Life in the Slow Lane

Ever since parent-reared Whooping crane #30-17 was released last Thursday, I’ve been assigned to monitor her and record observations about her whereabouts, her behavior, the habitat she’s choosing, who she’s keeping company with, and anything else that seems noteworthy. To do that, I obviously need to situate myself somewhere in her vicinity, preferably with a view. That’s easier said than done!

The marsh is traversed by numerous grassy dikes that I drive on for 2’ish miles to get out near where she was released. Not far you say? Ha! It takes me 30 minutes to travel those 2 miles. The problem is the dikes are full of potholes that you can’t see because the mower leveled the grass off all at the same height. You can’t tell that you are about to send your front tire into a 1 foot hole until your head hits the ceiling in the truck. And that’s only going 7 mph! I quickly learned to reduce my speed to 3-5 mph – it was that or wear Heather’s bicycle helmet.

You know how most cars and trucks will move forward slowly even when you don’t have your foot on the gas pedal? That’s mostly how I had to drive in the marsh for my first 3 days there. The truck does anywhere from 2 to 3 mph at idle, so even if I DO hit a pothole, I don’t bite my tongue off.

I’ve also learned which dikes are smoother than others so I avoid the worst ones whenever possible. By driving round and round on the same dikes trying to triangulate beeps to locate “my bird”, the tires finally tamped down the grass enough so that, for the past couple of days, the potholes are apparent. That has allowed me to speed up considerably – up to 8 mph at times!

Oh! You want to hear about “my bird”, don’t you! Let’s see…

Friday – Whether she was timid or just needed time to recover from HER drive over the bumps, #30-17 did not seem to move around at all on Friday. All my biangulating and triangulating put her beeps pretty much where she walked out of her crate into the marsh. The vegetation is so tall that there was no chance of getting eyes on her. By sunset, when I left, I was pretty concerned that she might not be alive.

Saturday – Upon arrival at sunrise, #30’s beeps put her in the same area, escalating my concern. But, as I proceeded down the “release dike” farther and farther, checking the direction of her transmissions every 100 yards or so, I was surprised when I got beyond her release spot and the beeps were still out in front of me. This was GREAT news – she had MOVED! More beep-tracking seemed to put her out of the marsh where there are some ag fields (where AREN’T there ag fields in Wisconsin?!?!). I knocked at the door of the closest house and the gentleman there was kind enough to drive me in his Polaris to the other end of the fields so I could check beeps there. Nope – not in the ag fields – in the WOODS!

Sunday – Heather came with me to see if together we could locate #30 (with our eyes, not our telemetry receivers). Instead of spending 30 minutes to get into the marsh only to find that she had left the marsh (which would mean another 30 minutes to get back out), we tried listening for her signals on the roads around the marsh. She seemed to be in the same wood lot as the night before. We hiked across the ag fields and then into the woods, using the strength of her beeps to steer us. Both of us feared the worst at this point – cranes don’t usually hang out in this habitat. Suddenly Heather whispered “STOP!”. There, about 30 yards in front of us, right on the edge of the woods and marsh, was an upright #30!

See the bit of white through the branches? Click to enlarge.

My heart flipped – this was my first sight of her since she stepped out of her crate Thursday night! We took a few photos and then backed away to return to the marsh where we could keep an eye on her. We took note that she wasn’t limping and she had spread her wings a few times, so she appeared to be fine. She also tucked her head and took a brief nap. Late in the morning she flew back into the marsh (and out of sight) and we breathed a sigh of relief.

Monday and Tuesday were VERY interesting days, so tune in to my next post for, as Paul Harvey said, “The Rest of the Story”!

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  1. Nena Cook October 27, 2017 11:00 pm

    Love Operation Migration especially these stories, what awesome writer, cracks me up some notes are so cute and funny. Sincerely miss the Ultra lite migrations thou, followed it all the years it happened, was so so incredible. Loved the film, Fly Away Home, watch it often esp when grandkids are around, just for their benefit. Great organization still following Cranes migration when happens to this day too, thanks for hard work all do and great adventures..

  2. Dorothy N October 14, 2017 11:35 am

    such patience and persistence! I’m so glad it was rewarded!

  3. Dana Courtney October 12, 2017 1:54 pm

    Thank you! You all are saints!

  4. Mollie Cook October 12, 2017 1:09 pm

    Thank you for the report Jo-Anne…….what an adventure & so thankful she is ok. THANK YOU for all you do for these birds!!

    The whole scenario however just reemphasizes how “iffy” this release plan is. These birds are released from the crate having NO CLUE what to do, how to protect themselves in the marsh & where to roost, no real flying experience & not enough time to successfully build up their endurance & gain confidence for migration when they are released so late in the season. I know this is only “my opinion” but I just felt the need to voice it as a supporter & lover of Whooping cranes. This in no way reflects on the OM Team – you are doing what you are allowed to do & go way above & beyond what is expected of the team. I only hope & pray that this release plan does not continue & better decisions are made by “the group”. And as this season is winding down I just want to say it has been amazing & I am so thankful & grateful to have watched & been a part of it. I have so much respect & admiration for the OM Team………you do everything right!!!

    • Mindy October 13, 2017 12:12 pm

      I agree…..the Parent Reared chicks sent to White River Marsh are at a severe disadvantage when they arrive. They are not flying well enough to be safe from predators and are just released with no idea where to go or who to be with. From their parents side to the wild? They must feel so lost and vulnerable! This is so not fair to them. OM’s costume reared method is far superior to this plan. These colts kept in the pen all summer are much, much more well prepared for life in the marsh and more likely to return to the marsh next spring. The OM team has done a superb job watching over them and teaching them what they need to do. So much so, that they released themselves this year! That speaks for itself. I hope this will become the standard and no more colts will be sent to WRM so late in the year with no time to learn the ropes of wild crane life. Of course the Ultra Lite plan seems still to be the best way to teach migration! But if we cannot have that, then costume reared is the only way to prepare them for the best possible result.

  5. Anna M Osborn October 12, 2017 9:37 am

    Thanks. Amazing adventure; so glad for the happy ending…