Where the Wild Cranes are…

Migration is almost complete for most of the Whooping cranes in the EMP and while it’s nearly impossible to know where all of them are due to some with non-functioning transmitters, here is a list of locations/cranes that we do know the whereabouts of.

In Greene County, Indiana, we know of fourteen (14) whoopers as of yesterday. They are: 17-07*/10-09, 12-02/4-11* and 19-10, 13-03*/9-05, 36-09*/18-03, 24-13, 18-09/23-10* and 34-09*/4-08.

The family unit consisting of 9-03 and 3-04* with the wild produced chick W18-15 is in Wayne County, Illinois. Interesting to note that during our flight from Cumberland County to our migration stop in Wayne County, we flew approximately 7 miles from the small wetland where this family is. Even more interesting is that W18-15 and ultralight crane 8-15* are full siblings. Number 8-15 came from the forced re-nesting study at Necedah and resulted from the first clutch of eggs this past spring being collected for use in the reintroduction. (Thanks PCW!).

Wisconsin DNR pilot Bev Paulan flew her final aerial survey of the season Thursday, Nov. 24th and reported seeing only three (3) Whooping cranes. They were: 16-12, 17-11*/19-11 – all in Juneau County, Wisconsin.

Over in the Wisconsin Rectangle, DNR pilot Michael Callahan flew a survey yesterday and spotted 27-14* as well as six (6) of this year’s Direct Autumn Release cohort at/near Horicon marsh in Dodge County. Five members of the cohort are together and include: 61*,62,63,65*,67-15*. The sixth youngster is 68-15* was spotted in a flock of ~100 Sandhill cranes.

Mike also reported seeing DAR colt 66-15* in Calumet County, Wisconsin.  The eighth DAR crane (64-15*) from the 2015 cohort departed on migration a few days ago and the whereabouts are unknown. Her signal was last heard as she traveled over Madison, WI, however trackers were unable to locate her due to traffic and snow.

Four of the six 2014 ultralight Whooping cranes have PTT devices, which we get information on a couple times each week. We know for sure that 3-14* and 10-14* are currently in Jenkins County, Georgia. We cannot definitively say that 4-14 (Peanut) and 4-12 are traveling with them, however, considering the number of weeks this group of four spent together near White River Marsh in the late summer/early fall, it’s likely.

The last PTT hit we received on number 8-14 placed her in Hamilton County, Tennessee earlier this week.

The other two members of the 2014 ultralight group are AT ST. MARKS NWR in Wakulla County, Florida!

I received a message from Refuge Manager Terry Peacock yesterday saying that a group of four (4) Whooping cranes were happily foraging a short distance from the winter release pen. The group consists of: 7-14*, 9-14* and two males: 5-12 and 4-13.

* denotes female

Day 58 – Standing Down and Thankful…

Winds this morning are from the south and unfortunately, too strong to attempt a flight today. Instead, the team will spend Thanksgiving here in Union County, Kentucky.

Today, we give thanks to you – our supporters, our volunteers, and our migration stopover hosts for the unwavering support and encouragement you have provided to OM over the years.


Day 56 – Lead Pilot Report

Date: November 24, 2015 Migration Day: 56
Dist. Traveled: 45 miles
Total Dist. 458 miles
Location: Union County, Kentucky


We could have crawled on our hands and knees and it would have been easier than flying the 45 miles from our last stop in Illinois to our first one in Kentucky.

We had a constant headwind that may or may not have caused the problems but it did slow us to a frustrating 30 mph.

It was my lead and all the birds took off together but not with me. We cleared the runway to the west and flew low over the landowner’s house while they caught up.

When we arrived here on Sunday, we walked the cranes into a low and very wet field while we waited for the pen to be set up. We held them there for an hour and they played happily in the muck.

Every time they broke from me today, it was like they wanted to head back to that field. We passed over the pen while Colleen and Heather tramped around the runway in swamp monster garb and blowing airhorns to let them know they couldn’t land.

I took them east for a long ways because they were following well and I didn’t want to change anything. I was trying to get them far enough away to lessen their attraction to the pen – but it didn’t work.

Twenty six minutes later, we were still within a mile of our starting point. Each time they broke, it was number 2-15 that led them away. When I took over the lead again, some birds would lock on but number 2 would lead them away again. It was interesting to note that number 1-15 was always the last to leave and the first to rejoin.

We know from past experience, that many of our birds have been reluctant to fight headwinds and maybe they saw that we were plodding along. We also know that rough air makes it hard for them to benefit from the vortices off the wingtip and this morning we had both of those conditions.

We cleared the interstate at 300 feet and although they followed me, you could see they were concerned. A mile or so later, number 2 broke them again and I chased them back. I caught up just as they were approaching the interstate and the heavy traffic turned them to the west.

They flew parallel to the highway with Brooke on their right and me on their left.  We tried to box them in and as we turned them back on course, all the birds moved to Brooke’s aircraft. I climbed up into the chase position and things settled down for a few minutes.

Two birds on his right wing made an abrupt turn around while the others stayed with Brooke. I chased them north once more and managed to collect numbers 8-15 and 11-15. They formed on my wing and followed me for a few more miles before breaking again. Three times I chased them back north and three times they let me pick them up. By this time, Brooke and the other four birds were ten miles ahead while we banged along in rough air at 200 feet making 28 mph. Slowly they climbed with me to 800 feet but I kept having to lose it to get them back on the wingtip. Both birds were surfing on my wake so it didn’t appear to be a case of being tired.

When we reached the 22 mile mark, Brooke radioed to say he was ten miles from the destination. Eventually, he landed and found a spot to tuck his aircraft out of the wind. He held the birds with him until I arrived 25 minutes later. Then he walked them off over a hill to some lowland while Walter Sturgeon, Jeff Fox, me and volunteer, Clark Schultz set up the pen. An hour later we moved the trucks out of the way and Jeff walked the quarter mile to tell Brooke he was clear to bring the birds out of hiding.

Once they were secured, we flew 10 miles to the Sturgis Airport and taxied to the hangar – past Lear jets and King Airs all waiting for departure clearance.

I am not sure what lessons we learned or inadvertently taught. I do know that it was hard work for 2 and a half hours just to cover 45 miles.  On the bright side, we are finally out of Illinois and all the birds made it all the way.

We take our joy in small doses.

Day 54 – Lead Pilot Report

It is an historical fact that when Charles Darwin returned from his epic voyage to the Galapagos… Galapagos, Wyoming that is… he concluded that the human species had in fact evolved through the eons of time for one and only one true purpose… to be rodeo bull riders. Sigmund Freud later discovered that all of mankind’s mental maladies were caused by the fact that there just weren’t enough bulls to ride.

My childhood Jersey Shore rides were limited to bicycles and ocean waves, neither having the bull-like capacity to catapult the rider so fast and far into the air that achieving the escape velocity of earth’s gravitational pull is often achieved. In fact, some rodeo bull riders have yet to return to earth. NASA tried to declare rodeos illegal for reasons of national security.  Too much space junk, they said. And all this liftoff within 8 short seconds.

So my immediate but unexpected attraction to our migration host’s big white bull, Snowflake, should not have come as such a surprise as the closet buckaroo in me began to come out.  I found myself somehow drawn to the old boy like a mountaineer drawn to a mountain. “No Guts, No Glory” I heard him say, returning my gaze. But it’s like the Eleventh Commandment states, “Old white haired guys on Medicare shalt not ride rodeo bulls.”  Snowflake would have to wait for my next reincarnation. Still, in the morning’s predawn cold light, as Heather, Colleen, Clark and I rode by the coral Snowflake shared with his harem of four cows, I had the strange and unexpected feeling I was somehow leaving unfulfilled and betraying destiny while saying goodbye to an old friend.

Meanwhile, my real ride waited patiently, tucked safely in a corral of tree line indentation, the trike’s black wing cover white with morning frost and yesterday’s snow. Three pairs of cold hands busied themselves readying the two trikes for flight and soon the morning silence was shattered by the roar of trike engines. Then Colleen and Heather pulled open the pen gates and the chicks flooded out becoming airborne almost instantly as our own rodeo began.  I lifted off to join them. As we passed over Snowflake, I looked down to see him looking up… unimpressed.

Up into the dense cold morning air we went, the chick’s wings pounding their rhythmic cadence matching almost exactly that of my heart. Soon on course and over the flyover site, I looked down to see the Jamboree RB with Joanne and the folks who braved the cold early morning temps for a brief glimpse of the magic. A thin haze layered the sky ahead and veiled what remained of the Illinois flat, reminding me that a person can fall down in Illinois, but they are never in danger of then rolling down a hill.  Like they say here, “Ya gotta like FLAT!”  And as one who flies above it, I truly do.  However, today, those welcoming fields below were rendered less so by yesterday’s rains which turned them to mud, transforming an emergency landing opportunity for trike or bird into a one way trip onto a fly trap.

It wasn’t long before #2 began her prima ballerina routine, racing ahead and assuming her position a few hairs width in front of the trike.  Only this time, she had just one leg trailing back as usual, while the other one was tucked up forward into the white downy cover of her body.  “Forget to wear your stockings this morning?” I inquired in a thought balloon.  A couple of the others also responded to the cold in like fashion. Then, not to be outdone, #1-15 began her schizophrenic ballet as well. The bird’s “unusual” behaviors have slowly but inevitably become the “usual” as we climbed ever higher and soon we were enjoying a… do I dare even speak the word? TAILWIND!

What was happening, I wondered.  Had the earth somehow reversed its spin?  But not being one to complain (unless there is at least one person willing to listen), I sat back and enjoyed the sight of the GPS groundspeed defy the laws of migration and exceed my airspeed… a rare occurrence indeed.

The secret to a great performance is knowing when to leave the stage and when your 8 seconds is up, so we began our descent as our next stop rolled into view. Then Joe hid the birds while Walt, Jeff and our host Scott set up the pen. The birds were soon safely inside. As I closed the pen door and started up the hill to taxi the trike to its shelter, I heard #8 ask #2, “So who was our pilot for today’s rodeo?”

“Ah… whatshisname.”  The old guy with the white hair.  You know who I mean.”

“I sure do.  Snowflake!”

“That’s the one.”

Day 54 – UPdate

Date: November 22, 2015 Migration Day: 54
Dist. Traveled: 63 miles
Total Dist. 413 miles
Location: Wayne County, Illinois


Illinois is one loooong state but we’re finally at our last stop. Before we cross into Kentucky, we will have covered 328 miles by air and many more by road.

Brooke successfully kept all six Whooping cranes with him for this morning’s 63 mile migration leg, while Joe watched over him from above.

More details in Brooke’s Lead Pilot report, which may not be ready till tomorrow morning.

With southwest winds tomorrow morning, it’s unlikely we’ll be going anywhere.


The winds should FINALLY be in our favor Sunday morning… If they materialize as forecast, surface winds should be 3-5 mph and from the northwest. Aloft, they will be from the same direction.

If you’re in the area and would like to head to the flyover location, it’s very easy to find by following these directions or using the link to the google map:

Viewing site is along CR626E (also called Frontage Road) just east (approx. 1?2 mile) of Montrose Black Top Road (also called Spring Creek Road) just west of CR 575E. Google Map

Day 53 – Rain & Possible Snow

Areas to the north of us will be getting their first taste of winter and we’re currently being rained on.

With temps dropping throughout the day, there is a chance that we too will see some wet snow.

We’ll be standing down today and hoping conditions for tomorrow will allow us to head to our last Illinois migration stop in Wayne County.


Day 52 – Lead Pilot Report

Date: November 20, 2015 Migration Day: 52
Dist. Traveled: 56 miles
Total Dist. 350 miles
Location: Cumberland Co., IL


First we thought it was number 1-15. Then all the evidence pointed to number 2-15. With each flight we learn something but we don’t fly often enough to learn quickly or maybe I’m just a slow learner.

It was my lead this morning so we took off for a quick check of conditions first.

The GPS tells us our speed over the ground and the airspeed indicator, strangely enough, indicates our speed through the air. Quite often those two don’t read the same like when we have a headwind  (when don’t we have a headwind?)

This morning they both read 38 mph so any wind we had was likely a direct crosswind and didn’t influence our speed. That was disappointing because the forecast called for northerly winds at 2500 feet and I was counting on a nice little push.

All the birds came out of the pen together which hasn’t happened in a while. That meant I didn’t have to wait for the stragglers. We made a sweeping turn to come on course and everything looked good -for awhile. We headed for the flyover site just like the last time we tried this. At about the same place that they turned back last Saturday, they broke again. This time I was able to catch them and they all gathered on the wing once more.

Number 2-15 pulled her usual stuff and tried to lead the aircraft and number 1-15 dropped below the wing, taking a few others with her. At one point, I noticed both of them on my right wing, fighting for the lead and I realized it was not 1 or 2 – but both, competing for top dog position.

Number 1-15 on the right challenges 2-15 for the lead position behind the wing of the aircraft.

Number 1-15 on the right challenges 2-15 for the lead position behind the wing of the aircraft.

The other birds instinctively follow the leader so, as the two battled it out, the rest of the flock kept moving back and forth behind them, never getting to a spot on the wing where they could benefit from the free ride. That meant that I had to continually lose altitude to let them rest. We had covered 10 miles and were still at 300 feet and my dreams of a tailwind at 2500 were fading fast.

Periodically, numbers 1 and 2 would each take a lead position on opposite wingtips and only then would things settle down. I coaxed them up when that happened but twice they turned back anyway.

Number 1-15 honking in flight.

Number 1-15 honking in flight.

By that time, they were far enough from the departure point that their commitment to turning around wasn’t that strong. Maybe they weren’t completely sure what to do once they had the lead so when I moved in, they rejoined my wing and stuck with me as we turned back on course.

Twice, number 1 dropped low and behind and for a time we thought Brooke would have to collect her. But she is strong and managed to catch us. At 10 miles out from our destination, we reached 2000 feet but there was no sign of the tailwind. Imagine that! Another incorrect forecast!

We did a long slow descent and all of the birds landed together on a little tractor road next to a wet bean field. This flight was the first time all six birds followed one aircraft for a complete leg unless you count the very first stopover. That was only a four mile trip back when the birds were young and eagar. Seems like  a year ago. Total flight time =1 hour 43 minutes.

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