Whooping Crane Memories

Guest Author – Mary O’Brien

The first time ever I saw the cranes…the planes…

Roberta Flack’s iconic melody, First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, is one of my favorites and it was going through my mind as I reminisced about the first time I saw Whooping cranes soaring behind an ultralight aircraft on migration. The upcoming Whooping crane festival seems to trigger sharing stories and memories about what has brought us all together in the first place and what we are celebrating – I like that.

While I had watched some training sessions at the Necedah refuge in the early years, it wasn’t until 2006 that I saw a real migration flyover. In the early days, flyovers weren’t structured or advertised. Rather, they were witnessed only by the lucky few who knew the host families or who found out where they were located.

Here’s my story. My best friend, who at the time was a teacher in rural Dane County, heard that one of the host migration sites was in Green County, near New Glarus. One day we set out on a mission to get a look at these cranes and planes. Not being shy, I called a restaurant in New Glarus and boldly asked “do you know where we can find those crane people who are supposed to be in your area?” We were told that we might be able to find them somewhere near the New Glarus Woods State Park. So, on a cold September morning, we left Madison long before the sun came up and headed there.

After driving around for some time, we finally noticed a small Cessna airplane circling in the distance and it hit us at the same time – Operation Migration has a top cover airplane and this could be it!  Oh, before I continue, let me step back a bit and mention that this unglaciated part of Green County is stunningly beautiful with rolling hills and valleys and fall colors that kick you right in the pants.  We careened up the hills, down the hills, and through the valleys trying to follow that Cessna which finally disappeared into the distance.  Then, just as the sun was rising but not yet strong enough to burn off the morning fog hanging in the valleys,  we came down a hill and there they were, the whole OM entourage of trailers, trucks, planes, a few cars parked on the narrow gravel shoulder and some people standing near them.

Waiting for the sun to rise and frost to melt

Waiting for the sun to rise and frost to melt

Joe Duff wiping frost from the wing’s leading edge

Joe Duff wiping frost from the wing’s leading edge

It took a moment before we got up the nerve to get out of the car and chat with the few folks who had gathered near a small shed that fronted on a mowed strip serving as a runway. The owner welcomed us and asked everyone to tuck into the shed and stay very quiet when and if the planes and cranes came by. After what seemed like an eternity of watching Joe Duff and the other pilots, whom we had not yet met, scrape frost from the ultralight wings, kick the tires, and wiggle some strange white gowns over their ski jackets, one of the ultralights took off for a test run.

Testing the winds aloft.

Testing the winds aloft.

Finally, the signal was given that there would be a flight and we tucked ourselves just inside the shed where it was so quiet you could hear the proverbial pin drop. Suddenly, a plane came swooping down through the jack-o-lantern colored valley followed by a string of magnificent Whoopers that seemed to be at eye level and almost close enough to touch.

Doc 1 2006 3

Up and away!

Up and away!

As we turned toward each other and teary eye contact was made, something passed between each of us that mere words can’t adequately describe or explain. I now know that this was a special bond that would be shared many more times by many more people in the coming decade. I will treasure this first time memory all the days of my life and I hope you enjoy it too.

Next stop - Winnebago County, Illinois!

Next stop – Winnebago County, Illinois!

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  1. Warrenwesternpa September 11, 2016 1:01 pm

    Whooping Crane Memories Mary O’Brien, Heather Ray.

    2006 was my first migration with OM and remembering it well. I never went to a gathering or auctions, but I have meet so many wonderful Craniacs through this medium and unfortunately, saw the passing of some too. History reminds us we need to reminisce. Thank you Mary for a wonderful lesson and the beautiful pictures. Sincerely!

  2. CherylGB September 6, 2016 12:01 pm

    Beautiful memory beautifully written.

  3. CraniacP September 6, 2016 10:29 am

    Mary, thank you bunches for writing about that special first moment. I was just in the Monroe area and can imagine those gorgeous rolling hills full of beautiful whooper colts! It is this tie of flyover comraderie that binds the OM Whooping Crane community that the policy wonks will never understand.

  4. Margie Tomlinson September 6, 2016 6:46 am

    Mary, Thank you so much for sharing your memories! Just seeing the photos, at first, brought tears to my eyes – Joe & the ULs and, of course, our Whoopers from 2006! Miss them all soooo very much! So glad, though, that we have returned them to the Eastern Flyway and White River Marsh especially, and we now have the CraneCam to watch them on a daily basis. Thank you for all you’ve done to help accomplish this. WHOOP, WHOOP, WHOOP!

  5. Mary O’Brien September 5, 2016 7:50 pm

    Thanks everyone for your lovely comments – they made me grin. These precious memories are indelible and will always be right there, just behind our eyes.

  6. Sandy B September 5, 2016 6:48 pm

    Thanks for describing this experience so vividly. We were lucky enough to share a similar experience many times in Sauk County. Breathtaking and magical.

  7. Mindy September 5, 2016 1:58 pm

    Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful memory and pictures to go with it! Oh Mary, thank you for sharing this with all of us and thanks many times over for all the stitches you have sewn since then! Not only did you help the Team, you helped those beautiful, gorgeous Whoopers that we all dearly love. How I miss migration already!!!

  8. Mollie Cook September 5, 2016 1:00 pm

    Mary your words are beautiful & watery eyes as I read it. I will miss watching these flights so much just like so many others. I remain hopeful that we will see them again in the future. I am so proud to be a part of this journey & do what I can to help grow this migratory flock of Whoopers.

  9. FFMN September 5, 2016 11:53 am

    Ohhhhh, What a beautiful vision you created of that day. I sooo miss this type of action along with hundred of others, I am sure.

  10. Grandma September 5, 2016 11:47 am

    Mary, thank you for your beautiful words and photos. On this Labor Day I want to thank all that have worked so hard to bring back these beautiful Whooping Cranes from extinction!

  11. Dave Sapko September 5, 2016 11:06 am

    Mary, you’re the best. Thank you for sharing your memory of the ‘first time’. You are one of the pioneer viewers of the early days. I appreciate your story.

  12. Dorothy N September 5, 2016 9:59 am

    Lovely memories of a special day.

  13. Jane Maher September 5, 2016 9:58 am

    We saw a long line of the birds come up out of the valley near New Glarus, led by two ultralights. It was a very cold autumn morning. What a beautiful memory, Mary.

  14. Barb September 5, 2016 9:22 am

    Oh, to be wild and free in the air as the birds.

  15. Maggie Turk September 5, 2016 9:13 am

    Having been in this area of New Glarus several times I know what you experienced that day as that is a beautiful part of Wisconsin–one of many of course. You did a great job of sharing your experience with all of us. We cherish all of these special memories of these magnificent birds. Thanks for sharing the photos and activities of that day.

  16. Carol Giancola September 5, 2016 8:46 am

    Thank you for sharing your beautiful pictures and memories, Mary. I never get tired of seeing the beginnings of the wonderful population of cranes we still thrill at glimpses of today!