MIGRATION DAY 82 – DOWN DAY 2

South and west-southwest winds on the surface and aloft respectively along with imminent rain will keep the cranes and planes on the ground for another day at the new ‘short-stop’ in Franklin County.

EASTERN MIGRATORY POPULATION UPDATE
Here is a summary of the most recent data received from the WCEP Tracking team.

As of January 16th, the maximum size of the Eastern Migratory Population was 103 Whooping cranes; 53 males, 50 females. The estimated distribution of the population at the end of the report period or last record is:

 

39 Indiana
2 Illinois
5 Georgia
7 Alabama
2 S. Carolina
 2 N. Carolina
6 Tennessee
1 Missouri
13 Florida
18 Unknown
6 Long-term missing

 

On reviewing this report it struck me as unusual that as of mid January only 13 Whooping cranes had reached Florida. Curiosity getting the better of me, I asked Caleb to do some research. He checked back through the years of our Field Journal entries to find the tracking reports of previous years that were closest to the mid January date so we could compare. Below is the result.

 

Year/Date IN IL KY TN NC SC AL MO GA FL LA Unknown Missing
2011 – 16-Jan 39 2 0 6 2 2 7 1 5 13 18 6
2010 – 12-Jan 10 0 0 20 0 4 8 0 3 23 0 10 7
2009 – 27-Jan 2 0 0 15 0 4 7 0 4 31 0 6 2
2008 – 2-Feb 2 0 0 18 0 4 2 0 2 23 0 3 5
2007 – 23-Jan 4 0 0 4 0 3 2 0 0 46 1 3 0
2006 – 15-Jan 0 0 0 7 0 1 0 0 0 34 0 2 0
2005 – 12-Jan 0 1 2 1 3 4 0 0 0 23 0 1 0

As you can see, never has there been so many birds still so far north at this time of year, leading of course to there never being so few in Florida by this time. 39 Whoopers still in Indiana? …and we thought our progress was slow!

Later migration departures? Ample fresh water/food sources? Warmer winter? Evolving to more northerly wintering habitats with climate changes? Can a definitive answer even be extrapolated?

PREDICTING

With thunderstorms in the forecast for tomorrow as well as 40-50mph WSW winds aloft, it’s a good bet the cranes and planes will not be in the air in the morning.

Brooke Pennypacker snapped this photo of the costume leading the Class of 2011 to the newly erected travel pen at the new Franklin County short-stop.

Joe had walked them some distance away to a spot behind some trees so they’d have no exposure to the vehicles or the crew while the pen trailer was unloaded and the panels put together.

MIGRATION DAY 81 – DOWN DAY 1

This morning was a good illustration of why we say we never know for sure whether or not we’ll be able to fly any given morning. We can check the weather sites over and over, and postulate all we want, but in the end, until a trike is in the air at flight time, we can never be sure.

Case in point. We were excited to see the weather sites this morning calling for a significant improvement over what they were reporting yesterday afternoon. In fact, the conditions they were calling for had us believing it would be a fly day.

As usual the team got ready and well before sunrise, the ground crew and the tracking van were on the road to get in position.

All three trikes pushed out of the hangar and Joe and Richard took off first. We watched as immediately after launching they bounced and bobbled in rough air. It was scant minutes – so fast in fact that Brooke hadn’t as yet even gotten into the air –  before they announced that they couldn’t get any speed up and unanimously called it a Down Day.

Contrary to what was reported, 0 – 3 WSW surface winds, Richard measured the winds at close to 10mph out of the southeast. Aloft, instead of finding what was supposed to be ~5mph westerly wind, the trikes encountered SE 30mph winds. While Richard said the air smoothed out at 1500 feet, his speed over the ground was down to 11mph.

This photo, taken by Brooke Pennypacker, shows the Class of 2011 in their mobile pen at our new Franklin County ‘short-stop’.

MIGRATION DAY 80

Where to start? First of all – for those of you who had trouble accessing our site this morning, our server went down overnight. Thankfully it’s now back in business.

With the weather sites showing our cold temperature was delivered compliments of a 9mph north wind, and that altitude it was also blowing out of the north at 15 to 20 mph, it was going to be a ‘test trike’ morning.

Richard van Heuvelan launched to test the conditions and radioed back saying, “I think its doable.” The scramble to get in position was on.

Launch was at 7:39 and lead pilot Richard got off with eight of the nine birds following. One crane, #10, hung back at the pen. It wasn’t long before the ‘crane rodeo’ began. After much back and fro-ing and circling Richard finally got the birds turned and headed off to the south – with what we thought was six cranes. Then we watched as Joe and Brooke each picked up one wayward bird, and they too turned southward and we watched them disappear into the distance.

Meanwhile, up ahead, Richard was having a time of it. He had one crane (at least) that kept breaking and he had to keep circling to get it back on the wing. Brooke was fighting to keep his bird with him when some of Richard’s birds broke and headed back… which Brooke then tried to scoop up. At the same time, Joe was managing to get his bird a little further along the way, and eventually put down with that bird at the same location Richard and Brooke landed to hold their cranes on the last flight attempt.

We cleared the potential use of that site with the property owner at that time, and we’re now referring to it as the “Franklin County short-stop”. With Joe on the ground with his one, Richard make a low pass with his remaining three and Joe called them down. I think the four at the short-stop site (where we will set up our second travel pen) are numbers 3, 4, 6 and 12.

And now, another ‘meanwhile back at the airport/pen’, Brooke returned with his small flock and Richard followed shortly thereafter to help him and Geoff return four cranes to the pen. That just left one still ‘free ranging’ Whooper and Richard went back aloft to direct Brooke and Geoff driving the white van to its location. I think – ‘think’ being the key word here, the cranes now back in the Franklin County pen are numbers 1, 7, 9, and either number 5 or number 10. It is either #5 or #10 that the crew is currently tracking in a nearby field.

That’s the story as it stands. Tune back in later in the day for, as Paul Harvey would say is…”..the rest of the story,” and perhaps a number of corrections.

MOVING RIGHT ALONG – ALMOST

Two days ago we finally got going again. On that day we had to land unannounced in a field on top of a hill. While there, I noticed it could be a good site for the cranes. I happened to be opposite Brooke on the other side of a ravine and had to walk one bird out of the brush and back to where he waited with four other cranes. Or so I thought.

Just as we, that is, me and #1 arrived over in the same field as Brooke and his four birds, off trike and birds went into the air. That was all #1 needed to see and away he went too. By the time I clamored back to my trike and got airborne, Brooke was landing too, but in another pasture as the four birds had landed next to a pond and #1 had landed near the river.

Thus began a long day of crating birds and getting them back to the pen. Caleb and I then drove back to apologize for trespassing. While making our apologies, we also became acquainted with the land owners of the site where we first landed, and they indicated they were very willing to let us use their property in the future.

Now for today. It began very well with seven birds on my wing, one with Joe, and one with Brooke. We were well on course for our next destination when some or all of my birds would turn back only to be rounded up again and again.

This happened repeatedly, and soon we were losing ground instead of gaining. At some point, now almost back at our departure point, four of the seven broke off and headed for the pen, but me and the other three continued on without them.

The wind starting kicking up as we progressed southward, and it became clear that our reaching the next stopover location was not likely to happen. That led to the decision to land the birds in our new found friends’ field. Joe, who was well ahead with his bird, landed there first. When I finally arrived with my three, one landed, then another, however #4 refused to go down and it took a dozen circuits before she could be convinced to land.

I wanted to stay airborne so I could fly back and help Brooke who was trying to find and help the remaining four birds in the cohort back to the pen. By the time I arrived, #5 had landed in a nearby field nearby, another had landed with Brooke, and the other three had to be rounded up and brought back to the pen.

Once the four ‘returnees’ were in the pen, Geoff and Brooke jumped in the white van to go and pick up #5 and I flew over head to guide them to him. Once they reached #5’s location, I returned to the airport and landed. But on hearing that #5 had again taken off, I got back into the air only to find that he had landed next to the pen. With him returned to the pen, I finally was able to return my trike to the hangar.

We all waited for Joe to fly back and Gerald and Caleb to drive back from the new Franklin County ‘short-stop’. Before leaving there, they had set up our second travel pen, and walked today’s four flying cranes, numbers 3, 4, 6, and 12 into their newest residence. Numbers 1, 5, 7, 9, and 10 have gone to join their classmates, but their trip is being made by road.

Another long day, but the upside is that we’ll have fresh start from a new location.

PREDICTING

We’ll have 3 to 4mph WNW surface winds tomorrow – which is good, but we’ll cross our fingers that the predicted 15mph westerly winds swing around just a few degrees to the north before morning. That would conceivably give us some flying weather and a chance at actually completing the Franklin to Walker County leg.

Not guessing at what tomorrow will bring – we’re crossing our fingers instead.

MIGRATION DAY 79 – DOWN DAY 5

It started with plink-a-plink but soon turned to plunk-a-plunk. Then came a building crescendo of whooshes; seemingly the giant never needed to inhale. Then, as he took big breaths in and let them out, the motorhome began to pitch like a sailboat at sea in a good size swell.

The rain storm that wanted to be a thunderstorm when it grew up got its wish. No need to scour the weather websites for clues this morning.

Got to run. Have to check the bow lines and throw out an extra anchor.

PREDICTING

Odds for a flight tomorrow are not great. Without some overnight change we’ll be looking at 3mph SW winds on the surface at our departure point shifting to SSW winds blowing 11mph as we move southward. Although aloft the wind direction will be NNW, it appears that we’d encounter a velocity increase at altitude as well; up from 15 to 20 to 20 to 30mph.

So, are we going to fly a migration leg in the morning? If I had to bet my last nickel on it…. I wouldn’t.

MIGRATION DAY 78 – DOWN DAY 4

As opposed to yesterday when, never had so many team members been in so many different places at the same time, we will all be stuck in the same spot today.

The morning delivered rain along with high headwinds winds both on the surface and aloft making flying out of the question.

WOOD BUFFALO-ARANSAS POPULATION UPDATE
Below is the most recent report as distributed by USFWS out of Aransas, Texas.

“This has been a busy month for Whooping crane activity since our last report. Aransas National Wildlife Refuge has received an additional 0.72 inches of precipitation and salinity levels remain higher than ideal. We have continued to help alleviate the low food resources by adding to our prescribed burn totals. This week alone we have burned an additional 4682 acres of Whooping crane habitat. Biologists observed the Whooping cranes eating roasted acorns and are seeing continued usage.

The chick carcass that was sent to the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, WI last month had inconclusive findings on the intermittent report, and we are awaiting the final report, which will include virology results.

The latest data from Texas Parks and Wildlife officials indicate that red tide is still persisting in the bays but in lower concentrations. Biologists continue to keep a vigilant watch for signs of illness or disease.

An auto survey was conducted by biologists on December 22, 2011 throughout the Blackjack peninsula and a total of 45 Whooping cranes were observed. For reasons beyond our control, we are not able to secure a government certified pilot and aircraft to complete a survey, but are working diligently to alleviate this issue.

Whooping cranes observed at the refuge have bright white feathers indicating their overall body condition is good. Despite potential threats this winter, Whooping cranes continue to thrive, and managers are doing everything possible to ensure their continued success.”

FRUSTRATION

For the last eleven years I have maintained that the word FRUSTRATION is commonly misspelled. It’s actually two words and should be spelled, W-H-O-O-P-I-N-G C-R-A-N-E. In fact, a number of other words should be spelled the same way but, most of them only have four letters.

Today was one of those WHOOPING CRANE days, but in all fairness, I can’t blame them. After staying in one location for more than a month, it is not surprising that they might have forgotten the art of migration. When Geoff opened the pen and Richard did a low pass, they all took off except number 10. He finally got airborne on the second pass but he didn’t stay long. He broke along with a few others.

I stayed high so I could assist Richard with a running commentary of where the birds were and which way to turn. A few would break and then cut the corner to catch him again. As he gathered them up and lost them, it started to get complicated and hard to keep track of who was where. Brooke chased #12 but before he could catch her, she landed in the middle of a forest only a half mile from the pen. Another two birds (numbers 3 and 4) landed in a flooded field a mile to the south. After a couple of low passes, it was obvious they were far too happy playing in the water to follow the trike.

Eventually Richard and Brooke collected a total of five birds between them and headed on course. With one bird in the forest, two in the water and one still missing, I turned back to help Geoff.

The birds in the water were not going anywhere so, after a cursory look for the missing bird, I landed in the field next to the forest. I followed a trail and soon found # 12, I led her out of the trees and over to the aircraft. She took off with me, but as I turned for the pen she turned the other way and landed back in the trees in the exact same spot. I flew back to check on the two in the water, but they were still ignoring me as I passed low overhead.

By this time Caleb and Gerald Murphy in the tracking van had zeroed in on the two, but they were up on a ridge looking down. They could see the birds in the distance but could not figure a way in. I talked them into a farmer’s lane and as they asked for permission to retrieve the birds, I went back to check on # 12.

I landed next to the forest again and walked up the same lane. # 12 followed me out and again we took off. As I circled back, another bird dropped into the formation with us (#10) but I had no idea where it came from. I led them both over the pen, but neither landed as I hoped they would. Instead, # 12 headed back to the forest while # 10 vanished as quickly as he had appeared.

By this time Brooke and Richard were having problems with the five they had headed south with. Eventually they landed with all of them, but they were in separate fields; Brooke with four and Richard with one. They were 10 miles away and needed help, so Caleb, Gerald, Geoff and I all met at the airport. We loaded up five crates and sent Gerald to meet Richard and Brooke. We recruited Hudean Wilson to go with Geoff to speak to the landowner at #12’s location, and Caleb headed back alone to retrieve numbers 3 and 4 from the flooded field.

I took off and talked Geoff into a field a mile to the east where number 12 was again in the forest. Then I flew south to help Caleb. The path into the flooded field must have been two miles long. It passed through several pastures, a herd of cows and over a stream. Once he finally got there, Caleb had to carry two crates down a long hill and tuck them into the trees so the birds wouldn’t get nervous when they saw them. I tried to find a place to land so I could help, but the terrain was just too hilly. I headed back to search for the missing # 10.

While circling, I heard Richard and Brooke over the radio. They were airborne again and struggling with birds. Theirs is an entire story on its own and I only heard snippets over the radio, but eventually they landed in another field where they managed to crate all five birds. Then Gerald brought them back to the pen.

While that was happening Caleb called to say that he had managed to get #4 in a crate, but that #3 realized he was next, and took off. Caleb had a strong signal from his transmitter so I headed south again to help him search. I found # 3 two fields over and talked Caleb in to retrieve him.

This is a complex story with many players and lots of locations, and I am running out of ways to say, “meanwhile back at the airport.” So, meanwhile back at the airport, Geoff and I took the truck and another crate to meet Caleb. We rendezvoused on a back road and transferred the two crates containing numbers 3 and 4 into the truck. Geoff headed back to the pen with those two birds while Caleb and I started to search for #10, the last missing bird. We kept getting an intermittent signal while we drove back roads for an hour.

We triangulated what we thought was his location, but couldn’t find a road to take us there. The only access seemed to be a railroad track, so we parked the tracking van and set out on foot with our costumes and a handheld receiver. We walked a mile and came across a trestle with a large sign that warned of extreme danger and a threat of prosecution for passing. We could hear the train horn in the distance so off we went, covering the railway ties two at a time. We clambered down the embankment while the train passed and then continued to follow the signal.

Meanwhile back at the airport, Richard had returned and landed to refuel. He took off again with a tracking antenna mounted to the front of his aircraft. By the time we reached the next road crossing on the railway track, Richard called to say that he had found #10 a mile from where we were searching, but at least in the same direction. We made the trek back to the van, and followed his direction to the bird. Brooke was also just arriving so he and Caleb collected # 10 and we all headed back to the pen with the last bird.

It was now 2:30 in the afternoon and all the birds were back where we started. It was an exhausting day and I spent most of it searching for birds and thinking of new euphemisms for Whooping crane.

MIGRATION DAY 77 – OH MY

All indications pointed to our having flying conditions this morning; zero to 2mph WSW surface winds at departure point turning into north winds at destination. Aloft, the weather sites reported 15mph NW winds.

A short wait for the worst of the frost to pass and at it was a launch with the Class of 2011 at 7:30. At the departure flyover viewing site we listened on the aviation radio as the pilots talked back and forth spotting birds for one another as a not unexpected rodeo ensued.

After what seemed like an interminable wait, we heard that Richard was finally able to head out with five cranes, although to do that he was well to the west of the ‘planned’ flight path. Brooke, flying chase, trailed Richard and his little band of birds. Meanwhile back at the pensite, Joe flew round and round and back and forth trying to locate the 4 birds that had broken away and dropped down (numbers 3, 4, 10, and 12).

Even as the aerial search was taking place, Richard and Brooke were having a time of it with their five (numbers 1, 5, 6, 7, and 9). They would follow and then break again and again. Worried the birds would go down, at one point they even discussed turning and leading them back to the pen. But, eventually all five birds and both trikes were on the ground about 8 air miles out. Gerald Murphy was dispatched in the white van with crates for a pick up.

Back at the departure point, directed by Joe flying over head, Geoff and volunteer Hudean Wilson set off in the white truck to the location of #12. With the permission of the landowner to go on his property, Geoff crated her and delivered her safely to the pen, and Joe landed back at the airport.

While all that was happening, Caleb, in the tracking van met another landowner who opened the gate to the field where numbers 3 and 4 had landed. Caleb managed to walk #4 away and get her crated and tucked in the van, but #3 apparently wasn’t done with his little escapade and took to the air.

That prompted Joe to get back in the air to do an aerial search for #3, this time with Caleb giving directions about his flight path to Joe. Once Joe got a visual on the crane, he was able to direct Caleb in so he could retrieve the AWOL bird.

That leaves #10 still unaccounted for, and all hands are headed for the airport to re-group. Once all retrieved cranes are back in the pen, the entire team will be fanning out with tracking equipment to search for him.

Just in. Some, (or all) of the five with Richard and Brooke have taken to the air again. We’re waiting for the details.

This account will give you an idea of this morning’s activity but doesn’t begin to tell the whole story. The pilots will have to fill in all the blanks later today – likely much later today. If this all sounds chaotic not to mention nerve-wracking, (I used to have fingernails and hair) it is because it was, er, is.

And another ‘just in’. On his way back with #4, Caleb picked up a signal on #10, so Joe and Geoff are off to see if they can pinpoint his location so he too can be retrieved.

Stay tuned…

ROUNDING UP

Slowly but surely the round up following this morning’s rodeo and aborted flight is starting to wind up. As I write this, numbers 3 and 4 are being released back into the pen to join #12. Numbers 1, 5, 6, 7, and 9 are minutes away from arriving to be reunited with the waiting trio.

If you just did the math…that totaled eight of the nine in the Class of 2011. Number 10 is still AWOL, but Caleb, with Joe who has transferred from the white truck to join him in the tracking van, had a signal from 10’s transmitter. Now we are waiting anxiously and not so patiently for what we hope will be the good word from them.

THE ‘LOST’ IS FOUND

Once the five cranes that flew with Richard and Brooke were crated, they headed back to the airport. On his way back, Richard broke off and spotted #10 less than a mile from the pen. After re-fueling, he got back in the air, while I went to collect Brooke who was returning the five to the pen with the help of Geoff and Gerald.

Brooke, armed with a clean crate and an aviation radio headed out in the white van to be directed to #10’s location by Richard flying circles up top. Joe and Caleb were called back from where they were searching on foot to assist. As I type this  I can see Richard’s trike off in the distance flying circuits over the crane’s location. He will likely stay ‘on station’ until the costumes reach the bird, just in case he decides to take to the air again.

When I see Richard’s trike heading back this way, I’ll heave a sigh of relief, knowing that #10 has been safely retrieved. And….here he comes now!! Yay!

There really should be a Field Journal posting today from each team member. The cranes have provided each and every one of them with some ‘adventure’.

MIGRATION DAY 76 – DOWN DAY 2

We wish mightily that yesterday afternoon’s prediction for this morning had been wrong – – but unfortunately it wasn’t.

We were hopeful this morning when at o’dark thirty, contrary to the weather sites displays showing WSW 8mph surface winds, all was calm with both the runway windsock and the flag atop the pole hanging dead still. All indications at that time were that we’d have calm to light surface wind conditions at our departure point and all along the route to our destination in Walker County, AL.

With the weather websites showing NNW 20-30mph winds aloft, we waited impatiently for sunrise so a test trike could go up. There was a wait for the frost to dissipate, then, at 7:27 CT, Richard van Heuvelen, the designated lead pilot for this leg, followed by pilots Joe Duff and Brooke Pennypacker, took to the air for a first hand check of the conditions aloft.

Over the aviation radio we heard Richard report he was down to 21mph over the ground at 1000 feet, and quickly thereafter Joe chimed in with, “I’m only getting 17mph at 400 feet.” Richard radioed back, “Now I’m down to 14.” On the ground we watched as the trikes flew above the runway, or more correctly, hovered, as they appeared to be almost ‘flying in place’.

From start to finish it was only a very few minutes before the three pilots reached a consensus and declared, “We’re down.”

PREDICTING

They say, “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch,” so, while we are more optimistic about our chances for a flight tomorrow than we were this morning….we’re resisting counting.

The surface winds are forecast to be WSW, but very, very light. The question is will a headwind…even a light one be enough to discourage the young cranes, especially as shortly after take off the trikes need to get them to climb quickly to get over a ridge just to the south of us.

Aloft, the winds for the morning are more favorable than they were today as they have dropped down but are still out of the right direction.

Unless there is a drastic change for the worse, I’ll be at the departure flyover location in the morning – with my fingers crossed. Hope to see y’all there!!