They say that time flies when you are having fun but I think the same can be said for when you are over worked. It seems like only yesterday that we finished the migration or at least delivered the birds to Wheeler, but here is it spring already with the first captive egg expected to hatch at Patuxent on May 2nd.
Of course it doesn’t help that we didn’t end our abbreviated migration until February 4th or that we had to work closely with the FAA for the next two months to get approval to fly again. On top of ending one fiscal year and starting another, there are preparations for the early training at Patuxent and the summer training at White River Marsh.
When we developed the site last year we had to dig a depression below the water table to create a wet pen for the birds to roost in at night. Because this a natural area managed by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, all the earth that was removed from that hole cannot be left in an un-natural pile. It must be removed or spread flat without causing damage to the natural flora. Before the birds arrived last year, it was too wet to get heavy equipment in to haul it out so we were allowed to let it sit temporarily. Because they had an early thaw this spring we now have time to make use of that pile of dirt.
Last year we were able to create a runway out of wild wetlands with only marginal work. We had a few roots to pull and some grass to cut but it was surprising how flat it was considering what we started with. That’s not to say it was perfect. During the early training when we were taxiing back and forth it was OK but as the birds grew larger and their speed increased, the bumps and rolls began to cause us problems. There are two undulations to the northeast end. During a takeoff run, just when the aircraft is getting light on its wheels, the first of these ridges launched you into the air before the wing was prepared to take the full load. The aircraft would bump down hard on the second ridge and catapult back into the air making our departure look as if Captain Kangaroo was the pilot in command.
That dirt has now been moved onto the runway and a local contractor will soon spread it out and flatten it with a vibrating roller. Hopefully by the time the birds arrive this year in late June the natural grasses will have poked through and all that will be needed is to mow it flat.
Before we could construct the pen last year we had to build an access road between the parking lot and the runway. A natural stream drains the area where the road is now and the DNR built a water structure there will planks that can be set in place to control how much water escapes. That seems to be working well and the water levels are higher than it has been in the past. This will help us maintain water in the wet pen and also keep the wetlands from drying out too fast. That will provide more habitat for the 2011 birds if they return as hoped.
Three of the cranes from last year are fitted with GPS tracking devices that report their location on three day intervals. The last report indicates they have split up into at least two groups. On the evening of April 17th number 7-11 roosted in Houston County, Minnesota, along the Mississippi River while 4-11 roosted 34 miles to the southeast of her on the Wisconsin River. That puts them both about a hundred miles to the west southwest of the pensite at White River Marsh. There were no usable hits for the third GPS crane, #9-11. Because only three of them are fitted with these satellite devices, it is impossible to know which, if any, of the other of the birds from this flock of nine are with which group.
Here is the latest overall map showing the PTT locations for Whooping cranes 4, 7 & 9-11 since departing the Wheeler NWR on April 12th.