Craniac Kids Help Whooping Cranes

Operation Migration is very fortunate to have the support of a number of teachers and their students. We would like to recognize two classrooms that recently made contributions in support of our work to safeguard Whooping cranes.

Ms. Timm’s 3rd grade class at Maclay School in Tallahassee has rallied behind OM’s work since 2010. Each year a new cohort of craniac kids is hatched by Ms. Timm and their recent MileMaker 2014 contribution brings the class total to over a thousand dollars! A BIG WHOOP to them for their on-going support!

Ms. Harrison teaches 2nd grade at Chicago Lab School in Chicago and she and her students have been following our work since 2007. Their recent contribution of $626 brings the total of their financial support over the years to more than $7000.00! Last fall we had the pleasure of visiting Ms. Harrison and her students and these kids really know their Whooping cranes.

Please join us in applauding the efforts of these two phenomenal teachers and the students that have had the benefit of learning that everyone CAN do something to help Whooping cranes. Leave a comment at the end of this post for the kids to read!




MileMaker Campaign Needs YOU

Each year we launch the MileMaker fundraising campaign – This very important campaign raises the funds necessary to carry out the 1200-mile aircraft-guided Whooping crane migration from Wisconsin to Florida each fall.

The way it works is quite simple — We have determined that each mile of the 1200-mile southward migration has a cost of $200 associated with it. This covers insurance, fuel and maintenance costs for the ground vehicles and aircraft, food for the cranes and the crew, any repairs or maintenance required for the crane enclosures, etc.

By far, the MileMaker Campaign funds the largest portion of our annual budget and is critical to the success of our annual crane migration.

Even though the Class of 2014 Whooper chicks have yet to begin hatching, we must begin to fundraise for their upcoming migration. Currently, only 76 miles of the 1200 mile trek are sponsored, so we have a long way to go. Please consider becoming a MileMaker sponsor and help us help the Class of 2014.

You have the choice of sponsoring a full mile ($200), a half mile ($100) or even a quarter mile ($50). In addition to helping these young Whooping cranes, your name will be entered into a draw for an incredible thank you gift, which will be held at the end of the campaign on December 31st or when all 1200 miles are sponsored. If your name is drawn you will receive a two-week stay at a private home in beautiful Costa Rica!

Sponsor a full mile and you get four entries into the Costa Rica trip – sponsor a half mile and you get two – and quarter mile sponsors receive one entry into the draw.

We’ll also list your support on the MileMaker recognition page so everyone will see your support of Whooping cranes.

As an added bonus, all MileMaker supporters will receive a secret link to a selection of monthly E-calendar images for your PC desktop. Download all of the images at once, or return each month for your new photo! Here are a couple of the monthly calendar images:

April 2014
April 2014
November 2014
November 2014
January 2015
January 2015
It’s the start of a new Whooping crane season! will you help?

Earth Day 2014

Saving the planet should be something we focus on 365 days each year but if shining a spotlight on the issue, worldwide, for just one day helps educate we humans, then it’s worth it.

Earth Day is celebrated annually on April 22 by 192 countries around the globe. This year the theme is Green Cities. More than half of the world’s population lives in cities. As the urban population grows and the effects of climate change worsen, our cities have to evolve. The need to create sustainable communities is more important than ever.

CLICK to learn what you can do.



By the Numbers

As we reported late afternoon Saturday, six of the Class of 2013 Whooping cranes were photographed that day when they landed at the north end of the White River Marsh training site in Green Lake County, Wisconsin. The group includes: 2-13, 4-13, 5-13, 7-13, 8-13 & 9-13.

The original group of eight departed their St. Marks NWR winter site on March 31st. They were not seen by anyone until reaching Daviess County, Kentucky but information gathered from the four cranes wearing PTT tracking units tells us they made at least one stop in Barbour County, Alabama and spent a couple of days at this location.

Their next stop was Daviess County, Kentucky where storms and headwinds kept them grounded for a week. Sadly, this is where the remains of young female Whooping crane 1-13 were found. An OM supporter, Nancy and her husband Hayden checked on them almost daily and only ever saw six cranes, which leads me to believe it was soon after arriving that something happened to number 1-13. It also means that the other missing crane, number 3-13 likely split off from the group before this.

When the weather finally allowed them to leave the group apparently made a beeline for McHenry County, Illinois where they spent two days before making a short hop into Wisconsin’s Walworth County where a spring snow storm and winds kept them grounded for another 5 days.

As I mentioned in Saturday’s report, we received a good quality PTT hit that placed number 2-13 north of Berlin, Wisconsin at roost time on Friday evening, so technically, they arrived home on day 18. Pretty impressive!

The following grab from Google Earth shows our southward stops as green or yellow place markers (green are the locations we stopped at. Yellow were stops we were able to skip). The red line, slightly east of our route is the path the cranes took on the way home with the yellow pushpins marking their migration stops. While it obvious they didn’t follow the exact migration, they sure were close for the entire way!

Whooping crane migration route

Class of 2013 south and north migration path.



The group of six young Whooping cranes have arrived HOME!

As in White-River-Marsh-on-the-runway-HOME!!!

This morning a PTT hit came in which placed #2-13 approximately 10 miles north of Berlin, WI last evening – likely to roost. I asked Doug Pellerin to head up to that area today if he had a chance.

About an hour ago I received an email from Lois Ballard, who lives near our aircraft hanger. She and her husband were out running errands and decided to take a detour and head down White River Road. As they neared the training site they noticed the gate was open and after pondering it for a few minutes, they decided since there were no birds present and no training taking place, what would it hurt to head in and take a look around.

They took a look at the blind and the pen and were just about to head back to their car when they heard the unmistakable sound of Whooping crane calls. They turned to look toward the north and there stood six, glorious white whooping cranes at the far north end of the runway!

Lois sent the following images, captured with her 300mm lens and cropped so they are not as close as they appear to be.

They did it! How about WHOOP’ing in celebration of their incredible achievement? Or better yet, perhaps you would consider becoming a MileMaker supporter to help fund this years southward migration for the yet to hatch Class of 2014!?

We still do not know the whereabouts of #3-13 and we’re hopeful he’s just running late. Stay tuned.


It Ain’t Over Till it’s Over…

“It ain’t over till the fat lady sings”  according to Yogi Berra anyway.  But as usual, this “Field of Dreams Baseball Bard” had a point. That’s the reason I never indulge in celebration. I learned long ago that high fiving, chest-bumping-touchdown-victory dances only awaken the ire and anger of the fates. The fates are ambush predators, so if you find yourself walking through the jungle known as the “Crane Project’, you must do so quietly. Besides, when you work on a project where any hint success immediately begs the question, “is that a light at the end of the tunnel… or a train coming the other way”? which it usually is, you practice Quiet. So… when they ask me, “aren’t you excited and relieved the birds finally left on migration?” I just smile and change the subject.  “Mums” the word, and I’m not talking about my Mum.  Besides, it’s not really over until the birds make it back to Wisconsin. Then the old girl can sing her heart out.

The morning the chicks left St. Marks, I trudged out to the pen, food bucket in hand, to do the daily chores, but soon realized I had entered an enhanced pre-migration energy field. Very delicate and subtle, not lending itself easily to description. But you just know. The chicks approached me with that special air of indifference, indicating the disconnection was in full transition mode. Eyes that until now held familiarity and recognition… even friendship… now had that folk-songy “whatever we had once is gone” look. They were getting ready to go. Weather wise, the better migration day was predicted for the following day, but the line of thick overcast held just to the south, leaving the above clear as a bell, and the winds were shifting to the south earlier than predicted and beginning to rise, bringing warmer temps.

I decided right then that this time I would be in the pen with them when they left. This would be the culmination of an evolution of my experience with departures which, began six years ago when Bev spent all day, every day for two weeks prior to the birds leaving. She didn’t want to miss the departure.  And she didn’t. Either did Joe from the St. Marks Photo Club and I.  We stood in the blind, absolutely giddy with anticipation as the time came and the little piece of magic unfolded. Finally, off north they flew, carrying with them all the hopes and dreams of all the people that had worked so hard for so long to make that moment possible. But looking into the fish tank, and actually being in it are two, very different experiences.

As the chicks walked to the feed shelter to begin the now familiar pre-migration ritual, I took the opportunity to stand before each of them and mentally say goodbye. As I began, time seemed to warp and expand and resonate with surges of broad unexpected emotion. Goodbyes, after all, are never easy.

I thanked them on behalf of everyone involved for their cooperation and participation in the project, told them how proud they had made us and how very much we cared about them. I spoke briefly of the hope for the future and the joy they provided our supporters and how grateful we all were for their gift of all the wonderful memories. Lastly, I cautioned them about the dangers they were likely to encounter on their journey north. Migrations are dangerous undertakings for birds and the danger grows every year. The route is strewn with more and more power lines, while growing armies of windmills march across a landscape punctuated by rapidly growing numbers of cell towers. Predators abound. Coyote numbers grow exponentially and their range expands accordingly. And then there are the two legged predators. After the Sandy Hook School Massacre, so many Americans rushed to buy assault rifles and ammunition, you still can’t find .22 caliber ammo anywhere.  And the sad reality is that a certain percentage of people with guns are going to shoot them at something. It’s just the human condition and of course their inalienable right. (20% of our WCEP whooping crane population has been shot)

Then there’s the continual loss of wetland habitat and good places to roost, due to human development and climate change. Simply put, the landscape over which the whooper historically migrated is gone forever and will never return. They would essentially be running a gauntlet… an X Game.  I apologized that I couldn’t go with them. They were now the masters of their own fate, for better or for worse.

The last bird in line was fittingly #1. She had been my favorite from the beginning. Her very special something radiated every day, starting back at Patuxent when she used her personal magic to lead and teach the other chicks the value and wisdom of following, of placing their faith and trust in the white giants, of accepting her dominance and her example, all of which served to make the early training a relatively painless and effortless flow. Her intelligence countered that of poor little #2, our second of the three females, who was as dumb as a box of rocks. She later vacated her position as dominant bird to males #7 and #9 as their size and testosterone level surpassed hers. But by then the all important social foundation construction had been completed. She remained throughout the smartest and most able member of the group.  Little did I know then she had only a few more days to live.

The process of separation and disconnection resumed and completed itself as the chicks collected up and walked off as one toward the pond, the wild call of migration visibly growing louder within them.  Off I went to the blind to retrieve the Refuge’s new video camera just donated by the St. Marks Photo Club.  Tom Darragh, Club President, arranged with club member Bert to bring the camera out to the blind the day before and give me a quick course in its use. Unfortunately for Burt, he soon discovered that trying to teach me to operate anything equipped with an ON/OFF switch was like trying to teach a two thousand cow to lay eggs. I just watched, looking like a dog watching television as he patiently explained the cameras little mysteries. Back at the feed shelter I slowly and quietly sat down, hiding in plain sight, to observe the performance…. too greedy for the chicks’ increased energy vibe and the “what was to come” to dilute it with distance. I raised the camera and began to video while the chicks performed the usual series of preparatory flights.

Then after a few short flights, followed by trips to the feeders, #3 began calling a raucous pre-migratory call, as if undergoing the exorcism of some migratory demon channeling through him. Their genetic blueprint, written millions of years ago and lying dormant within them, was coming alive, revealing itself and taking command. The call washed thick and turbulent over the other chicks until they were soon overwhelmed, drawn into a focused unison of preflight posturing and vocalizations, followed by a almost involuntary launch into the wild blue and towards the completion of their wildness. North over the tree line and into invisibility they flew as I raced to the blind for the tracking receiver and antenna.  Moments later I stood out in the open, feeling completely naked without my costume, as I listened to the transmitter beeps diminish and soften until only #5’s faint beeps remained. Then it too was gone, replaced by the gentle breath of the wind through the tree tops. Time suddenly stood still. No sound. No motion. Just the deep feeling of foreboding and the almost painful ache of loneliness and sense of loss.

And somewhere up in White River Marsh the fat woman patiently waited in the wings to sing her song.

Postscript: About two weeks later, after a 20 hour straight through motor home drive from St Marks to Wisconsin, Bev and I awoke after a couple hours of sleep to the news that #1 was dead and that six of the chicks were not far from our location. Heather explained the sad details… possibly a power line strike, and that the location of #3 was not known. It is a great credit to her exceptional intuition and efforts and to the help of a kind and caring supporter in Kentucky that the loss of #1 was discovered. An hour later, Bev and I stood on a rural roadside observing through binoculars six of our chicks frolicking out in the middle of a Wisconsin ag field. How quickly it had all changed. Sad as we were at the loss of #1, we were even more discouraged by the reality that we have now only two surviving females from this year and only one from last year. Without females, no eggs, and without eggs, prospects for project success become ever more remote. Very sad indeed.

I called Geoff to give him the news.  After a long period of silence, he spoke in a tone so quiet I could hardly hear him, “She was my favorite.”


White Birds in the Snow

Guest Author, Beverly Paulan, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

Its springtime in Wisconsin. That means it will snow today and be 60 degrees tomorrow. Or 20. That’s the thing with Wisconsin—you just never know what the weather is going to be. What I do know is that with the coming of spring, my work load goes from a standstill to hitting the ground running every day. Spring season for the aeronautics team means fire patrol, eagle nest, waterfowl and whooping crane surveys, quickly followed by osprey and trumpeter swan nesting activity flights. Throw a 12” snowstorm into the mix and the flight schedule gets stacked up waiting for that clear day when we can go.

On Monday this week, parts of the state received several inches of wet heavy snow. Of course it was the part that I had to fly over looking for white Whooping cranes. As soon as I departed my home airport, I could see the snow line to the east and south – exactly the direction I was headed. The first stop for me was straight east to Marathon County. This is the home of pair 5-10 and 28-08. They were back on territory last week and I saw them as plain as day – there was minimal snow cover, although the flowages were still mostly frozen. This week however, everything was white. I circled for quite awhile searching in vain for a visual confirmation of the audible tone coming from the tracking receiver. There is no mortality switch on the transmitters so I need to get a visual sighting of each and every bird I hear to ensure they are still alive. An extremely challenging task when everything on the ground is white. After catching no sight of 5-10 or her mate, I snapped a few pictures to look at later on the computer and flew on.

Whooping cranes in snow

The snow covered marsh in Marathon County. Can you see the pair of Whooping cranes? (click to see where they are)

Next stop was down in Wood County to the territory of 12-02 and 19-04. They were found with only a few circuits and they are sitting on a nest. Flight continued down towards the north end of Necedah National Wildlife Refuge. I had to check the north end for nests as fast as I could because the overlying airspace would soon go into the “restricted” mode due to activity at the nearby bombing range. A small, slow Cessna and a fast big F16 really don’t play well together so I wanted to get out of the area quickly. I found two nests on the north end, both with birds with non-functioning transmitters, so I was unable to tell who each bird was. With the locations provided, the ground trackers can get out the spotting scopes and read the colored leg bands. If I could read the bands, I would definitely be flying too low.

My flight continued across the refuge, heading further east to Adams County where there was even more snow on the ground. Adams County was the home of 5-09 and 33-07, the pair that was shot in Kentucky on Thanksgiving weekend last year. I sighed at the stupidity of certain people and headed back west toward Camp Douglas National Guard base, Monroe County and finally home.

All day I was flying in and out of snow showers, peering down at a snow-covered landscape, trying desperately to see the white birds. To say there were moments of frustration is an understatement, especially when some of the birds I was searching for have non-functioning transmitters. But what joy (and hope) I felt when I found a nest. At the end of the day, I counted fifteen (15) total nests with another being built.  Of those fifteen, there were three where I could see an egg as the adults got up to switch incubation duties.

So another spring season begins. Nests to watch, chicks to look for and stragglers to find. Now if the snow that is currently falling would just stop and I could get out to fly the eagle nest survey…

Whooping crane nest with egg

The nest (and single egg) belonging to pair 27-06 & 26-09.

Nesting Whooping crane

Nest (and sleeping crane) belonging to pair 5-05 & 32-09.


Louisiana Eggs!

Congratulations to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries! For the first time in 75 years, whooping crane eggs have been produced in the wild.

The two eggs were produced in late March so with a typical 30-33 days of incubation, there could be chicks on the ground by next week. The cranes that produced these first eggs in the reintroduced, non-migratory population are 3-years of age and belong to the first cohort, released in 2011.

CLICK to read full story


Reconciliation Ecology

One third of the land in the United States has been converted to agriculture over the years. Wetlands have been drained and woodlots were slashed. This human activity takes away much needed habitat for migratory birds but reconciliation ecology may just be the ticket to help reverse our wrongs.

In California’s central valley, a unique alliance of conservationists, farmers and bird watchers have launched a program called BirdReturns, which pays farmers to temporarily flood fields to create pop-up wetlands during the migration season. Click to read full story.

What are your thoughts on this program?


Happier News

After this morning’s sad news about the loss of female crane #1-13 comes brighter news that six Class of 2013 Whooping cranes have been confirmed in Wisconsin! Such is the roller-coaster ride of working to introduce Whooping cranes…

The six were confirmed via the following image by ICF Field Tracking Manager Eva Szyszkoski and include cranes: 2-13, 4-13, 5-13, 7-13, 8-13 and 9-13. The one missing from this group is #3-13 and we do not know his whereabouts at this time but we’re hopeful he will turn up soon.

Please note that we provide location information at county level only, after we know the cranes have left the area.

The above image was captured by Scott Weberpal in southern Wisconsin during the afternoon of Saturday, April 12th.

The above image was captured by Scott Weberpal in south Wisconsin during the afternoon of Saturday, April 12th.


Sad News…

Each year we strive to achieve 100 percent. 100 percent survival of eggs to chicks. 100 percent of chicks raised to crane colts shipped to Wisconsin. 100 percent of the young cranes to survive the summer and migrate south. 100 percent survival during the migration. 100 percent to survive the winter period and 100 percent to return north to Wisconsin. We’ve never achieved it but we keep hoping and trying.

This past year we came very close. We are very sorry to announce the remains of Whooping crane 1-13 were retrieved from Daviess County, Kentucky yesterday.

She was one of four in her cohort to be fitting with a Platform Terminal Device (PTT), which pings a passing satellite. On Thursday we received hits for the other three that told us they had left the Daviess County migration stopover. It’s not unusual to not receive PTT hits for each crane every evening as they’re often set to ping on an alternate days duty cycle.

Yesterday morning however, we received some good quality hits for her device that placed her still in Daviess County. I thought this was unusual since the flock seemed to be a rather tight knit group so why would she stay behind when her flockmates left?

Using Google Earth I zoomed into the coordinates and my stomach dropped when I noticed a transmission tower supporting several power lines, dissecting the field where the satellite placed her.

I contacted the same supporter who had checked on the group during the week they spent at the location and asked her and her husband to head out one more time – this time to search for the body of #1-13. I hated to do it, but we had no one else to ask, and they know the area as they live nearby.

Nancy called me at noon to deliver the bad news. We cried together. After 13 years, and a number of losses, it never gets easier.

This crane was a gal with attitude. She was feisty and dominant and the offspring of Whooping cranes 9-05 and 13-03. Her brother is #4-13. We can take some solace in the fact that she did experience freedom.

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