralights (and sticking out of commercial airliners).  I wasn’t entirely ignorant to the basics of aviation when I started this job. I had an inkling of what it was I was looking at when I first saw it. I wasn’t entirely without insight into the workings of the “crane-brain” either.  And from that frame of mind I knew exactly what I was looking at: No mere tube (or protuberance, if you will), but a source of intrigue unparalleled in the annals of aviation.

A bit hyperbolic? Perhaps. But my suspicions were well founded in observations. Among them are the “rope incident of 2009”, the “joyful discovery and summary re-destruction of dead chipmunk incident of 2010”, the “eject kids from playground and teach colts how best to kill a swing incidents of 2009-2011”, and, of course, the “mass disruption of a thousand cranes by empty water bottle fiasco of 2013”, followed immediately by the, “thousand cranes compete for possession of empty water bottle debacle of 2013”.

All of these events were as insightful as they were entertaining.  So when I saw the ultralight for the first time I knew… the pitot tube would have to be investigated regularly, investigated thoroughly, and reinvestigated in greater detail if another crane were observed selfishly exploring it on its own accord.  And, it has been, just watch the footage and you’ll see. Fortunately for the pilots the aircraft are too well built for the cranes to tear it off – the coiled wire to the headset, seatbelt, and instrument panel would be the next parts to go.

Day 4 – Standing Down

As soon as I opened the RV door moments ago, I realized we would not be migrating today. Surface winds are from the east at ~7mph.

The following is a screengrab from NOAA’s Aviation Weather Service which shows that aloft (3,000ft) winds are a healthy 25 knots.

The following photos were captured last evening during pen check by Doug Pellerin. Pumpkins are provided to the young crane colts as a form of enrichment. They use their strong beaks to poke and prod at the pumpkins until they reach the seeds inside.

DSCN1638 DSCN1641 DSCN1644

Whoopsie Has a New Home

The captive crane flock at the International Crane Foundation has a new member – The Whooping-Sandhill Crane hybrid chick that hatched earlier this year in eastern Wisconsin has been transferred to their headquarters from the Milwaukee County Zoo, where it was temporarily housed this summer.

The chick will be placed in quarantine for 30 days and then housed off exhibit in ICF’s Crane City. The husbandry staff at ICF will provide excellent care for the young crane as it continues to mature, and they hope to pair it with an existing bird in their collection for companionship.



It’s been 22 years since the first time I lined up on a grass runway, added power and launched with a flock of birds. I can’t even guess how many hours we have logged together since then but in all that experience I have never met a cohort like this. We may have done something different this year but it is nothing we can put our fingers on. Everything looked and felt the same.

More likely, we just got lucky. Every season we have good followers and some that are independent. We have aggressive cranes and indifferent cranes and some that turn back. But there are always a few that love the aircraft and are eager to fly. Maybe this year we got a whole flock of them just by coincidence or happenstance and we can’t take false credit for any of it.

Perhaps after last year Mother Nature thought we needed a break and had a word with six otherwise complacent chicks. She may have promised them a little extra attention if they cooperated because she knew we were just trying to help. Nah, we just got lucky!! Either way, we can’t look a gift crane in the beak.

We have learned from experience that cranes are far more apt to turn back if the winds are strong and the air is rough. Under normal circumstances we would have just written this morning off as another delayed start. But if we are going to take advantage of their dedication to the aircraft, what better opportunity? The destination was only five miles away. Even if they never found the sweet spot off the wingtip, they could make it that far. And if they didn’t, we could just turn it into another training day.

The air was smooth at 500 feet but I knew we would never get them that high on such a short trip. So we took off to battle the mechanical turbulences that winds create when they tumble over the hills and trees. We turned on course and felt the upward push as we rode the crest of one wave and sunk back down in the valley of another. I was trying to check over my shoulder but had to stare directly into the sun so I relied on Brooke to tell me if they were still there. Not once did he say they are falling back or you have a gap in the line off the left wingtip.

We were just getting into slightly smoother air when we crossed over the ridge to the north of the first migration stopover. I flew past it making a sweeping slow turn to the right and set up an approach. This would be the first time the birds had landed someplace other than their home pen and I expected them to circle a few times in caution and apprehension before getting up the nerve to land somewhere different. But as I touched down in a short crop of clover they landed right next to the trike. They all stood at attention, heads up, eyes wide and moved closer to the aircraft as the only thing familiar in a strange new environment. Brooke landed and we taxied close to the pen.

Within minutes they were chasing grasshoppers as Brooke and I moved the electric fencer wire and opened the pen. Number 11 was first in, crossing the threshold as if it were everyday stuff. Number 2 was next and then they all came in with no more difficulty than a normal return to the White River pen.

By this time the wind was really picking up so we left the ground crew (Doug and Jeff) to rig the outer perimeter fencer wire and took off heading for the hangar for the last time. It was ten miles to the north but the headwinds slowed us to 16 miles per hour over the ground. The trip took more than half an hour but the time gave us an opportunity to thank whomever is responsible for the Super Six and how we might learn that trick.

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