Last fall, when we made the tough decision to move the birds from southern Wisconsin to Tennessee we knew it would make their return trip challenging. That is why we volunteered to provide a team to track them north and intervene if necessary. For awhile over the winter we thought we might get lucky and a few of the older birds would guide them north but that only worked with number 7-14.
The remaining five followed 5-12 all the way to southern Illinois but he gave up trying to coax them farther and he finished the trip to Wisconsin on his own.
Brooke and Colleen kept tabs on them every day but their peregrinations back and forth across the state made it obvious they were lost. The WCEP Monitoring and Management Team developed a contingency plan for intervention and relocation deadlines which we followed to the letter. Unfortunately Whooping cranes don’t follow plans, not matter how comprehensive.
After weeks on the road with days spent treading through mud and listening to the intermittent beep of the radio receiver, they managed to collect three of them and bring them home to White River.The other two were a little more elusive.
Number 4-14 seems to be ensconced on Wabash Island in the Ohio River where Illinois, Kentucky and Indiana meet but the waters were high and the island is privately owned, so it was hard to confirm his location. Number 3-14 was about 50 miles to the west in an area that can only be described as inaccessible.
On Tuesday, Doug Pellerin and his wife Mako spent the day with Heather and I hitting all the high spots where she had last been seen. We had a very strong signal so we headed across a fallow field with a hand held tracking unit. It led us to a tree line where the signal weakened. I ventured into the forest just to see where it took me. I found a fallen tree that provided a precarious bridge over a river but that led me to another field over grown in multi flora rose. There were more thorns in there than in a den of porcupines.
It took about 5 minutes to cover 10 feet and once I was though I was reluctant to give up. I passed into another forest, scaled a 20 foot cliff and was eventually stopped by a deep gorge and another river too deep and wide for me. I moved south, following a tree line and was eventually lost. My phone GPS didn’t have a signal but it was good enough to text Heather. She guided me to a railway track and I walked a mile or so to a crossing. I climbed a high bank to meet them two hours and 3 miles from where we started.
The next morning Lou Cambier flew his Cessna 185 from northern Illinois to Sturgis, Kentucky to help with the search. He has tracking antennas on both wing struts and is an expert pilot. First we circled Wabash Island and there was number 4-14 (Peanut) in a flooded ag field, perfectly happy and perfectly safe.
Next we checked on number 3-14 and were surprised to find her feeding in the very field that began yesterday’s adventure. Lou waited at the airport in case she moved while Heather and I drove a hour to find 3-14 still there. She was foraging in a narrow slough that ran the length of the field. See was 400 yards from a very quiet road and hidden from view by the thigh high grass and a gentle crest running parallel to the creek. We hid the crate in a little depression and pulled on our costumes. I played the brood call as I walked in her direction. When I reached the slough, she was a hundred yards to the south so I stopped and waited. When she saw me she made a guttural throaty yodel that I have never heard before. It may have been a new call in her instinctive repertoire or her version of a greeting mangled by her changing voice.
I sat at the edge of the water and she made her way over. I tossed her a grape and perked her interest. I spent an hour, plotting my approach, feigning disinterest and moving her slowly towards the crate. After she ate what seemed like a hundred grapes, she relaxed and moved too close. I grabbed her bustle and walked her the rest of the way. This is a simple technique of clasping your hands toward the end of her closed wings. It is simply to stop the wings from opening and the bird walks ahead of wherever you direct. She was very calm and even began poking at insects as we covered a hundred yards and only became upset when she saw the crate. She was soon safely inside and we were on our way to the pen.
Tomorrow we will try the same technique on 4-14. I hope we are as lucky.