Winter Distribution of Whooping Cranes

As you can well imagine, keeping track of close to 100 Whooping cranes is no easy task but that’s exactly what ICF’s Eva Szyszkoski has been doing over the week. A huge THANK YOU to Windway Aviation for the use of their aircraft and for the funding they provided for this trip and to pilot Jerry Burns for volunteering his time!

Eva is the Field Tracking Manager for the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership and she just submitted the following tracking report. (Thank you Eva!)

The map below shows the Whooping Crane distribution for mid-December along with a brief summary, including one big highlight of my flight late last week. I would consider this the late migration/early wintering period with potential for movement within the next couple of weeks. Also attached are some photos from my flight.

General
Maximum size of the eastern migratory population was 97 birds (54 males, 43 females). Estimated distribution included 47 whooping cranes in Indiana, 7 in Illinois, 7 in Kentucky, 7 in Tennessee, 11 in Alabama, 3 in Georgia, 7 in Florida, 5 at unknown locations, 1 not recently reported, 1 long term missing and 1 suspected dead.

Highlights and flight info
Female no. 14-09, the bird that frequented Volk Field with then-mate no. 1-01, was confirmed with her new male associate, no. 12-09, in Knox County, Indiana. She had regularly been wintering in a neighborhood in Citrus County, Florida, prior to no. 1-01’s removal from the population in spring of 2014.

This is an encouraging sign that no. 12-09 could be influencing her enough for her to change her habits and possibly her final wintering location. If this carries over into next spring, there is potential that this pair may abandon Volk Field for no. 12-09’s previous summering locations just west of the Necedah NWR.

Visuals were obtained on 74 individual cranes and signals were heard for 2 others.

Total flight time for the three day trip was ~17.2 hours and covered about 2,000 miles.

Distribution of wintering cranes in the Eastern Migratory Population.

Distribution of wintering cranes in the Eastern Migratory Population.

5-10 & 28-08, Meigs Co., TN

5-10 & 28-08, Meigs Co., TN

12 & 14-09, 19-09 & 25-10 in Gibson Co., IN

12 & 14-09, 19-09 & 25-10 in Gibson Co., IN

12-02 with wild hatched chick W3-14, 29-09 & 4-11 with an unidentified crane (non-funtional transmitter) in Green Co., IN

12-02 with wild hatched chick W3-14, 29-09 & 4-11 with an unidentified crane (non-functional transmitter) in Green Co., IN

18 & 38-09, 6-09, 23-10, 7-12, 3-11, 29-08 W3-10, 24-13, Greene Co., IN

18 & 39-08, 6-09, 23-10, 7-12, 3-11, 29-08 W3-10, 24-13, Greene Co., IN

28-05 in Meigs Co., TN

28-05 in Meigs Co., TN

Parent reared Whooping crane 57-13 in Jackson Co., IN

Parent reared Whooping crane 57-13 in Jackson Co., IN

Class of ’14 Whooping Cranes RELEASED!

Timing is always an issue. Especially over the holidays… We arrived at St. Marks with our seven young cranes on December 11 and they’ve been in the top-netted section, within the large pen, until about 3 hours ago.

Unfortunately, the holidays have created a fly in the ointment and the necessary people from the International Crane Foundation and Disney cannot head to St. Marks until the first week of January.

Instead of holding the cranes in the top-netted section until then, the decision was made to release them now and then recapture them a day or two prior to the day the health checks and final leg-banding will take place, which we anticipate will be January 5 (with the 6th as a back-up in case of poor weather).

Colleen snapped the following photos this morning as the cranes explored their new surroundings.

2014-12-19_release 2014-12-19_released 2014-12-19_released2

Cow Pond Cranes

If you, like many others, have been wondering why the pair (11-09 & 15-09) hasn’t yet appeared at their typical winter home near Tallahassee, it’s because they have (so far) short-stopped in southern Indiana and are socializing with four other former OM ultralight students.

From left: 12-11, 10-11, 7-11, 5-11 and the Cowpond pair: 11-09 &15-09. Photo John Pohl

From left: 12-11, 10-11, 7-11, 5-11 and the Cowpond pair: 11-09 &15-09. Photo John Pohl

“She Walked Out of Her Boot”

This migration was a unique one, there is no doubt. ‘Stressed’ was our middle name. Issues with the weather never giving the birds, and us a break to recover from the backpack experiment, we got nowhere fast.

Then trucking the birds, a new experiment! We would still be freezing in Lodi if we had not gone for it. 2015’s Spring is going to be an interesting one. Maybe we will learn things we never knew. I hope so.

If you read Geoff’s post, you know how relieved and happy the whole crew was when on that wonderful day in Carroll County, TN when the five good girl cranes followed Joe to the next stop. The rest of the migration was a whirl, our double releases worked well with 2, 3, 7, 8 and 9-14 following Joe and 4-14 and 10-14 following Brooke, the weather was great more than not, and we are now in St Marks.

The highlight of this migration was getting to call the birds down with Heather at the St Marks winter pen. This was the only time I saw them fly. Geoff and I run for the trailer when they take off with the pilots each morning, so this was a treat. But, the coolest part for me was seeing the technique Brooke and Richard used to shake them loose from the trike.

They came in low over the pen while Heather and I are flapping our costume sleeves and holding our puppets high. Then they push out the bar and gain altitude fast. The birds looked confused for a few seconds then circled down to us.  Well, six birds did.

Then there was #10-14, aka ‘Marsha.’ She was the only one to land outside the pen, so off I went to get her. At the main gate of the 3 acre pen is a large muddy wallow. My boot sunk and I fell on the way in earlier so I had been wet and muddy from the get go. I got around to her and herded her back to the main gate where she needed to make a left to go in. Instead, she made a right and as I scurried to block and turn her around, I fell again.

"She walked out of her boot" - Photo credit: Lyndsie Parks

“She walked out of her boot” – Photo credit: Lyndsie Parks

Back she went, right to our starting place. Once more I herded her and we repeated the scene, only this time when my boot sunk and I fell, I took the other boot off and left them both there in the mud. Finally out came Tom Darragh, refuge volunteer and member of the St Marks photo club, in costume and Heather, who by now, had the other six cranes safely in the top netted pen.

Between the 3 of us she had no choice but to make the left into the main pen and followed like a little angel to join the rest of the class in the top netted pen. From what I hear, the folks in the blind enjoyed my show as much as they enjoyed watching the young cranes arrive.

I received this text from Tom a few days later:  “Hey Colleen, we were going through the video last night and have decided the photo club is going to start writing rap songs. Our first one is:  

Stuck
Stuck
Stuck in a muud!”
I only hope Heather has the video to share with you  :-)
Ed. Note: You bet I have video… Watch at :45 when Colleen’s aircraft radio drops into the mud. Then note at :50 when she attempts to put it in her pocket but misses and down it goes – into the mud. Again.
*CORRECTION – Video shot and narrated by Ed Sinnott*

And now you know why we need new costumes each year…

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Meanwhile Back at St. Marks…

Now that the humans from the migration team have arrived back at their respective winter habitats, we’ll provide tidbits of information and updates as we receive them.

Colleen reports that the four 2013 Whooping cranes flew past the St. Marks winter release pen yesterday, only to be chased off by males 4 & 5-12.

Here are a couple images Colleen captured during a morning pen check, which show Brooke tending to the youngsters.

IMG_20141212_085736873 IMG_20141212_085833402

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Wrap up report From Geoff Tarbox

This migration has had its share of ups and downs.  We first left Princeton with a perk in our step when all but one of the birds made it to Stop 1.  But the next time we flew, all the birds would rather they migrate back to the White River Marsh pen.  In order to move them ahead, we had to box them and move them to Stop 2, just to get them away from familiar territory.  From there, it sort of went downhill. 

There’s always the long down days from all the unfavorable weather.  But even when we got a break in the weather, the birds wouldn’t play ball with us.  They’d land in fields and marshes a couple miles away from the pen…  If we could get them that far.  It felt like the migration of 2011 all over again, where there was always a bird on the ground somewhere.  And if you were lucky, it was someplace that was accessible. 

Things took a turn for the surreal when we tried to set up the (what turned out to be the first) pen at Lodi and there was a hunting blind right smack dab in the middle of where we needed to be.  All we could do is unhitch the pen and leave the hunter to his business and hope we didn’t disturb any prowling dear in the area too much with our coming and going.  And once we were in Lodi, it seemed like we were never meant to leave.

Even with good flying weather, we didn’t get much further than the outskirts of town.  That was also the harrowing time when 2-14 and I re-enacted the Blair Witch Project, which I’m not so glum about anymore, but still would not consider my finest hour. 

When the words “interim stop” was used, I almost thought that was our migration’s swan song, even when we got the birds there successfully.  Last time we used those words, it was January of 2012, and we couldn’t get the birds to Walker County, Alabama to save our souls.  That was the migration that was ultimately scrubbed when we relocated the cranes to the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge.

Even though the birds made it there successfully, it seemed destined that we would never leave Columbia County, Wisconsin, as one polar vortex after another kept shutting us down.  Up until we moved the birds to Tennessee, I’ve never seen spirits so low.

Even after we arrived at Tennessee, our bad luck stayed right on our heels.  The weather wasn’t as favorable as it was supposed to be and our birds brought their bad attitudes with them, and would not lock onto the wings or climb for all of King Midas’s gold.  We ended looking for a few more interim stops, and ideal locations were far and few in between thanks to the Natchez Trace Forest nearby.  Though eventually, we dug up two of them. 

Only the next time we flew, our birds wouldn’t fly that far.  We only got them a half a mile and that was only because we couldn’t get them to climb over the trees back to the pen.  The birds just happened to land at a spot that turned out to be an ideal place to hide them and we settled for that.  By then, I was going out of my skull. 

Next time we flew the birds out of their mini hiding spot, I was at wit’s end.  The birds kept landing, and the pilots kept “resting” them (I didn’t know how much rest they needed after not even flying a mile, which to me was yet another bad sign (though I’m sure I was hardly the only person who thought that).  After the second or third rest, I did something I don’t do very often.  I prayed.  I just didn’t know what else to do.  I just knelt down in the back of the pen trailer, and just asked my friend upstairs to just do what was best for these birds. I didn’t have to wait long for an answer. Not more than a few seconds after that, the birds all locked onto the wing and we got them not to the first interim stop, or even the second.  We got them all the way to Hardin County!  That wasn’t a slam dunk. That was a world record as far as we were concerned.

I wish you could’ve seen the hugs and tears of joy and the grins on Colleen’s, Heather’s, Jo-Anne’s and my faces as we packed up the pen.  If there was ever a crowning moment of heartwarming for all of this year, or any year for that matter, this was it.

And from there, it was nothing but smooth sailing.  There was never any doubt as to whether or not the birds could make the next stop.  Aside from a few down days at Winston, Chilton and Pike counties, we were moving by leaps and bounds.  The migration I foresaw as dragging on well into the New Year, is now over and done before Christmas, which is always a treat for me. 

I was disappointed that we had to keep boxing 4-14 and 10-14 so they could be flown separately.  They certainly got more and more leery of me as time went on.  But on the other hand, we couldn’t afford to have those two decoying the other five cranes down.  And ultimately, it was what the flock needed, especially when we left Georgia.

I can’t remember a time I was so proud of my birds. The flock that went from zeroes to heroes. The flock that brought us to the brink of insanity and despair all the way back to tears of joy. 
If there was ever a tale of inspiration and dreams coming true on any migration, this would be the year for it.  And even though I’m not a religious man who likes keeping his work and his faith separate (I can’t emphasize that enough) it’s nice to know that prayers do get answered when you need them the most. 

Despite all of ups and downs this year had to offer, I will always be glad that I was part of it, and that I’ve been part of this wonderful organization for six years.

Flyover Photos

Craniac Karen Willes sent us the following images, which she captured at Thursday’s arrival at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.

Lead pilot Richard van Heuvelen passes overhead with his five Whooping cranes.

Lead pilot Richard van Heuvelen passes overhead with his five Whooping cranes. Note that number 8-14 (missing primary feathers) is in the lead position.

seconds later, Brooke Pennypacker arrives with cranes 4 & 10-14. One on each wingtip...

Seconds later, Brooke Pennypacker arrives with cranes 4 & 10-14. One on each wingtip…

Off to the pensite...

Off to the pensite…

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It’s a WRAP!!!

Date: December 11, 2014 Migration Day: 63
Dist. Traveled: 28 miles
Total Dist. 1100 miles
Location: St. Marks NWR, Wakulla County, Florida

 

And so ends another southward, aircraft-guided Whooping crane migration. Our 14th successful journey guiding young-of-year Whooping cranes from Wisconsin to Florida. They trusted us. We had faith in them. We got it done and very soon, once they undergo their final health check and permanent legbands and transmitters they can be truly wild cranes… Wary of people and all things ‘human.’

This morning after a flight lasting 50 minutes, our seven 7 month old Whooping cranes touched down for the first time on their new winter home when Colleen Chase and I called them down. They seemed a bit reluctant to leave the aircraft guides that safely led them here. Cutting the ties is the first step to freedom.

If you’ve only recently begun following our journey, be sure to check out the Timelines page and our Migration Map to learn all the details.

We need to thank the entire Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership for their support and encouragement but especially the staff and volunteers of the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge for their determination and work ethic to do whatever needs to be done to get the pensite ready and to welcome these incredible cranes to their new winter home.

And finally, you, our supporters – your encouragement and unwavering support is what makes this possible. Thank you!

Stay safe our seven feathered friends… Free and wild. Live long… multiply!

Fly on…

Let’s GO!!!

Current conditions are such that the three pilots should be airborne shortly after sunrise and all the aircraft are in a hangar so frost won’t be an issue.

If you’d like to attend the flyover to welcome the Class of 2014 Whooping cranes to their new winter home, please join us in the town of St. Marks, Florida. The Arrival Flyover event and viewing site is at the San Marcos de Apalache Park in the town of St. Marks. South of where Hwy 363 (Woodville Hwy) intersects Coastal Hwy 98, 363 becomes Port Leon Drive. Follow Port Leon Drive to the end, turn right onto Riverside Drive/Old Fort Road and watch for the Arrival Signs on your left. You will be directed to parking. Google Map

You’ll want to be on site by 7:45 am. It should be a quick flight courtesy of a northerly push. Jo-Anne Bellemer and Linda Boyd will be at the flyover event keeping everyone informed and selling some great OM merchandise.

Once the cranes are safely in their enclosure and Colleen and I pick up the pilots, we’ll head back to the flyover location to do a meet and greet and answer any questions, so please stick around.

Final Flight Tomorrow

Conditions are still looking great for the final flight with the Class of 2014 to take place early tomorrow morning.

If you’d like to attend the flyover to welcome the Class of 2014 Whooping cranes to their new winter home, please join us in the town of St. Marks, Florida. The Arrival Flyover event and viewing site is at the San Marcos de Apalache Park in the town of St. Marks. South of where Hwy 363 (Woodville Hwy) intersects Coastal Hwy 98, 363 becomes Port Leon Drive. Follow Port Leon Drive to the end, turn right onto Riverside Drive/Old Fort Road and watch for the Arrival Signs on your left. You will be directed to parking. Google Map

You’ll want to be on site by 7:45 am. It should be a quick flight courtesy of a northerly push. Jo-Anne Bellemer and Linda Boyd will be at the flyover event keeping everyone informed and selling some great OM merchandise.

David Boyd and Geoff Tarbox will release the birds (5 then 2) from their Leon County pen and then head down to the flyover site. Colleen Chase and yours truly will be at the St. Marks pen, ready to call the cranes down when the pilots pass overhead. The pilots will then land at a suitable site nearby on the refuge and once Colleen and I have the birds put away, we’ll head out and pick them up then head over the join everyone at the flyover.

We hope to see you there!

We Can See the Finish Line!

We’re in Florida! Leon County to be precise. Just 28 miles from the final destination.

This morning’s flight worked just like the last few have. Joe moved in to pick up his five cranes and once he was on course, Brooke moved in to lead number’s 4 & 10-14 to our current stop.

There will likely be no lead pilot report today as everyone is scurrying about getting final preparations made. Joe filled me in with the following details about this morning’s flight: Total flight duration: 47 minutes. Altitude: Just shy of 2,000 ft. and a ground speed of 51 mph, courtesy of a nice tailwind.

At this point, the weather for tomorrow morning is looking good! Let’s hope we can call this a WRAP at this time tomorrow.

If you’d like to attend the final flyover to welcome the Class of 2014 Whooping cranes to their new winter home, please join us in the town of St. Marks, Florida. The Arrival Flyover event and viewing site is at the San Marcos de Apalache Park in the town of St. Marks. South of where Hwy 363 (Woodville Hwy) intersects Coastal Hwy 98, 363 becomes Port Leon Drive. Follow Port Leon Drive to the end, turn right onto Riverside Drive/Old Fort Road and watch for the Arrival Signs on your left. You will be directed to parking. Google Map

Sunrise occurs tomorrow at 7:23am. Shortly thereafter, Joe, Brooke AND Richard will be airborne and on their way to the pensite to retrieve the young cranes. Jo-Anne Bellemer and Linda Boyd will be at the flyover event keeping everyone informed and selling some great OM merchandise.

David Boyd and Geoff Tarbox will release the birds (5 then 2) from their Leon County pen and then head down to the flyover site. Colleen Chase and yours truly will be at the St. Marks pen, ready to call the cranes down when the pilots pass overhead. The pilots will then land at a suitable site nearby on the refuge and once Colleen and I have the birds put away, we’ll head out and pick them up then head over the join everyone at the flyover… Sounds like a good plan, right?

We’ll have the CraneCam and the TrikeCam both streaming for the action. Cellular signal has been an issue in the past as they near the coast, so please be patient :-)

Be sure to bring your camera with you in the morning and dress warm. It will be roughly 37 degrees.

Here are some images captured from our last stop in Georgia this morning!

Joe Duff exits the pecan grove with his five Whooping cranes.

Joe Duff exits the pecan grove with his five Whooping cranes.

This was the view as he flew past the crowd gathered to watch.

This was the view as he flew past the crowd gathered to watch.

Shortly thereafter, Brooke Pennypacker departs with numbers 4 & 10-14.

Shortly thereafter, Brooke Pennypacker departs with numbers 4 & 10-14.

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Here We Go!

Sunrise occurs at 7:25 now that we’re in Eastern timezone. Shortly thereafter, Joe and Brooke will be airborne from our camp and will make the short hop to the pensite field where the young cranes are enclosed.

Today, we have a short 33 mile hop to Leon County, our second to last stop.

If you’re nearby and would like to watch the viewing site is outside town of Climax, GA on Bell Dixon Road, just east of Fewell Road intersection. Google Map

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