Day 41 – Chase Pilot Report

Date: November 9, 2015 Migration Day: 41
Dist. Traveled: 59 miles
Total Dist. 294 miles
Location: Piatt County, IL


When you  conduct an experiment, you try one thing at a time and analyze the results. Being that disciplined is not easy when flying with birds. Maybe they don’t look at life as an experiment.

Number 1-15 is our oldest bird and has developed her adult voice long before this would normally happen. She is dominant to the point of challenging the aircraft for the lead or she is reluctant to follow it. Instead, she will fly with the other birds and do her best to lead them away.

This morning we released all of the birds, including 1-15, mainly because we didn’t want to box her again and partly because we didn’t know what else to do.

Brooke took off with all of them and from the very start, there was no hesitation. Not one turned back or even looked like they were going to break. He flew low over the flyover site and started to climb.

I flew behind and noticed that there was no order to the flight. Rather than line up in single file and get down to the business of migration, they bounced around like those numbered ping-pong balls in the lottery commercials.

Twenty miles ahead, we could see a wide stretch of wind turbines that we knew we had to get over. But every time Brooke gained some altitude, he had to lose it again to collect the birds.

He could see that it was number 1-15 causing the problem so we decided to dump her but that too wasn’t easy. She would drop below the wing taking others with her and was always somewhere tangled in the flock. After another 20 minutes she dropped fifty feet below the trike, while the other five were all in line on the wingtip. Brooke took advantage and powered up, working the five to gain altitude. Soon the spread was 200 feet and I started to move in.

Cranes will take advantage of anything that makes their work easier, which is why they fly in a V formation or surf our wingtip vortices. If the chase trike gets too close to the leader, the birds following him will often take the opportunity to glide over for an easier ride.

I had to keep my distance for a long time until number 1-15 was almost exhausted. She set her wings and started down as if to land. I stayed low and directly behind Brooke until I caught up to her and she noticed me. She moved over and formed on my wingtip to catch her breath. By this time we were down to fifty feet above the ground and I was glad we were over flat farm county.

I veered slightly right to lead her away and put some distance between her and the other birds, but she stayed on track and followed them.

Whooping crane 1-15 ahead of Joe. Photo: Joe Duff

Whooping crane 1-15 ahead of Joe. Photo: Joe Duff

She would only surf on my wing when it appeared I could lead her back to the others. As soon as I turned away, she would venture off on her own, desperately trying to reach them. When she got tired, she would move back to my trike and ride the wingtip for a while.

I knew there was little hope she could catch them but I let her try and see for herself it was impossible. At one point she was a quarter mile away, hopelessly flapping along and wearing herself out. When she turned back to join me I would close the gap and let her ride my wing. Slowly she was learning the consequences of her independence and that if she wanted to keep up, there was only one way. Still she kept trying until Brooke and her flockmates were so far away that we lost them in the haze.

That is when she finally accepted the dominance of the aircraft and locked onto the wing. If she dropped down, I didn’t lose altitude to collect her. Instead I just slowed slightly so she could catch me if she wanted to but the aircraft did not bend to her will. If she wanted a free ride, she had to come and get it.

We slowly climbed until we reached 3000 feet and for the last 30 minutes she never moved from my left wingtip. Even on the long descent she stayed close. For the last mile, Brooke and the other birds were in plain sight but she never left me.

Fortunately, we landed right behind them and that provided the reward for all the hard work. Maybe that reinforced the lesson that staying on the wingtip gets you to where you want to go.

Who knows if any of this will work. Teaching birds to migrate is a lot like teaching someone another language when you only know three words.

Brooke arrives with his five young Whooping cranes. Photo: Deanna Uphoff

Brooke arrives with his five young Whooping cranes. Photo: Deanna Uphoff

Joe arrives moments later with #1-15. Photo: Deanna Uphoff

Joe arrives moments later with #1-15. Photo: Deanna Uphoff

Share Button


  1. Catherine Wohlfeil November 10, 2015 6:41 pm

    Bravo! Lesson well taught! Recently number one issued a challenge to the ultralight for possession of the flock, but you have now made it possible for her to return to the flock. This act enables her to see you in a different light.

    Opening her mind to the possibility of learning new methods, or cooperative ventures, may be the resource which saves her and the species in the end. Trained resourcefulness may be a strength worth instilling while simultaneously maintaining the power of territoriality and dominance in the flock.

    Well done..

  2. birdlady9 November 10, 2015 12:17 pm

    Your insights on whooper behavior are fascinating, Joe! Thank you for the enlightening report.

  3. Mindy November 10, 2015 11:48 am

    Wonderful report Joe. You and Brooke did such a dance up there to get 1-15 to go with you and maybe? learn a new lesson. Thank you for all of it. Especially for taking time to write how you did it. Gotta love #1’s efforts to stay in sight of her flock! And thank you for the pic as well…. Deanna, your pics were great! Thanks! So glad you got to be there and witness the landing….

  4. Ann Manning November 10, 2015 10:55 am

    Wow, what an education with this report. I felt as if I was right there experiencing your frustration with Miss Independent and her struggles. You and Brooke certainly have to get up each day with a plan, and then it is game on, only to have to constantly rework the play plan. There can never be enough praise for your dedication, love for these beautiful cranes ,and the wonderful , amazing work of all the OM team members. Thank you to each and every one of you.

  5. Connie Gratias November 10, 2015 10:34 am

    Wow, the crew is so dedicated to these birds and work so hard for their benefit. Thanks!!! By the way….bird 1-15 is quite the TURKEY!!

  6. Suzy Rob November 10, 2015 9:14 am

    I so enjoy these reports! Such an insight into these fascinating birds! Love the commitment of OM and love being able to spy on the program via cams and chat!!

  7. Kay Huey November 10, 2015 8:38 am

    Joe, you and Brooke flabbergast me. It’s no wonder that you once mentioned that it’s nigh impossible to find other pilots who can do what you do on a daily basis. The extraordinary skills that you have in your back pockets are incredible. . . And here I thought yesterday that six birds went up and six birds came down. Easy flight. . . I’ll be shaking my head all day!

  8. Sallly Swanson November 10, 2015 8:36 am

    Makes me breathless reading your journal. I am so impressed with OM! Thank you!


  9. Ruth Mitchell November 10, 2015 8:22 am

    Getting inside the mind of another human is a big enough challenge, but getting inside the mind of a Whooping Crane ??? You all are amazing and awe inspiring!!! Thank you for everything you do!!!

  10. LaraLeaf November 10, 2015 7:49 am

    You guys sure do use the part of your brain that facilitates decision making and flexibility! The pathways between those brain areas must be wide open after constantly having to resolve the ongoing dilemmas and complications of this project. These young cranes don’t have the experience to know the predicaments they can only too easily put themselves into, or the consequences. It is a wonder that OM found people with the necessary temperament and skills needed to work with these colts. What a unique experience every day must be!

  11. Dorothy N November 10, 2015 7:40 am

    Great report. I assume that the former mis-behaver, 2-15, flew nicely along with Brooke and the other birds? Maybe she just wanted to be sure there was another bird to move into the role of disrupter. Thank you all for your persistence and patience with these beautiful air creatures.

  12. ffmn November 10, 2015 7:32 am

    PS thank you Deanna Uphoff for the photos!!

  13. ffmn November 10, 2015 7:30 am

    We viewers, are equivalent to 1st graders in knowledge (and thankful for that!) and Brooke and Joe have gone on to PHD level in everything regarding the birds. So much has to be done during the flight. I truly applaud you both!!

  14. Carol Giancola November 10, 2015 7:22 am

    It is amazing to see how you all are tuned into the needs of the birds as they fly. So AMAZING,

  15. Jillbru November 10, 2015 7:19 am

    Herding whoopers is much like a chess game – thank you for walking us through your plan (and so happy it seemed to do the trick!)

  16. vannie Zychowicz November 10, 2015 7:08 am

    Number one did a grest job I an glad she flu with joe and she never gave up even if she flu slow she got there with joe


  17. Patricia Ewing November 10, 2015 6:43 am

    An amazing report and I must add with your patience and knowledge of these birds a successful flight… Thank you..

  18. eugenia (aka CraneWatcher) November 10, 2015 6:05 am

    This is so fascinating! You all are indeed Crane Whisperers, Joe and Brooke.

    • Mindy November 10, 2015 11:52 am

      Definitely agree with that CraneWatcher!