New Meaning to Once in a Lifetime

Guest Entry by: Mary O’Brien (tume lady), Madison, WI

If you’re reading this, you already know that being part of the Operation Migration odyssey is a once in a lifetime experience stitched together from indelible memories that touch your heart and make you smile when you reach for them time and again. On Sunday, while attending the Whooping Crane Festival, I had the opportunity to visit the class of 2014 in the pen and wanted to share it with all of you. As some of you know, I make the white costumes each year for OM and I’m proud to have been christened “tume lady” by the crane cam chat group. My best friend Sandy and I took over the costume production in 2006 using Joe Duff’s very own designer gown as a pattern. She lives in New Zealand now, but she’s still a craniac, my biggest fan, and always with me in spirit – So San, this one’s for you.

It’s an honor and privilege to make the costumes and just seeing them with the cranes and soaring along on migration is all the reward one could ever want. But, each year Joe has kindly extended an invitation to get a little closer to the cranes as a way to thank me. Until this year, I’ve declined his offer to maybe take part in a roost check or some other pen activity. Why on earth you ask? Well, I was just a little timid, didn’t want to impose on the OM crew, and worried a little about making a mistake.

Then crane karma that I so strongly believe in led to meeting and getting to know craniac Doug Pellerin who became my inspiration for the Sunday pen visit. Doug is the Fond du Lac volunteer who gets up before he even goes to bed and meets folks at the White River Marsh training site to take them to the viewing blind. His awesome wife Masako (“Mako”) also comes on these excursions and being from Japan where cranes have been revered for centuries, she has a bone deep appreciation for efforts to save the Whooping Crane.

A while ago, I asked Doug what it was like to be in the pen with the cranes. His big smile and shining eyes said it all as he explained that it’s mostly the little things like listening to their peeps, having them peck your costume and look longingly at the front pocket where they know the grapes are kept, or when they stare at your visor trying to see their own reflection or maybe looking for the face that’s in there somewhere. From that first conversation, I knew Doug would be the right person to share a pen visit with.  So, we asked Joe about it at the crane festival and he said you bet!

I met Doug and Mako at 6:00 Sunday morning. There was no training flight because it was too windy.  Tom Schultz was also there with some folks who were going on his bird watching tour. Tom is from Green Lake and was one of the guest speakers at the crane festival on Saturday (Birding Costa Rica); he also helps with the viewing blind tours. While Tom waited for his group, Doug, Mako and I headed for the small parking area where Doug and I got suited up. When Doug opened the back of his SUV, I saw only one costume and helmet. Since I’ve never made a costume for myself, Doug said he would bring one of his for me to wear. As Doug started to pull his costume on, I panicked a bit and asked where the other one was. Doug calmly and with a dead pan straight face said I don’t know, isn’t it there?  Well, it was just a little Pellerin humor to keep me from being nervous. I’ve never actually worn one of the costumes so Doug gave me some pointers.

Mary has made dozens of costumes for us over the years. This is the first time she's ever donned on herself. Photo: Mako Pellerin

Mary has made dozens of costumes for us over the years. This is the first time she’s ever donned on herself. Photo: Mako Pellerin

Meantime Mako set out for the viewing blind lugging Doug’s camera with what looked like a 40 pound lens so she could capture images of us walking to the pen and going in and out of it.

I certainly saw a different side of Doug on Sunday; he’s kind of a character and his quirkiness helped put me at ease. For example, as soon as we suited up it seemed like it would be fun to “moon” Mako before heading to the pen (jeans up of course, but since this is a family site, I won’t include even that image).  As we walked along the path to the pen, Doug explained the chores he would be doing and gave me some pointers on how to enjoy the crane kids without putting them or me at risk. He also reminded me that we would indeed be on CraneCam at a certain point near the pen and while in it – no pressure there!  For the fun of it, we did a yellow brick road arm link as we walked on the runway near the pen. For anyone interested, here’s the link to the crane cam clip of our adventure.

At the pen, Doug did a final whispered check to make sure I was ready to meet the class of 2014. He also whispered that he intended to go about his chores and that I would be just fine – I needed to hear that! I had already made up my mind that I was going to act like a seasoned crane handler by copying the crane handlers I had watched on the CraneCam and by following Doug and Tom’s advice on not letting any chicks get behind me where I couldn’t see them.

Last minute check in before entering the pen - Photo by Mako Pellerin

Last minute check in before entering the pen – Photo by Mako Pellerin

Here are some precious images of my time with the cranes as snapped by Doug, whom I know was also keeping me in one corner of his vision all the time. We had a pre-arranged signal to use if I felt like I needed leave the pen. But that didn’t happen and it was love at first sight! Because the cranes apparently know when there’s a new tume in the pen, I moved very cautiously, often crouching so the chicks wouldn’t feel threatened. As I told Joe later, they pretty much ignored me except when I was shelling out a few grapes. He said that was a good sign.

Mary_tume_1 Mary_tume_2

It’s difficult to put into words the thrill of being so close to these magnificent creatures and I’m  tearing up again as I write this. As Doug said, it truly is the little things that blow you away. Here are my best memories. Because I was wearing rose colored nail polish, I thought the chicks might be attracted to it, so I tried to keep my hands covered. But, at one point when I was pecking at the ground with the crane puppet, the nail polish was visible and one of the little guys started pecking my finger tips and then decided to taste my sleeve as well. I was so thrilled I forgot to breathe! When I told this story to Colleen Chase later, she mentioned that one of the chicks seems to have a fingernail fetish – that’s fine, I’m told there are worse fetishes. In a crouched position, my visor was about level with the leg bands which means there was a whole lot of crane chick above my head. One of the chicks did look me over pretty good, coyly turning its head so that each eye could get a better look. And then there was the ham that got tired of me being the center of attention for Doug’s camera and decided to do a little in your face photo bomb.


Another thing that struck me was their huge feet, how wide their toes can spread, how flexible they are, and how gingerly and gently they walk. I loved the way some of them tipped their rumps up just enough to display and show off their tail feathers. And the feathers themselves are so beautiful up close. The white is starkly so and the cinnamon looks like it was lightly air brushed on as an afterthought by Mother Nature.

Way too soon it was time to leave. After blowing some kisses and putting our helmets back on, we walked back toward the parking lot.

Blowing a goodbye kiss to the cranes – photo by Mako Pellerin

Blowing a goodbye kiss to the cranes – photo by Mako Pellerin

Imagine my surprise when it wasn’t over yet. As the parking lot came into view, there was Tom Schultz and his birding group waiting to hear about our pen visit. Doug and I immediately went into flight mode so they could get great pictures of whooping cranes in flight. Jenny Gibbs from Baltimore graciously sent this image to Doug as soon as she got home on Monday (thanks Jenny).

Doug and Mary flying whoopers - Photo by Jenny Gibbs

Doug and Mary flying whoopers – Photo by Jenny Gibbs

Seriously, I felt like a rock star amid the snapping of cameras and congratulatory remarks and hugs. It was all I could do to fight back the dragon tears that would have totally trashed my mascara. We also had a chance to visit with Brooke and Colleen who joined the parking lot group.

Tom Schultz and birding group welcoming us back – photo by Mako Pellerin

Tom Schultz and birding group welcoming us back – photo by Mako Pellerin

And this image really says it all in response to Doug’s final question to me “well, how was it?”


It was so awesome! – photo by Mako Pellerin

My humble thanks to Doug and Mako, Tom, and OM for another once in a lifetime opportunity. And to my fellow craniacs, I hope you enjoyed this story and that it gave you a little glimpse into how it feels to be inside the pen for the first time.

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  1. Sandy Goodenough September 27, 2014 2:01 am

    Great story, Mary and wonderful to hear it all firsthand on the phone today. I remember the day we first saw the OM trailor in Green County and how we were shaking… excited. You’ve done so much for OM…..but then they’re a fabulous group of such dedicated people. Anyway, I’m thrilled to death for you, that you got this experience and know you’ll treasure it forever!

  2. Maxgreenwing September 20, 2014 5:47 pm

    What a great report on your pen visit. So happy you “did it”!! Smiling ear to ear as I read. What a great memory you have of your pen visit. 🙂

  3. Nancy Freeman September 17, 2014 2:41 pm

    beautifully written Mary ! felt like i was right there with you and the photos courtesy of Mako are brilliant…a really good read today ! thanks so much for taking the time to write such a decriptive piece and sharing it with all us craniacs………and also thanks for all your efforts in making the costumes !! 🙂

  4. Doug Pellerin September 17, 2014 2:08 pm

    I’m so happy for you, Mary. It was fun, I’m glad that I got to share this experience with you.

  5. Christy September 17, 2014 1:53 pm

    Wonderful story, Mary!

  6. Patti September 17, 2014 12:25 pm

    After tearing up as I was reading this I can only imagine the joy and thrill at being amonst these feathered angels as I call them! What a once in a lifetime event and such beautiful memories! The things we craniacs dream of doing!! How Blessed you are to have experienced their beauty up close and first hand! Thanks too for sharing this beautiful visit with all of us!! 🙂

  7. P. Main September 17, 2014 11:33 am

    Wonderful and I see faces I know! Your time spent will truly be memorable and heartfelt forever! Thank you for posting, your smile says it all!

  8. Jenny Gibbs September 17, 2014 10:41 am

    Mary, it was so good to meet you. Thank you for all you do!!

  9. Margie Tomlinson September 17, 2014 9:38 am

    Congratulations, Mary! Wonderful real/true story! Brings back all the memories of my face to face encounter with the male Whooper at ICF in 2012. Thank you for all your work in making the “tumes” for OM, too.

  10. Ruth Mitchell September 17, 2014 9:36 am

    Mary we are the ones who should be thanking YOU not only for your tireless work on the costumes for our Tumes but for sharing your experience with us!!! It is lovely to know that you were right there to share your love with our chicks!!! Thank you again…and again!!!

  11. swanlady4eagles September 17, 2014 8:22 am

    What a great description – as I read on, it was like I was right there with you. Thank you thank you thank you.

  12. eugenia September 17, 2014 8:02 am

    OMG, how totally awesome that must have been! Thank you so much for sharing with us. And a huge thank you for all those costumes you’ve sewn!