Tracking Whooping Cranes – YOU Can Help!

The eggs that will soon become fluffy orange chicks are currently being incubated at the captive breeding facilities and in September we’ll be releasing them as tall, gangly whooping crane colts in Wisconsin. 

From that point on they will be on their own but like any ‘parent’ we do like to keep track of them. Luckily, technology allows us to track them remotely and from the comfort of our desks IF we can fund these important tracking devices.

This year, Operation Migration has committed to raise the funds needed to acquire five GSM remote tracking units. To help accomplish this, we’ve setup a fun, social campaign on GivingGrid.

The idea is that you select a square representing the dollar amount you can contribute. Then you have the ability to upload a photo – perhaps of you, or your pet, or a place you’ve visited… Just something fun! 

Depending on the level of support you choose, you qualify to receive a thank you gift and there are a number of them available. 

Why not have a look for yourself? Please share the campaign with your family and social media friends using this link:

We’re almost a third of the way to our goal!

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One of my favorite things in the world is to watch someones 1st time getting up close and personal with the whooping cranes.

I have spent the past week with Vanessa, who has been volunteering here at Patuxent for a couple of weeks. I’ve really enjoyed working with her. She has been awesome guiding me through the many things that need to be done in preparation for chick season!

One of our jobs this week has been to socialize 3 yearling whooping crane youngsters. (We did not have to be dragged kicking and screaming to this chore).

These birds are yearlings that were held back and the decision to keep them here at Patuxent was made late in the season so they were kept sheltered from people. One is a wheezer; one has a limp, and I can’t remember the 3rd one’s issue. So, now that they are going to become part of the flock here so they need to get used to people.

Whether they become part of a breeding pair or become an imprint model teaching tiny chicks that? they are Whooping Cranes, they will be around people from this point on.

Two of the chicks are pushovers and as you can see, Vanessa made a friend last Friday morning. The 3rd wants nothing to do with us or our tasty smelt.

Smelt are used to convince the young cranes that humans are okay. Photo: Colleen Chase

The 3rd crane in the background isn’t having any part of this. Game on #27-16!

Vanessa wins over two of the yearling whooping cranes with smelt. Photo: Colleen Chase

Angry Bird!

Doug Pellerin captured this fantastic photo last week, which shows female whooping crane number 9-03 defending her nest against this Sandhill crane intruder.

Whooping cranes are very territorial during nesting season. Photo: Doug Pellerin

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A Grand Entrance

Some of you may remember the frying pan start to my 1st migration. Or the time I drove the tracking van into the ditch the day after getting to WI one year.


Some traditions are not good. Seems I have started an unpleasant one. 

While on migration I drove a Dodge pickup truck with a camper, The Arctic Fox, set in the bed, pulling a bird pen trailer. I could not see the bird trailer unless I turned a corner or the sun was just right and I could see our shadow. If you over steered the whole thing would agitate like a washing machine. And, I did fine. The guys said it was more difficult than pulling one of the big travel trailers or the equipment trailer. Hmmm…

This past winter I bought a 32 foot travel trailer and Joe was kind enough to let me borrow the white Ford to pull it north. Jo-Anne and Sue brought it down to St Mark’s and traded it for the tracking van, which needed to go north to NY to be inspected.

So, last week I packed up and got nervous. Brooke and my sweet friend Hal, who has every tool known to man on one truck, put the tow package on the truck and trailer. I got nervous-er.

Saturday, I woke up shaking, moving day was here. Brooke drove around with me for a couple of hours and gave me a good lesson on how to pull a trailer you CAN see. He laughed at me while I shook. At the end of the lesson I had to admit it was nice to see what you are pulling and the leveler/sway bar package is a wonderful thing. Semi trucks did not blow me off the road. I could get in and out of a gas station for diesel. I was ready!

Brooke took off in the Jamboree RV and headed west on Interstate 10, aiming for Wisconsin and nest monitoring, and I headed east on I 10 to catch I 95 north to the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland. While I white-knuckled it Saturday – Sunday I was much more relaxed. A mostly uneventful trip. I was thinking I could not ask for a better start to pulling the Cherokee, as I pulled into Patuxent. I tempted fate.

Robert Doyle greeted me, handed me a much needed adult beverage, and we discussed the best way to get the RV into position. Since I have very little experience backing up, we decided the best way to go was through the field and swing into position rather than try to back it up. We both walked it and deemed it dry enough. I got about 50 feet in and promptly came to a halt.


Sigh. The 4 wheel drive did nothing. Him pulling with his truck nada. So close. So far away. We gave up and I went to bed grateful that if I had to do something stupid and need rescuing, at least I had done it here where I have friends to rescue me.

And rescue me they did the next morning!

It has been a wonderful week! A whirlwind of activity getting ready for crane chick season. It is a happy time of year with so much hope! It’s a happy place to camp, White Birds call all times of the day and night. I pinch myself in the middle of the night when the chorus starts. I get to lay in bed and listen to Whooping Cranes calling. Wow. Just WOW!

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Mr. Congeniality Crane

And the congeniality award goes to…. 30-16!

This parent reared whooping crane was released last fall at White River Marsh near to female 3-14 and male 4-12. He formed an association with them pretty quickly but occasionally was seen visiting with male 4-13 and female 8-14.

Since returning to the marsh this spring, he was chased away by the now nesting pair (!!!) of 3-14*/4-12 and has been seen with male 4-13 and then 11-15 (after 4-13 stole his gal 10-15*). 

Doug Pellerin was out in the marsh yesterday doing some tracking and spotted 30-16 with 5-12 aka Henry.

I’m kinda pleased with this friendship – I think Henry could use a buddy.

Yearling male whooping crane #30-16 on the left still has some of his tawny coloring. 5 yr. old 5-12 on the right. Photo: D. Pellerin

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FIRST NEST at White River Marsh!

A milestone is defined as an action or event marking a significant change or stage in development. In 2011 we moved the aircraft-guided whooping crane reintroduction location to Green Lake County’s White River Marsh. This is roughly 60 miles east of Necedah National Wildlife Refuge and out of the territory of the three species of Blackflies that feed on birds.

Here we are now – some 6 years later and WE HAVE OUR FIRST NEST!!!

The Royal Couple, otherwise known as female #3-14* and male #4-12 have a nest on White River Marsh!

This image was captured Tuesday during Bev’s flight over the area. She didn’t want to get too close to spook the incubating bird but it’s female 3-14 sitting on the nest while male 4-12 forages nearby.

The red arrow indicates the nest belonging to the pair known as the Royal Couple. Photo: Bev Paulan

Definitely a milestone worthy of celebrating but I feel we should also caution, that this is a 3 yr. old female and they are both first time parents… We’ll remain cautiously optimistic.

As the Marsh Churns…

It’s very difficult not to anthropomorphize these cranes… or any animal one has the pleasure of working with, I suppose.

Anyone with an interest in whooping cranes has heard that they possess a virtuous quality – that is – they mate for life. Well, I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news but they don’t. Oh sure, some very likely do but others, well, not so much.

Take male 4-13. He spent the entire summer and most of the fall of last year with female 7-14 in Marquette County, WI. For all intents and purposes, they seemed a bonded pair. So much so that they were the target pair to release parent reared crane colts 31 & 38-16 with. For two weeks, Jo-Anne and I watched this foursome during the day. 

They foraged together and flew short distances together but when it came time to head off to roost, the two youngsters just didn’t have the flight ability to follow their alloparents and stayed behind in an ag field. Each day, we held our breath as we approached that field.

Then on 30 September, only the adult male #4-13 appeared. Female 7-14 didn’t show up with him. I knew this wasn’t a good sign and that something must’ve happened to her. The male spent a couple of hours with the two youngsters before flying off. 

The next day he appeared, albeit later than normal and he again only stayed a couple of hours. Later that day, Joe called to say he had spotted him at White River Marsh in neighboring Green Lake County. It seems he was near the newly formed pair of male 5-12 and female 8-14. 

The next day, while flying a survey in the area, Bev Paulan watched an aerial pursuit with 4-13 chasing 5-12 from the area. The victor, number 4-13 won female 8-14 and 5-12 flew a couple of counties south to lick his wounds. Imagine how awkward it was when 5-12 showed up at St. Marks NWR in Florida only to find 4-13 and 8-14 already there?!

Fast forward to mid-March when the pair left St. Marks to head back to Wisconsin. Sadly, female 8-14 met her fate in Alabama a few miles from our former migration stop in Lowndes County. The male, alone again, returned to White River Marsh in Green Lake County, Wisconsin. For those keeping score, this was the second mate he has lost.

Last Wednesday, Bev Paulan flew a survey and saw 4-13 with another new female! He sure has a way with the ladies and has now successfully wooed 10-15* from 11-15. Before you get too sad for 11-15, he is now in the company of parent reared juvenile male 30-16… 

Tom Schultz saw the two of them foraging near White River Marsh over the weekend and sent along some photos to share with you.

The young male #30-16 is easy to spot with his still tawny coloring. Male 11-15 is on the left. Photo: Tom Schultz

Two male whooping cranes in flight. Photo: Tom Schultz

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Sandhill Cranes Lose Vote in Wisconsin

At the annual Conservation Congress meetings held this month in Wisconsin, the question of whether to approve a Sandhill crane hunt was asked once again. In fact, it is raised every year like an ongoing battle that can never be won for more that twelve months at a time.

Operation Migration supports hunting and believes it provides an important service. Mankind has tipped the balance of nature by removing many predators. Without that natural governance, some species can over populate with negative ramifications. Canada geese are a prime example. They were once considered the legends of the fall and their annual migration marked the changing of the seasons with more accuracy than the Farmer’s Almanac. But we interfered with the equilibrium that kept their numbers in check and now they are hated by golfers, park visitors, farmers and anyone who owns waterfront property. In some places, they have reached epidemic numbers and hunting is a good method of restoring the balance.

But it sometimes feels like the hunter’s appetite is insatiable. There is yearly pressure to hunt every avian species from Mourning doves to Tundra swans and it’s not like we are over run with either.

It wasn’t that long ago when Sandhill cranes were on a clear path to extinction. It took them more than seventy years to recover from over hunting, but they are now back on the list. Sandhill cranes lost the vote with 2349 people in favor of a hunt and 2049 against it.

Cranes are not like other game species. Geese begin to breed when they are two years old and average five goslings per season. Wild turkeys reach sexual maturity in ten months and lay as many as eight to twelve eggs at a time. But cranes don’t breed until they are four or five and sometimes as late as eight years old. And they are lucky if one chick survives per season. It can take years to recover from a poor breeding season when snow stays late and food is in short supply or spring floods wash away nests. Hunting quotes are not governed by an individual good or bad breeding season. Instead, the crane census is calculated using distance sampling methods where their numbers are estimated with a wide margin for error. As an example, the annual count of Whooping cranes in their limited winter range in Texas, was estimated at 329 individuals during the winter of 2015/16. Although the confidence interval was set at 95%, the range of birds that may or may not be there, extended from 293 to 371. That’s a spread of almost 80 birds. Counting Sandhill cranes over most of the contiguous states is far more complex with a great margin of error and the effects of hunting during a couple of bad breeding seasons, could dramatically impact a still recovering species like cranes.

Then, of course, there is the concern of Whooping cranes being shot by mistake and that is not a case of if it happens, but when. We have worked closely with Whooping cranes for sixteen years and seen more of them than any hunter. Yet there are times when they are back-lit and appear something less that pure white and even we cannot be sure. Both species use the same habitat and often fly together and a misidentification will happen. More than 20 Whooping cranes in the Eastern Migratory Population have been shot since 2007.

If the laws that protect them were more enforceable, we might be slightly more confident but to be charged under the Endangered Species Act, the prosecutor must be able to prove intent. There must be clear evidence that the shooter knew they were killing an endangered species. “I thought it was an albino Sandhill” can be a sufficient defense. And the birds in Wisconsin are all part of the Eastern Migratory Population that is considered Experimental/ Non-Essential. They have the status of Threatened not Endangered.

Then there is the judicial system – a judge in Indiana who issued a one-dollar fine to a minor who used a rifle to kill the female of the first breeding pair of migratory Whooping cranes to produce a chick in Wisconsin since the last nest was reported in 1878. Each one of those birds represents an investment of over one hundred thousand dollars in privately raised money.

With laws that are expensive to prosecute and difficult to enforce, a judicial system that issues token sentences, a census method with large margins of error, a slow to reproduce species and the inevitable mistaken shooting of a Whooping crane, maybe a little prudence is in order.

Hunters and conservationists are not two different encampments. Both are concerned about the environment and we need to come together someplace in the middle.  I saw a bumper sticker in Alabama last week that proudly stated, “I’m a gun totin’ tree hugger.” It’s time for the tree huggers to give the hunters the respect they richly deserve and maybe the hunters can give a reprieve to a couple of species that just made it back from the brink of extinction but could still use a break.

The outcome of the Wisconsin Conservation Congress vote does not mean that the Sandhill crane hunt is approved. There is a long process ahead so if you disagree with the outcome of the vote, make your opinions known to your legislator.

Here’s a map to look up your representative along with their contact information.

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Returning Home

Some of you may recall the four DAR whooping cranes, which were retrieved from Michigan in early May 2016 and released in Marquette County, WI. Cranes 61, 62, 63 and 67-15 had spent their first winter in Randolph County, IL and soon after initiating their first spring journey north, they ended up in Michigan.

The decision to capture and relocate them was made after watching their movements via their GSM cellular transmitters. Moving them back to Wisconsin, we hoped, would reorient them and give them a better chance of finding mates in the future.

Once back in Wisconsin the foursome made a visit to Horicon NWR in Dodge County, where they were initially released in the fall of 2015 but soon after ventured west and appeared to follow the Mississippi river until they arrived back at their previous winter’s location in Randolph County, IL – at the end of May… a tad early to be at a wintering location.

Sadly, male crane number 62-15 was found dead beneath a powerline in December 2016. The three remaining cranes, numbers 61-15*, 63-15 & 67-15* stayed in Randolph County for another winter season… until early April!

The satellite data on 1 April placed female 67-15 a couple of counties to the north in Illinois. She, at least, was on her way north. The young male number 63-15 does not have a remote tracking device and the last hit we’ve received for the other female, number 61-15 was dated 5 March so we had no way of knowing if the three were still traveling together until we could get eyes on them.

A hit for 67-15 last week, placed her in Dodge County, WI and back at Horicon NWR so I contacted Doug Pellerin to see if he would head over to try to visually confirm her presence and hopefully her two traveling companions.

Sure enough – all three were together! These three do know where Wisconsin is! 

Female 61-15 on the left, followed by female 67-15 and male 63-15 on the right. Photo: Doug Pellerin

Photo: Doug Pellerin

Don’t forget – if you spot a whooping crane, be sure to jot down their unique legband color combinations on each leg and fill out the public sightings form.

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It’s Breeding Season!

Wisconsin DNR pilot Bev Paulan flew a survey last week over the state and observed the following pairs incubating:

42-09*/24-09; 5-11/12-11*; 13-03*/9-05; W1-06*/1-10; 12-03*/29-09; 32-09*/7-07; 18-02*/13-02; 5-10*/28-08; 24-08*/14-08 and 1-11/59-13*. (* indicates female)

Doug Pellerin visited Necedah NWR over the weekend and sent along the following images, which show the pair consisting of 3-09 (F) and 3-04 (M) with one egg. Since this pair was not seen nesting on 5 April when Bev completed her aerial survey, this is likely the first egg for the two and a second egg will be produced very soon (if not already).

Dad (3-04) incubating at Necedah NWR. Mom 9-03 returns to the nest. Photo: Doug Pellerin

Nest exchange with one egg visible. Photo: Doug Pellerin

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Attention Wisconsin!

Author: Bev Paulan

As most of our Wisconsin Craniacs are aware, Monday April 10 are the statewide Conservation Congress hearings. These hearings are being held in each and every county of the state. Follow this link for more information.   

Item number 80 on the ballot concerns whether or not the state should institute a Sandhill crane hunt.  For so many reasons, I am opposed to this proposal and I would like to share these reasons with you as talking points, so if you choose to attend the hearings and speak about this topic, you can have a few documented facts.

  1. Whooping cranes share the landscape with Sandhill cranes.
    1. WHCR migrate with SACR, co-mingle pre- and post- migration, share similar habitats, nest in the same marshes and in general share a very similar ecology.
  2. In the 16 years since Whooping cranes have been released in WI. The birds have been documented in 53 of the 72 counties, spending more than a month in 22 and nesting in 8.
  3. Whooping cranes were back in WI by March 1st this year and were here as late as December 8th last year.
  4. It is estimated that up to 20% of the released EMP Whoopers have been lost to illegal/accidental shootings, delaying success of the reintroduction significantly.
  5. Even Wisconsin has had an accidental shooting by someone who thought he was shooting a “white Sandhill”.
  6. Experienced crane biologists have difficulty telling Whoopers apart from Sandhills in certain lighting conditions (typically early and late=normal hunting hours).
  7. Sandhill cranes mate for life and generally do not successfully rear chicks until they are 4 years or older. Killing one of a pair would guarantee no successful breeding for the year and quite probably the following year.
  8. Education does not necessarily work: i.e., Trumpeter swans are consistently shot where there is Snow goose hunting.
  9. Have to carefully weigh the economical benefit of crane watchers vs. potential hunting. Juneau county economic studies have shown that the Whooping cranes have brought in millions of tourism dollars into the region.

These are just a few reasons why there should be no Sandhill crane hunt. A question I was asked by one of the Conservation Congress delegates was if there was a time when Sandhills are in the state when Whoopers are not. I answered that for possibly 2 weeks in February when the Sandhills first come back. This is a variable that I am not willing to gamble on.  With the climate changing and our Whoopers short stopping, they are coming back to the state earlier and earlier, so there will be no guarantee of that.

I hope this helps and if you can think of any other talking points, please share them.  This is an important discussion to have on Monday night.  Please show up and let them know that you and many others care about Sandhills as more than just another species to be hunted.

And remember, too, that a phone call or email to your Wisconsin legislators carry a lot of weight.  Follow this link to find yours:

Be Heard!

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A Nice “Surprise”

All the way from Surprise, Arizona!

Occasionally, we get some pretty neat packages in the mail. The latest came from Teacher Liz Winters’ gr 2 class in Surprise, AZ. Ms. Winters’ students had obviously just learned about OM’s efforts to reintroduce Whooping cranes and had each taken the time to draw a picture and write a few words. 

We thought it would be fun to share them with you so that we’re not the only ones enjoying their creativity… With so many great submissions, it was difficult to narrow it down to just a couple so we’ll post one at a time over the next few weeks. 

First up – Alice, Imagine Rosefield School.

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OK Henry…

Where’s Peanut???

Tom Schultz found and photographed male Whooping crane number 5-12 on Friday evening, March 31st at White River Marsh in Green Lake County, WI.

You may recall Colleen watched this crane leaving St. Marks NWR alongside his buddy #4-14 (Peanut) a week earlier on March 24th.

So the mystery remains for now… Since he didn’t return to the marsh with #5-12, where did he stop? Where is Peanut spending his summers?

If we find out, we’ll let you know.

Whooping crane 5-12 (M) in Green Lake County, WI. Photo: Tom Schultz


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Sisyphus: Part Two

The morning darkness had not yet released the dawn when I picked up Colleen and pointed the headlights towards Lowndesboro, Alabama, four and half hours to the north. We soon fell into the rhythms of interstate transport which, though soothing, could not suppress the haunting dread that we were in fact heading for the scene of a very sad and terrible accident.

Memories of our little “Tiny Dancer,” 8-14, began crowding in. No one who ever entered the pen that first year at St. Marks could ever forget her. Every morning without fail she would greet us at the gate with excited anticipation, looking up quizzically, “What kept you”? Then, as if on cue, she would burst into an explosion of the most dazzling and delightful dance imaginable. With playful spins and joyful vaults, she “Whirling Dervished” upon the surface of some invisible vortex as she boomeranged around the marsh in ever-expanding circles.

She paused periodically to look up at us from a low, still crouch as if searching her audience for approval. We stood mesmerized, completely captivated by her masterful display of choreography. For those magical moments, we belonged to her… and she knew it. Then, as quickly as it had begun, it ended. She established re-entry and soon joined her flockmates in the pursuit of the usual as if it had all been imagined.

The hours passed quickly and soon the windows filled with familiar Alabama countryside as the voice of our smartphone’s “Miss Google” announced, “Nostalgia Tour begins here.” We suddenly felt like Time Travelers in a Way Back Machine as blacktop turned to gravel and then to dirt, funneling us onto the long driveway leading to the farm… and our old migration stop. “It’s getting harder and harder to know when real life ends and Me TV begins,” I said.

The memories climbed aboard. Just off to the right was a pasture and on it a white costumed figure magically appeared, leading a bunch of white birds away from an ultralight aircraft. I remembered how happy and relieved I felt that morning back in 2016. Flight Surgeons refer to it as Destination Appreciation. It had been one of the more challenging migration flights. Just after takeoff and not long in the air, a series of ponds and wetlands rolled out from beneath the horizon and on them stood some beautifully neon white egrets inviting our little flight of whoopers to land and “feel the love.”

First one bird, then another and another heard the siren call, dropped off the wing and headed down to the little oasis as the all too familiar rodeo began. The aircraft became crowded. “And you always wanted to be a cowboy,” my invisible friend scornfully reminded me from the backseat. I then felt the menace of that rabid dog… the one named, “Be careful what you wish for” that lives under my seat less than two inches from my keester, as it lunged forward for a chomp while the fates snuggled close and whispered sarcastically, “So …what’s it like to fly with birds”? Their laughter was almost deafening as the all too familiar, sweat producing exercise in aerial persuasion commenced. “Why me, Lord?  Why meeee!”

We yanked and banked around the sky. Minutes felt like hours as the sweat soaked through the layers under my snowmobile suit. However, after a “forever” of drawing obscene aerial geometric figures in the sky, the birds reattached and we were once again back on track… sort of. It soon became clear that one bird, the one way in the back of the line, simply lacked conviction and it wasn’t long before it left us to land in an ag field. There, it would have to wait for Joe to land with it and for Richard to arrive in the tracking van and box it up for transport to the next stop. No Frequent Flyer Miles for this little migrant.

Then, no sooner had we achieved a tentative aerial harmony when the fates, in their never satisfied addiction for chaos and entertainment, began shaking us around with rough air. The sweat pump went into overdrive. The minutes passed unenthusiastically until just up ahead appeared this wonderfully welcoming pasture beaconing sanctuary and solace. Across its spine, Stephen had mowed and manicured a landing strip and soon we were safely landed upon it. A herd of cows huddled nearby in rapt confusion. “Now that’s something you don’t see every day” one of them said to the other. “No more of that fermented feed for us!  Who knew?” the other replied. As the birds followed the costumed figure off to hide in wait for the ground crew to arrive and set up the pen, the phone vibrated to life.  “Where are you”? Joe asked in a hushed, obviously with a bird voice. “There”, I replied in an equally hushed, obviously with a bird voice. “I’m There.”

And I was. Right over there in that pasture. “Better speed it up.” Colleen said. “We have a very long day ahead of us and Stephen and Jo are waiting.”

One of the greatest pure pleasures of this project were our stopover hosts. They were the incredibly kind and generous folks who, year after year, welcomed our not so little caravan of gypsy crane migrators into their homes… and their lives… and provided an oasis of caring and protection for the birds. I could never figure out where such incredible people came from but I know it must have been from a very special place. To me, they were… and will always be… the true heroes of our whooping crane reintroduction effort. Perhaps that is why our annual migration leg arrivals felt so much more like homecomings than mere reunions.

“You made it”! Jo greeted us at the end of the driveway. She hadn’t changed a bit. Nor had her husband Stephen, which made me wonder, had I? “Same old tracking van, I see” he said, smiling, as I suddenly realized I was again standing in that special place of warmth and caring. Then it was down to business.  “We got permission from the landowner to look for the bird” Jo said. “We also got permission to go on the adjacent state land if we need to.” Jo had previously scouted the target area but the tall vegetation and lack of telemetry equipment made the search difficult at best.

“Ready to rock and roll”, Sisyphus asked from the other side of the rearview mirror?

“Who brought HIM along”, I queried my invisible friend?

We were soon rolling back down the driveway following Stephen and Jo as our search began.

— To be continued —

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