First Aid for the Whooping Crane Pen at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge

St Marks National Wildlife Refuge is a wonderful place to visit and that’s true whether you are a nature lover or a bird.  The habitat is pristine, the marshes are beautiful and the staff are all generous, congenial and seem genuinely happy to work there. Personally, I think that has a lot to do with the trickle-down effect from Refuge Manager Terry Peacock. She brings experience, authority and a big smile to every encounter and makes you feel like you have just arrived home. And for many of our birds that’s exactly what St Marks is, at least for the winter.

Brooke will spend his winter season in Florida. He will monitor any birds that spend time in St Marks and check on others in the vicinity. He may even help with re-banding some of the birds that have non-functioning transmitters. The following is a great story about the managers, staff, friends and supporters of the refuge and how they all got together to fix the winters’ storm damage to the release pen they built in early 2009.

The pen is open-topped and covers four acres with good roosting inside. No food will be provided to the winter visitors but most of them are familiar and may choose to roost where it’s safe. In fact, they likely don’t even know it’s a pen. Terry’s team also repaired the small top-netted section but that would only be used to protect an injured bird while awaiting care from a vet. Let’s hope it’s never used.

Thanks to Terry and her indefatigable team.

— Joe Duff

Written by a St. Marks NWR Volunteer

Every year since 2008, St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge Manager Terry Peacock has invited the public for a work day in autumn to help Refuge staff prepare a 3-acre fenced pen to be a safe winter roost for migratory whooping cranes.

One never knows exactly how many of these endangered birds will visit St. Marks. Eight whoopers
visited or stayed on or near the Refuge during the winter of 2016-2017. Among these was adult male 5-12 who has faithfully returned to St. Marks every winter of his life.

So, when the 7 young whooping cranes costume-reared by Operation Migration this summer began associating with 5-12 and his subadult buddy PR30-16 on White River Marsh Wildlife Area in Wisconsin, hopes rose that 5-12 might guide the 7 chicks to winter at St. Marks NWR. If any other cranes joined them, it could get very busy indeed on the Refuge!

With this in mind, the decision was made to maintain the crane pen for another year. Our 2017 public work day was then scheduled for Saturday, October 14.

Meanwhile, Hurricanes Irma and Nate blew through in September and early October, driving the fury of the Gulf of Mexico onto coastal communities. The crane pen fence was torn and sections were doubled over where PVC support posts had snapped. On October 5th, the Refuge Facebook page said “the job is going to be a lot bigger… We need lots of able-bodied volunteers who don’t mind hard work in the muck.”

About 28 hardy U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff, Refuge Friends and Photo Club, community volunteers, and FSU Environmental Service Program students showed up bright and early on October 14 unfazed by muck and eager to tackle the repairs.

Refuge Manager Terry Peacock warmly welcomed her 2017 Whooping Crane Pen crew and shared some history. She highlighted how, in this 10th year of whooping crane restoration at St. Marks, volunteers’ work on the pen and facilities would aid migratory whooping crane recovery in North America.

Terry recounted how it all began in 2008 when she gave an emphatic yes!!! to FWS endangered species specialist Billy Brooks who had asked her if St. Marks NWR would participate in the historic whooping crane recovery project. With strong local support encouraged by Terry, the “Whooper Hilton” was completed by January, 2009 before the St. Marks Class of 2008 flew in guided by the ultralight aircraft of Operation Migration.

CLICK to view a slideshow on Journey North about the St. Marks site

As to our workday – – Terry was frank, the pen had taken a whacking. She assigned most of the crew to repair fencing, the last line of defense for the whooping cranes we expected might arrive within the coming month. So much to do, so little time!

We loaded up for the rustic 2-mile ride to the trail head, then a half-mile hike out through the coastal forested wetlands to the edge of the salt marsh. As the winter caretakers can attest, it takes a long time just to go to and come from the pen each day. But oh, what sights, sounds, scents, and scenery! Crossing the salt marsh, we approached the pen under the watchful eyes of a trio of great egrets to our north and a bald eagle in a snag half a mile to our southeast. You could almost hear their thoughts: “There goes the neighborhood…again!”

First, there was an orientation about fence components and the art of fence layering, tying, and testing to assure that even a slender arm cannot pass through the layers. As Terry predicted, the cohort of cable ties placed 3 or 4 years ago was now aging out. Volunteers split into teams, removed crumbling old ties, and strategically placed new ties and reinforcements to exclude predators. Gradually this “first aid” patched and healed vulnerable sections of the fence.

Nearby in the north pond of the pen, Sophia led the FSU oyster rakers in arranging shells where the whooping cranes can walk and safely roost at night to avoid predators. This team had the gooiest job, but we think they also had the most fun!

Tom Darragh and his Photo Club crew recruited the tallest fence tiers to help restore the small topnetted pen inside the large pen. The small pen can protect an ill or injured crane, should the need arise. Due to the severe damage, this job will require more workdays to complete – – twisted and damaged supports are visible in the upper left corner of the photo above,.

Perched atop a ladder, Dan Frisk, who manages the North Florida Refuge Complex, worked with others to reinforce and restore the heavily damaged top half of the fence to its original height. Terry Peacock and Ranger Scott Davis led crews with varied tasks and shuttled supplies to other teams. Ed the electrician and helpers circled the pen examining and collecting electric-fence posts that were damaged or rusted – – a common problem in a salt marsh subject to broad tidal fluctuations.

As temperatures rose into the 80s and the breeze dropped, the morning crew prepared to head back to town. They left the fence much stronger for their efforts, and hundreds of old cable ties departed the marsh in their trash sacs. Well done!

When a volunteer took a fall on the way out, everyone stepped forward to help. Special kudos go to Wilderness First Aid-trained Travis Pollard (Fire Crew), who took quick and effective action with others to organize a safe recovery.

This was a timely reminder for others to take a break in the shade of the observation blind, evaluate the morning’s progress, and tell some tall tales. A favorite story was that of Joe Bonislawski, a beloved photographer, volunteer and friend to all, who worked tirelessly on the pen for many years. He passed away on the same day in March 2013 when the yearling cranes departed north on migration. Joe’s tale of dedication is a lasting inspiration to all volunteers.

It takes a village up and down the flyway to give whooping cranes a chance to survive and thrive in the changing world they share with us. As our team hiked out, we discussed the many challenges facing these birds, and the hope inspired by efforts of WCEP members and other public and private organizations, donors, and landowners who have supported this reintroduction project since its inception. It is an honor and a privilege to work with those who are willing to put skin in the game to help an endangered species.

In the words of Refuge Manager Terry Peacock:
“There is no doubt that Volunteers definitely make a difference in the amount of work for wildlife we are able to accomplish. Thank you!”

And ,Terry, thank you for inviting us to help!!! Whoop-Whoop-Whoop!

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  1. Mindy November 10, 2017 12:00 pm

    Wonderful written account by a Volunteer…thank you for telling the story of love and caring by a force of people who made the pen ready for those Whoopers coming… and at least 3 are now on their way there. What a great showing of stewards who are willing to get out and do what the rest of us cannot. Thank you, thank you so very much! Thanks for sharing this Joe and Heather….Loved it!

  2. FFMN/p doms November 10, 2017 9:42 am

    Wonderful article by Joe Duff and St. Marks NWR volunteer and the accompanying photos. “It takes a Village” so to speak , trying to do anything possible to sustain those precious Whoopers +. Thanks you one and all.

  3. Elsie Sealander November 10, 2017 9:16 am

    Many thanks to all the wonderful volunteers.

  4. Jean P. aka CrabtowneMd November 10, 2017 8:05 am

    Blessings and many thanks to all the volunteers, staff, and agencies that make this event possible. May your efforts be rewarded with a stellar fly-in led by 5-12 (aka Henry) and 30-16.