Plans laid in February at the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge WHO Festival hatched as OM put on its WILD at the Wakulla Wildlife Festival on Saturday, April 19th. What a happy way to celebrate Wakulla County’s new residents, the wild adult Whooping Cranes who chose to winter here this year!
Spirits were high in the 6:45 a.m. twilight as our feisty North Florida volunteers led by OM Board member Colleen Chase chugged coffee and a tasty breakfast at Savannah’s. It was just 5 miles to the festival venue at Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park, a National Natural Landmark graced by one of the largest and deepest freshwater springs in the world, acres of canopied forest teeming with wildlife, and a Lodge built in 1937 that still serves guests in grand style year-round.
The Park and Festival staff bubbled southern hospitality and directed us to a spacious exhibition tent. Colleen Chase, Claire Timm, Lynn Walsh (aka Maxgreenwing,) Karen Willes, and I scurried to set up educational displays alongside OM merchandise and brochures under the tent to protect them from the intermittent drizzle, while Jim Young attached the OM banners to display frames.
Our first official visitor was Jeff Hugo, Park Facilitator for the fest, who gave us a hearty welcome!
What a perfect location for the OM table, with a lovely view across the green where a parade of masked wildlife characters snaked among beekeepers, mullet-smokers, a blacksmith, and vintage tractors under the live oak trees. Music wafted all day from local talent on the bandstand, and we were a short flap-hop away from the Festival’s delicious complimentary lunch.
Operation Migration’s magnet was the silent costumed Crane Handler (Jim or Colleen), who alternately crouched down to “feed” the chick model a plastic bug, or stood “watching” kids with the puppet head as they passed by.
Kids’ reactions to the costume are a hoot. Little ones may zoom right up and hug or look underneath the billowing cloth, while others try to grab the puppet-head, and a few tentatively peek out from behind their parents’ legs. But the box of crane food items draws them in, and next thing you know, they’re helping the ‘Tume feed colorful replica lizards, bugs, mice, and snakes to the chick model. Or they pose for pictures next to the huge Whooping Crane cutout.
Colleen explained to visitors why the costumed handler is silent and showed how each part of the costume helps in training chicks without imprinting them on humans. Claire, Lynn, Karen, and I answered lots of questions and guided folks through the educational photo collages of: Early Training at Patuxent, Flight Training in Wisconsin to follow OM’s ultralight aircraft, Migration to Florida, and Wintering lessons taught to the young Whoopers at St .Marks NWR.
Karen shared a new display about mated Whooping Cranes 11&15-09 who winter nearby in Leon County. She patiently explained why humans must protect and respect these and all Whooping Cranes, giving them the distance they deserve to preserve their wildness and avoid habituation to humans. Also prominent were signs deployed this winter to teach people not to intrude on the birds’ roost site.
About half of our visitors first learned about Operation Migration and the Whooping Crane reintroduction at this festival. Many were inspired enough to pick up some OM souvenirs and a brochure listing webpages to follow progress online.
Each of us visited other displays at this eclectic gathering of over 30 exhibitors plus vendors, wildlife and art shows, living history demonstrations, and reenactors. Lynn took a glass-bottomed boat tour on her lunch break and excitedly shared a looooong list of wildlife she’d seen.
When drizzle slowed the flow of atendees, we visited with nearby tent-mates. Mission San Luis reenactors learned that Whooping Cranes still lived freely in Florida when their site was established in 1656; Apalachee Audubon’s Kathleen Carr shared spring birding news; Park volunteers entertained kids with face-painting and mask-making; we met educators from the Tallahassee Museum and Wakulla Environmental Institute of Tallahassee Community College; and Florida Wild Mammal Association volunteer Nick Baldwin, a St. Marks Photo Club member, snapped photos of all the fun.
Among OM friends who stopped by were Jack Rudloe of the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab who supplies blue crabs for the young cranes overwintering at St. Marks NWR, and supporters from the St. Marks Refuge Association & Photo Club. Oh, and did I mention the costumed cormorant who cuddled up to Colleen and OM’s ‘Tume?
We also spoke with those whose passion is protecting wild Florida habitat – - so necessary for migratory and resident wildlife. Among these were Wakulla Springs Alliance, Wakulla Wetlands Alliance, Friends of Wakulla Springs, Florida Trail Association-Apalachee Chapter, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Florida Division of Forestry, Florida Native Plant Society, North American Butterfly Association, Pew Charitable Trusts, Sustainable Big Bend, and many others.
It was inspiring to interact with so many caring kids and families. They give us hope that the next generations will carry forward the mission of Operation Migration and the many other organizations represented at this Festival.
We congratulate and thank Wakulla Springs State Park, the Friends of Wakulla Springs, and the many sponsors and volunteers who hosted this extraordinary event. We felt honored to share OM’s mission with so many new friends. Thanks, also, to Paul & Betty Hamilton and Ken & Connie Clineman, St. Marks NWR volunteers who helped us with access to display materials.
And….. we invite you to come WHOOP it up at the next Wakulla Wildlife Festival!
Ed. note: Huge thanks to the volunteers for organizing this event and to the photographers for capturing the day!