Two 1 1/2 Year Old Whooping Cranes Return to St. Marks!

Remember the two male Whooping cranes that frequented the White River Marsh training site for most of last summer? The two cranes turned up in the winter release pen at St. Marks refuge on Saturday!

Volunteers Tom Darragh, Craig Kittendorf, Chantal Blanton, Jim Pinson and George (Bert) Burton were out at the pen and witnessed them. Luckily Bert had his camera with him at the time and sent us the following images, which positively identify the two young males as former ultralight students 4-12 & 5-12. (Thank you Bert!)

St Marks Pen Cranes 2012

Whooping crane 5-12 displays his impressive wingspan, while 4-12 looks out at the vast marsh beyond the release pen.

The two appeared at the pen on Saturday. They were still present yesterday (Sunday)

The two appeared at the pen on Saturday. They were still present yesterday (Sunday). 4-12 on the right. On the left is number 5-12.

St Marks Pen Cranes 2012 o Headed MutationThe winter release pen is a 4-acre, open-topped enclosure. These two can come and go as they please.

Refuge Manager, Terry Peacock is thrilled that these two have returned…



  1. AJ McCleary December 13, 2013 8:01 pm

    This is fabulous!! I was there last year in St. Marks when these kids first came (cried my eyes out with joy during that beautiful flyover!!) & you bet I’ll be there this year for the new kids! You all are amazing people! We’re rooting for everyone and waiting for you down here. God speed!

  2. Karen Ortiz December 10, 2013 7:18 pm

    This is so very awesome!

  3. Stacey Bivens December 10, 2013 6:48 pm

    These photos brought a huge smile to my face, and a tear to my eye. I remember that #4 and #5 could be such pests during the summer while the class of 2013 was training. And now here they are at St. Marks…migration is a miracle! When I think of the times I’ve walked out of a mall and couldn’t find my car…

  4. Ann Gillis December 10, 2013 9:50 am

    Good news! Beautiful photos of beautiful birds. Thank you. Thank you. My heart sings! Hopefully these two can help teach some street smarts to those that are presently on their way to St Marks.. This makes me know it worth it all.

  5. Cheryl Nichol December 10, 2013 8:37 am

    The Boys are Back! Whoop, whoop, hurray! This must help to cheer up the team while they are waiting to fly with the Class of 2013. Thank you to the observers at St. Marks for being in the right place at the right time and for the super photos!

  6. eugenia December 10, 2013 8:11 am

    How great is that?! The welcoming committee has arrived! I hope it’s a good omen!

  7. Margie Tomlinson December 10, 2013 7:56 am

    The Refuge Manager is not the only one THRILLED by the appearance of our boys from last year’s cohort! #4 & #5-12 have been so entertaining and educational to watch! Can hardly wait for this year’s youngsters to get to St.Marks now! Really fun to see all the comments on this too! Congratulations OM and all who support it!

  8. Deanna Uphoff December 9, 2013 6:28 pm

    Amazing! They are waiting for their buddies from this years group!

  9. Iowa Crane Watcher December 9, 2013 6:09 pm

    Normally I spend January on the Gulf Coast and always stop at St. Marks, it is such an awesome place. Alas, this year heading to the West Coast with friends to bird. Always exciting to follow each year’s OM journey. These are such fabulous photos of #4 & #5. many thanks for these so informative posts.

  10. Shelly Taliaferro December 9, 2013 1:37 pm

    I am smiling ear to ear to see the boy burds at St. Marks! They are there just in time to welcome the class of 2013 to their winter home! Assuming that they all play nice, these boys could be good role models for the colts to follow, in terms of survival skills outside of the pen. Obviously, those boys have figured things out. What a beautiful sight! Congratulations, boys, for finding your way back to St. Marks on your own and a big high five to the entire OM team for guiding the boys on their maiden voyage last year! Well done, all! Whoop! :)

  11. Mary W-D December 9, 2013 1:27 pm

    Hello Jack,
    Your comments inviting brainstorming toward creating a more efficient/cost-effective migration are interesting and appreciated. There are some things learned from the dozen years of this ongoing experiment of ultralight led migration that have gone into the current migration route (and method) that you are likely to enjoy knowing about. I won’t be able to comment as thoroughly as Joe Duff or others could — but they’re very busy so I’m going to hazard some responses to some of your questions.
    The eastern route is intended to be far enough away from the western flock to avoid intermingling, as protection against disease transmission should one or the other flock become afflicted, especially with a transmittable disease. The eastern route has been modified already (2008) for safety and potentially less weather disruption, but there will never be a way to make it slick nonstop flying! (I’m not eager for humans to try controlling the weather that much. Our species has a shaky record when it comes to intervening with nature!)
    The current route overlaps with flyway most likely previously used by Whoopers, and currently used by Sandhills. It gives them a more northward prospective breeding grounds to start from, and to return to for nesting and raising young. An area less subject to tornadoes (though who knows what climate change is stirring up in coming years).
    The western flock is also subject to weather delays, but yes may fly longer and at different times of the day (maybe more than one time a day). Those chicks are in the company of experienced adults and don’t face the complication of coordinating with ultralights (that can carry only 3 hrs. worth of fuel). If they learn to ride thermals sooner than the eastern youngsters do, they’ll proceed faster and fly longer while still being in the company of teachers-of-the-route.
    The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP) of which OM is a part, has tried and continues trying several methods of release creating options for the captive-bred chicks to learn migration and merge with adult whoopers in the Eastern Migratory Population (EMP): Direct Autumn Release, and this year Parent-reared release to EMP. At annual review meetings the experiences and findings of the most recent as well as prior migrations are studied and integrated into ongoing plans for safe and successful reintroduction. If you’d like, you can keep up with this by reading the annual reports published after the year’s migration is completed, available online from OM or WCEP (
    Mmmm, “crate migration” ? sorry, but probably not. As evidenced by birds crated too often in prior years, the birds need to fly the route to learn it. (See Journey North’s story of #9-03 – previously referred to as #3-09.) Learning migration is a complicated phenomenon that appears to involve multiple components and landmarks may be one of the factors, in addition to the experience of being led by either a mechanical or a real bird that teaches the route, and also provides protection and reassurance along the way.
    OM is an inspiring as well as intriguing experiment that has been gathering invaluable data each year to expand the knowledge base for bringing this species back from the brink. Hooks you, doesn’t it?! ?

    • Patti December 9, 2013 6:23 pm

      well stated! Thanks for some interesting insight!! I so love following OM, this being my first year, and definitely not my last!

    • JeanneAH December 9, 2013 11:30 pm

      well said Mary! Your points make sense and I appreciate learning all I can about these magnificent birds.

    • Linda Mann December 10, 2013 8:17 am

      Well said, Mary! Maybe H will put what you wrote on the Field Journal so others can see it. Who knows, Jack may not come back to read further comments. I did, was hoping somebody would say more than I did, that Jack might comment further.

  12. Vannie Zychowica December 9, 2013 1:19 pm

    That is great news I was ondering where they was, I like to go by white marsh and see all the whooper cranes I can I great place for them to grow up.

  13. Patti December 9, 2013 1:02 pm

    How wonderful is this! Look how beautiful they are! So happy they are at St. mark’s!!! :)

  14. Warrenwesternpa December 9, 2013 1:01 pm

    1 1/2 year olds return to St. Marks.

    That is amazing! Have these birds figured the summer batch will be arriving soon? Will we ever know the instincts of wild life? Maybe it is our lot in life to marvel and be content with our observations.

    George (Burt) Burton and volunteers …Thanks for the beautiful pictures!

  15. Lori (loriearn) December 9, 2013 12:45 pm

    Fantastic news and wonderful photos! Looks like they passed the OM Crew and didn’t even wave! Brooke will have his hands full this winter! Hope OM crew & colts arrive soon!

  16. Barb Mullally December 9, 2013 12:03 pm

    This wonderful news. I love the pictures, they are so beautiful.

  17. Lu Duncan Frank December 9, 2013 12:01 pm

    So happy to see that they have it figured out!

  18. L Henriksen December 9, 2013 11:59 am

    You are amazing that you can identify these guys from these pictures. What lets you ID them? Coloring or something about the tags or … ? I know you spend a lot of time with them so I’m sure know them well but it still impresses me.

    • Heather Ray December 9, 2013 12:05 pm

      Louise, each crane in the Eastern Migratory Population has a unique legband combination used to identify them.

  19. Marje Lloyd December 9, 2013 11:58 am

    great news these guys sure like the pens, someone tell them they have to move out soon

  20. Jack Harvey December 9, 2013 11:58 am

    It must be discouraging to have so many down days. It’s rare to get consecutive fly days. I am wondering if there is a better way to establish a second migratory flyway.

    1. Is there a better route? The Wisconsin/Florida route seems to be plagued by unsuitable flying weather. As I recall from last year the migration wasn’t completed. The birds had to be crated and delivered – they had just gone on strike. How about starting them off in Tennessee and leading them to Florida? How about starting well to the east of Wood Buffalo Park and heading for, say Saskatchewan, or Missouri?
    2. The Wood Buffalo flock migrates a much longer distance. You must know how long it takes them, how far they go each fly day and how many down days they take. Maybe the daily distance of the W/F group can be increased a lot. Maybe they can fly in the early morning, take a rest and then have another flight, or two.
    3. Have you even tried just taking the colts on a “crate migration” where they don’t fly all that much but instead mainly get crated from stop to stop. No more 10 down days in a row. Get the migration done, guaranteed, in about 10 days. Maybe it would work if the colts flew the first few stops, got crated a lot and then did a few stops at the end. I can see that some experiments with other migratory birds would be in order.
    4. Can the new group of colts be accompanied by a few of last years adults? The older birds would set the expectations for the youngsters. This is how a future natural migration would take place anyway – with a mixture of old and new birds.

    I bet there are many other ideas out there. Establishing another migratory route is a good idea. But there must be a better and less expensive way.

    Jack Harvey

    • Linda Mann December 9, 2013 1:20 pm

      Jack, I think they tried several of those experimental approaches with sandhill cranes before this project. They can’t fly later in the day because turbulence increases and it’s too dangerous – risk of collision of birds and trikes. There is a second experimental group of whoopers (DAR – Direct Autumn Release) that are captive reared, then released in Wisconsin near adult whoopers, to (hopefully) follow them south. Read more about the DAR program on the ICF (International Crane Foundation) website. They are much more at risk of early predation than the more protected trike led birds.

    • Beth Lauxen December 9, 2013 3:53 pm


      Others have answered other aspects of your suggestions, You spoke in the first of your points saying that you remembered that last year’s migration wasn’t completed. That is incorrect. Last year’s migration was one of the quickest of all, ending around Thanksgiving weekend.

      What you are remembering I think likely was the 2011 class migration. That migration was artificially interrupted by a complaint lodged with the FAA, which grounded and already weather interrupted migration until the FAA cleared the complaint and cleared OM to fly again. However, the cranes had been grounded for so long (nearly February) that it was warmish again, and the cranes had lost the urge to migrate. Luckily, they had been grounded near Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge which had over several years attracted several whooping cranes to winter there. It was a stroke of luck to be able to release somewhere that free wild cranes had chosen on their own, and both 2012 and now this year, members of the OM Class of 2011 have returned there. Different followers of OM have various opinions/feelings about how that ended, but I choose to view it as a silver lining to a tough situation. There is now a third spot that may in the future be a blessing if other factors affect either the western or eastern migrating flocks.

      Thanks for following OM and sharing your thoughts.

  21. canadianhoot December 9, 2013 11:54 am

    What wonderful news! Can`t help but wonder if they will hang with the young colts when they arrive. This could be interesting. Thanks for the pictures. :)

  22. Chix Laces December 9, 2013 11:54 am

    Wow. That’s terrific! We had been wondering how they were doing. Apparently they learned well Congrats to OM and to the 2 whoopers

  23. M-Sue Walsh aka MSWcrane December 9, 2013 11:38 am

    Now they can keep Brooke company all winter :-)

  24. Gay Spencer December 9, 2013 11:35 am

    Can you see that thought bubble above their heads that says, “So where are those new kids!?” It’s great to know they are at St. Marks!

  25. M. L. Walsh December 9, 2013 11:35 am

    yay they look beautiful

  26. Jenny Gibbs December 9, 2013 11:32 am

    What amazing news! The pictures are fantastic. Way to go #4 and #5!!