FOR THE LOVE OF SHOES

Back at the White River Marsh State Wildlife Area in Wisconsin as I was getting to know the chicks, #7 distinguished herself to me. Every time I encountered her she would play with my boots. I mentioned this to fellow volunteer handler Doug Pellerin, and he said that he had the same experience. This bird was fascinated with footwear.

Slowly the other ‘girls’ picked up this fixation, and when I went into the pen I had chicks picking on my laces and hammering on my toes. I finally realized that #7 must been watching Sex and City. Perhaps late at night after all the Craniacs had gone to bed, the video camera was being tapped into and all the girls were watching reruns.

What the actors ate, drank, and talked about were not interesting. But those shiny things they wore on their feet? Those were cool! Colors and straps, they could imagine them wrapped around their long skinny legs. What fun!

The next time I walked into the pen my boots clearly did not measure up. These were no Manolo Blahnik! The only hope was a complete makeover. I could see the thought bubble. “We’ll start with a nice sandal. The toes on these boots must go.” Then the hammering on the toes started. (They tried it on Colleen but as her boots were steel-toed, all they got was a twang and a sore beak.)

Next was the laces. “Laces are out! Straps yes, but laces? Yuck!” The silver bling (the metal rings that the laces go through) are nice they can stay!”

Clearly there was no redeeming my boots because they still worked on them every time I went into the pen!

CAST YOUR VOTE FOR IJAMS!!

Our very good friends at Ijams Nature Center near Knoxville, Tennessee are in the running for a $5000 donation. The contest, sponsored by The Trust Company, has three worthy local organizations competing for votes on their website.

Ijams is a member and visitor-supported nonprofit organization and is a long-time supporter of Operation Migration and Whooping cranes. You can help our friends at Ijams win $5000 by simply clicking the link and voting for them. No personal information is required. Just click here to vote for Ijams. You can vote once a day every day from now until December 9th.

You’ve helped OM before by voting for us, now we hope you’ll help out another terrific and deserving organization.

WOOD BUFFALO-ARANSAS POPULATION UPDATE

The most recent news from the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge reported that, ‘The majority of the radio-marked Whooping cranes [in the Wood Buffalo/Aransas Population] have migrated to their wintering grounds on the Texas coast.”

There have also been sightings of cranes in Oklahoma and other points along the migration route as well as in other parts of Texas. Speculation is that milder winter conditions have led to a slower pace migration pace this year.

The Whooping Crane Conservation Association (WCCA) reported that based on a count conducted at their Wood Buffalo National Park nesting grounds in Canada, the western flock had grown to ~300 birds. According to the WCCA, the Wood Buffalo/Aransas Population has 34 juveniles, including two sets of twins this year.

The Aransas refuge advises that they hope to have preliminary estimates of the population size available when they file their next report. Click to read their full update.

Use this link to read about the science of counting birds.

The Aransas Refuge posts updates from around mid-October until the end of March. A report entitled, “The Aransas-Wood Buffalo Whooping Crane Abundance Survey” will be made available to the public in the spring after the cranes have left their Texas wintering grounds for thier nesting grounds in Canada and data collected has been analyzed.

Use this link to check for periodic updates and the refuge’s final report come spring. WHOOPING CRANE UPDATES.

NEVER TOO OLD TO LEARN

As I look back at this migration I am overwhelmed at how much I learned. Putting a pen up and taking it down are the least of it, but it sure tickled Julie and I to beat our own best times!  It felt really good to do it a few times and get into a rhythm and a routine. Every day brought new situations and challenges and therefore something new to learn. Thank goodness I like to learn!

The most fun, of course was learning how to care for the Crane Chicklets. Talk about a dream come true. Always stressful because every move has to be thought out, but always aware of what a rare opportunity it is to be around these beautiful birds and how blessed I was to be there. The least fun was trying to learn how to back up with the pen trailer… sorry about that door panel guys, I am still cringing!

We are never too old to learn. It’s what makes life interesting, makes us be better people and our world a better place!

In a conservation project education is everything. For Whooping Cranes to survive we need to spread the word that wetlands are critical, not only for Whooping Cranes but for many species.  Thanks to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Southern Company and the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund this critical message is being spread far and wide!!  We can never thank them enough for all they do, but we can give it our best effort. Please drop them a note and tell them how much we appreciate them.

On a personal level, every time we tell someone about Whoopers and get them excited, we make a difference in the world.  One person at a time adds up to big change!  That person shares with another and so forth, and more and more people make the choice to save wetlands, preserve habitat, reuse, reduce and recycle.

If you live along the migratory path attached is a file you can print and hand out. It is great way for people to ID Whooping Cranes. Educating people is their best hope, hope to preserve habitat, hope  that people will recognize them, how rare and special and not shoot them, hope that they will not get too close while observing them to avoid habituating them to humans. Here is to hoping that 100 years from now Whooping Cranes won’t be special, that they will be everywhere and common place. What we do or don’t do now will make the difference.

BECAUSE OF, AND FOR MY MOM & DAD

I was asked to sum up my reactions to the experience of joining the 2012 migration. What a daunting tasks that is. Some things I will never be able to express, some are already fading, and others will remain clear images in my head for the rest of my life.

First I have to say that I couldn’t have made this journey without having had two wonderful parents. It was their love of nature and the outdoors that exposed me to the creatures of the wild and the beauty of their homes.

It was my Dad’s knowledge of tools and knots, that he taught me, that gave me a platform on which to learn what I needed to be useful on this project. It was my Mom’s skill at packing for a summer on the lake which made sure I had the right things with me. But it was their love and constant presence in my mind that I turned to when I was challenged, and/or frightened of failing in my tasks.

Migration is not for the faint of heart. You would not be tempted to experience it if you did not love the project and the birds. Therefore you can be sure that I felt every bit of the responsibility of caring for such special creatures.

The joy is being so close to the birds that you can see their reactions and believe that you can understand their thinking. The terror is in being so close to the birds that something you do could hurt them or influence their behavior negatively. The devastating death of 10-12 is countered by the satisfaction of seeing the five delivered safely to their winter home.

Migration is hard work. We set up pens and broke down pens, hitched and unhitched trailers every day. We hiked to pensites and after birds (luckily not too often). We filled water tanks and buckets and hauled bags of feed around. I drove the white van pulling our 32 foot aircraft trailer behind it from stopover to stopover. I learned what happens to such a trailer when a semi-truck goes flying by on the highway. (Not fun!)

Migration is also fun. We met some really wonderful people who allowed us on to their properties and often invited us into their homes. We ate and laughed with these incredible people. I saw small towns and villages throughout the route. We sampled different foods and savored local specialties. I also think that we visited a record number of different Wal-Marts.

What I have learned is that this is science the hard way. There is no way to experiment and very little lab work. It’s mostly trial and error on a large scale. They try something, and then wait five, six, maybe ten years, maybe never, before any results are known. Every action is scrutinized, criticized, and second-guessed. At all levels of the project there has to be compromise. Sometimes you have to accept someone else’s plan and you always have to respect everyone’s opinion. Above all else you must keep the project going, because to stop, is to fail.

The OM staff is just as incredible as you would image them to be. Each one of them has the best interests of the birds at heart. They sacrifice their own lives to make sure that the project and the birds survive. I will be forever grateful for their allowing me to participate in this year’s migration. I especially want to thank Geoff who was my right hand man for most of the trip and who always taught me things without criticizing me.

Lastly I would like to thank all of you reading this. Operation Migration could not and will not exist without your help and support. Now that I am once again a citizen of the world and no longer one of the crew, I can say that what happens next is up to US.

In my view these birds are a national treasure and like a Monet in a museum, it takes time and money to preserve our treasures for the future. We must spread the word, stay involved and fight for these birds and the habitat that they need to survive.

Money is of course needed but in addition there are other things you can do to help. Every part of the reintroduction is under threat. Write to your congressmen and ask them to fund the Department of Interior fully. The US Geological Survey wildlife research center at Patuxent is funded by the DOI. Cuts in spending threaten that program every year.

Support your local efforts to put more land under conservation protection and into refuges like St. Marks NWR in Florida and the White River Marsh State Wildlife Area in Wisconsin.

Last but not least reach out to your children and teach them well. If this project succeeds, it will be the next generation which will see that success. It is they who will need to ensure that the birds have the habitat and freedom to thrive.

My last word is, that contrary to a common cliché, you don’t always have to be careful what you wish for – because sometimes dreams do come true. Mine did! Thank you!

BIG WHITE BIRDS

Those that have been following our work for a couple of years may recall when two Whooping Cranes, specifically numbers 11-09 and 15-09* decided to make Leon County, FL their winter territory. These two started out as flockmates – both members of the Class of 2009. Two, of the twenty cranes we had that year. Both spent their first winter at the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in neighboring Wakulla County and have returned to the area to spend winters ever since.

They arrived back to this same location on Tuesday of this week and Lou Kellenberger captured and shared these images of the two using his impressive camera lens.

Whooping cranes 11-09 & 15-09* returned to Leon County, FL this week.

We are not divulging their location other than county level for a specific reason and that is to protect these incredible birds. Too many times we’ve heard stories of people trespassing on private property to get ‘just that perfect photograph’ or get ‘just a wee bit closer’. Should you happen to encounter this pair, please give them the respect they need and deserve. Please do not approach on foot; remain in your vehicle if possible; do not approach in a vehicle any closer than 100 yards. Also, please remain concealed and do not speak loudly enough that the birds can hear you. Thank you…

Meanwhile back in Wisconsin, Wisconsin DNR pilot Bev Paulan flew the final survey flight of 2012 this week and reports finding only 11 Whooping cranes in Wisconsin. Bev went on to say 90% of all marshes are frozen, especially at Necedah, Meadow Valley and Mead SWA where it is closer to 100% frozen.

The lingering cranes in Wisconsin are: 3-11, 4-11*, 5-11, 6-11, 19-11, 9-10*, 24-09 and presumably his mate 42-09* all in Adams County with ~25 Sandhill cranes. And in Dane County; 7-11*, 10-11 and 12-11* with no Sandhills.

Huge thanks to the three DNR pilots who logged a lot of airtime this past year keeping tabs on the Eastern Migratory Population. Our appreciation goes out to Bev Paulan, Luke Wuest and Mike Callahan.

* denotes female

ON THE GROUND LOOKING UP

The aviation community is rife with one liners, smart-mouth comments and little gems of wisdom. My brother, the helicopter pilot, once told me that if God had wanted man to fly, he would have given him more money! He also said that you can make a small fortune in aviation, as long as you start with a big one.

One of Brooke’s favorites is, “I’d rather be on the ground wishing I was flying, than flying and wishing I was on the ground.” The “wishing I was flying” part is what I went through, until recently.

As part of our exemption, the FAA asked us to upgrade our pilot licences from Sport Light category to Private. That wasn’t difficult, but timing was an issue. The only instructor and examiner able to do that on the type of aircraft we fly is a father/son team from Wisconsin. According to the rules, your instructor cannot be your examiner, so the son flew off the hours we needed and prepared us for the checkride with the father. The problem was, that both of them have real jobs and one is an active airline pilot who does six day sojourns to Asia. Finding days when he was “in country” and so was I (coming from Canada) was not easy. Then we had to factor in the weather.

Both Richard and Brooke were able to complete the process before the migration began, but I was not. With only six birds (now five) this year however, we decided in the spring to use only two aircraft. That would leave another experienced person on the ground and reduce the size of the team we needed.

When the migration started my ambition was to take the first opportunity and complete my check ride, then to take my turn flying. The problem was that every decent flying day we had, was also a day we moved the birds one step closer to Florida. However, by the time we reached Kentucky, we were in a different weather pattern than the examiner in Wisconsin. A bad day here might be a good day there. At least that’s what I hoped.

What really made it all work was the generosity of John Cooper and David and Linda Boyd. All three are long time volunteers on our migration team. And as it happened, all three were available at the same time. That meant that I could relinquish my ground duties for a short time and finally get my check ride completed.

I rented a car and drove north 8 hours only to wake up the next morning to zero/zero conditions. In pilot talk that means no visibility and no ceiling height. In other words, you couldn’t see across the street. We drove to the airport twice hoping it might be better there, but instead we spent most of the day talking about flying and politics (it was election night). Finally, in the late afternoon, the conditions cleared and I passed my check ride with flying colours (excuse the pun).

For the three pilots that fly on this project, the reward for all the time away from home and the long hours is the opportunity to fly with the birds. It is hard to give up any chance to take to the sky with a string of birds trailing off your wing tip. I likely know that better than anyone, so I found it difficult to ground one of the other pilots just so I could have my turn in the air. This is supposed to be about the birds, not personal gratification so I grounded myself, at least for while, and it gave me an opportunity to see what the ground crew goes through each day.

When the team skipped two stopovers last week, the ground crew had to drive for four hours to catch up. I was driving our big pickup truck pulling our longest trailer when the electric brakes failed. Luckily I found an RV Center nearby so I stayed behind to get it fixed. We checked connectors, replaced the actuator, and finally, after 4 hours, ran a dedicated wire from the hitch to the brakes. That cured the problem. But by this time it was after dark and the team was waiting for their home away from home to arrive at the next campsite.

Not familiar with the roads, I made the mistake of following my GPS which took me down a narrow laneway on the opposite side of the airport from where our camp was located. Unfortunately this lane was a deadend, but not posted, a fact I discovered when I reached the end.

In the pitch black I had to back up a 32 foot trailer stopping every 50 feet or so to make sure I wasn’t about to hit anything or drop the trailer over the edge. I made a desperate attempt to turn around in a too narrow laneway and had to use four wheel drive to pull myself out of a muddy hole. Straight again, I continued my slow backwards progress until I reached a farmhouse whose owners came out with flashlights to check on the commotion on their normally quiet street.

Soon there were three neighbors shining lights in my eyes to make sure everything was under control. They generously allowed me to use a portion of their driveway and even a little of their lawn to turn around. Wedged between a tree, a fire hydrant, and a trampoline, I had an inch to spare and I thought the trailer was about to roll over when the wheels on one side tracked into a ditch.

We had started that day at 5:00AM and finished at 10:00PM. I spent most of that time looking up and wishing I was flying.

MAGIC!

Abracadabra Alakazam fly to St.Marks as fast as you can”…then Poof! We’re here!

Below, lines of parked cars and the flyover viewing crowd’s collective face looks up to enjoy the sight of birds and aircraft passing over head, the birds settle into their wintering site, we break down and load the aircraft, say our hellos and goodbyes, and then almost before it began, the performance ends, the circus folds up its tent and moves on out of town, leaving behind a blur of Kodak moments and a hangover of reflection overload for many of the human migrators.

But every closing door opens another, and new challenges are immediately exchanged for old, leaving a mere millisecond or two maximum for celebration as the migration fades into distant memory.

How sad it is that the rich and wonderful experience that is migration is so fleeting. But then the past must give way to the present for there to be a future, and it is a better future that we endeavor to create.

Meanwhile, the Class of 2012 begins a new chapter of their lives. They are, as always, in the present, and their present is the whole new world of St Marks. Soon they will have their health checks and sport new leg bands, and soon after that, they will experience an incredibly magical pallet of new freedoms and experiences.

One has only to sit back and enjoy the delicious imaginings of what lies before them and by so doing, share in some small way their experience. Such connections are gifts to be treasured.

Stay tuned.

Miles to go…

Guest Author: Babs, Seattle, WA

To all my wonderful craniac friends… Another migration is over.  The birds are safely at St. Marks discovering the delights of blue crabs and soon, the wonders of freedom.  Discovering ‘Life’ and all it has to offer.
 
If I might quote from a poem:
 
   “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
    But I have promises to keep,
    And miles to go before I sleep…”
 
“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”
by Robert Frost
 
So what’s with the poetry, you ask?  Well, yes, the migration is done, but Operation Migration has ‘promises to keep’ to fully fund the entire migration. They truly have miles to go before they can ‘sleep’ and close the books – unfunded miles that must be paid. Then, they can take a deep breath or two (no more!) and start the planning for next year!
 
Let’s pitch in and help!  I made the delightful discovery that my employer provides matching funds for ‘charitable donations’ dollar-for-dollar!  And they include environmental organizations, and what could be more environmental than helping preserve a species?
 
Please consider not only donating, but checking to see if your employer will match you!  And this applies, at least for my employer, for both donations I will make and for donations I’ve already made.  It’s a win-win situation.
 
So let’s make this an ‘Employer Challenge’ Get involved!! MileMakers and WHOOPS!!!

Sincerely,
Babs

Many companies have programs through which they will “match” contributions made by their employees to Operation Migration.  Ask the Human Resources Officer where you work if there is a charitable Matching Gift program.  Hundreds of companies—large and small—offer this to their employees but if they don’t, you may want to ask your company to start a matching gift program.

In most cases your employer will match your gift dollar-for-dollar. In fact, many companies will match at a higher ratio, such as 2:1.

If your employer does offer this program, your Human Resources department should provide you with a matching gift form to send to Operation Migration along with your donation, or even after. The process for submitting a matching gift claim differs from company to company. Some require a completed paper form; others offer a quick and easy online system.

Our office will verify receipt of your gift and return the paper form, or complete the online form and submit it to your company for the matching amount.

So check this list to see if your employer is included, or visit your HR department if they’re not listed to see if they’ll double the good YOU do for Operation Migration!

And speaking of matching – On Friday we posted a special challenge from an anonymous Illinois supporter who offered to make a $1000.00 contribution to OM IF we could raise an equivalent amount. We’re thrilled to say that you came through and met this challenge!

Well it seems that there is now a friendly rivalry between a supporter in Michigan who also wishes to remain anonymous and last week’s generous donor from Illinois. The craniac in Michigan is also offering to contribute up to $1000.00 to help us reach our funding goal IF we can raise the same amount with your help. If you missed out on last week’s challenge and would like to take advantage of the Michigan Match, click here to contribute.

TOO MANY STORIES TO TELL

I have always thought that what Operation Migration does would make a great reality show. We have an eclectic cast of characters, none of whom has a degree in biology. We have a nuclear engineer, a metal sculptor, a photographer, two retired airline pilots, and a deep sea diver. In fact the only person with appropriate credentials is our thirty year veteran of the non-profit community. Despite the disparate talents, the common denominator is a love of birds, or at least Whooping cranes, and a determination that borders on stubborness.

Apart from cast of colorful characters, an OM reality show would have an endless supply of stories to tell. As it is, we try to share many of them with you through our Field Journal, but some we miss simply because there is too much material to write about and not enough time.

At our last stop in Georgia we had to find a new location because the land owner had sold his property. He generously helped us find a new site, but when we arrived, we found there were a few houses that we could see through the trees. It was at the end of a long grass runway and it could have worked, but a better option presented itself.

Gary Meredith is a local pilot who showed up to let us into the hangar just as we landed. Richard led the birds off to a hiding spot while I greeted our hosts. I mentioned our concerns and Gary suggested we take a quick ride to his property.

He was in the process of building a grass runway of his own less than a mile away. There was a slight knoll at the far end that created a perfect spot for the pen completely hidden from view. When the pen was set up, Richard took off with the birds again and led them on a one minute flight to the new site. Once everything was settled most of the crew took off to find a new pensite for our first stop in Florida because that property was also no longer available.

Walter Sturgeon is one of our greatest supporters. He has thirty years experience with cranes and has volunteered on 9 migrations so far as well as serving on our Board of Directors. We wanted to give Walter a small reward for all that effort by flying him in the back seat of the trike for a leg of the migration.

This is an honor bestowed on very few people, but Walter is very deserving. So while the team was away scouting new sites I began setting up the third aircraft and switching wings around. There is a point in the process of assembling a trike wing when it is most vulnerable. That happens when everything is in place but the wing has not yet been fitted to the aircraft. It sits perched on a step ladder to keep in level, but if the wind comes up, there is nothing to hold it down. I had two wing in that precarious situation when I had a call from Gary Meredith. His father who lives next to his runway noticed that the cotton farmer behind them had moved a harvesting machine into the field on the edge of which our pen was set up. A moment later our volunteer crane handler, Julia Anthony, called to say she was doing the evening roost check when a large combine started up and was edging closer to the pen with each pass.

The problem was that the cotton field extended to within 30 feet of the pen and if the harvester kept coming, it could traumatize the birds. If they became frightened enough they could try to escape and fly into the top net which could result in broken necks.

We have several pen panels covered in camo fabric that we sometimes use as visual barriers. By the time we arrived, Julia had placed them around the pen as best she could to block the view, but that would not stop the noise or the dust. To add to the situation it had started to rain and it was getting dark. Gary’s father had already spoken to the farmer but it seemed he had a job to do and wasn’t much interested in birds.

Geoff and Julia stayed with the birds to keep them calm as the harvester moved closer, while Jack Wrighter and I headed back to camp to deal with the wings that threatened to blow over in the breeze that accompanied the rain.

Luckily the farmer was mostly working the far end of the field and only came within a few hundred feet of the pen. By 8 PM the farmer quit for the day. Geoff and Julia spent another half hour reconnecting the electric fencer around the pen in the dark using the dime lights from their cell phones. Both were wet and tired and glad to hear the harvester shut down.

Luckily the next morning was perfect and we took off just has the harvester started up again. In the end, Geoff and Julia dried out, the farmer got his field harvested, the birds were not too traumatized, and Walter had a good flight in the back seat.

We are very grateful to Gary Meredith, his friend Tim and his father for all the help.

And now we have one more story to tell.

THE SENSATIONAL SIX BECOMES FABULOUS FIVE

Craniac and Field Journal readers will know that when the 2012 migration began, there were six young ultralight-led Whooping cranes. That changed when 10-12 suffered a broken leg on landing in Piatt County, IL. Despite the best efforts of the great veterinary team at the Wildlife Veterinary Clinic in Urbana, she died on the operating table.

It’s tough losing any one of our Whoopers, even after they’re released, but it’s even tougher when they are still in your care. When you’ve spent as much time with the chicks as many of our team has it’s next to impossible not to become ‘attached’ to the cohort if not individual birds.

The loss of 10-12 hit hard, and you can be sure she wasn’t far from any of our thoughts as the remaining five gorgeous young cranes made their final sparkling public appearance in the brilliant blue sky over St. Marks.

But wait.

Were you at the flyover? Were you watching the TrikeCam? How many cranes did YOU see following the trike during the flyover.

Take a look at the photo below captured at the Arrival Event by Craniac Jim Pinson. Now count again….Is that a trick of sunlight and shadow – – or – – is that the spirit of 10-12 forging ahead above the wing, urging her classmates on?

Don’t be shy about Giving a WHOOP! not for the “Sensational Six”, but for the “Fabulous Five” soon to be added to the numbers of the Eastern Migratory Population.

NOSTALGIA – Entry 2

OM’s good friend, Fred Applegate from Huntsville, GA, sent along the following piece he penned for fellow Craniacs as he took a walk down memory Lane.

CRANIACS: THE ‘OLD’ DAYS by Fred Applegate

My wife and I were visiting relatives in Knoxville, fall 2002. There was a short article in the News Sentinel with the headline “Whooping Cranes are Coming.”  I was totally unaware of Operation Migration at that time. There was probably a website,  I don’t recall, but somehow I made email contact with Heather Ray and came up with a plan of attack: to drive from home in Huntsville, AL, two and a half hours away from Dayton, Tennessee, and try to see the birds.

The article had said that the Whoopers would be following the ultralights into Hiwassee NWR near Dayton, over-nighting there, and then flying out the next morning. The arrival date was unknown (same as nowadays!). But I knew by then that they were in Kentucky.

In those days there was no on-board video downlink from the planes, there was no EarlyBird report at dark-o’clock each morning. But dear Heather would put out an end-of-day report on the website stating whether the birds had flown or not. That was it. So I did know at some point that the birds had arrived near Crossville, TN, the last stop before Hiwassee.

It was a Saturday night when I read that report and so I decided to drive up to Chattanooga Sunday afternoon. If they flew Sunday, I could view them leaving Monday morning………….maybe. If they didn’t fly Sunday, maybe I could see them come in to Hiwassee. And that’s what happened.

I was up and out of my motel before sunrise Monday for the 15 minute drive across the Tennessee River to the wildlife viewing platform at Hiwassee. Three others had arrived before me, two of whom were veteran craniacs. Joe was lead pilot that day,  and before long we spotted them. It was a beautiful blue-sky day and Joe brought them over us before heading out for their next stopover location – out of sight from us as usual.

I was hooked, and have been ever since. I saw them fly a few times into or out of Hiwassee, and a couple of times out of Russellville in Walker County AL, where they now stop since the route was moved West. It’s only an hour’s drive from home now for me.

I missed seeing them this year and Liz emailed me sort of an apology for skipping “my” stop!!!!!!  Good grief, I was just happy for the team!

PUSH BUTTON BIRDS

A plan usually makes perfect sense on paper, but the reality is often quite different. In theory we lead birds on their first migration; imprint them and condition them to follow the aircraft; then lead them from Wisconsin to Florida. It all sounds simple enough, but in truth there are a thousand things can go wrong, and most often they do. The birds can be reluctant to fly, or turn back at any opportunity. Headwinds can slow us to a crawl, or keep us grounded for days or even weeks at a time.

This year we only had five birds. We wish we had our usual double-digit sized cohort, but there were certain advantages to a low number. Firstly, there was only 9 days age difference between the oldest and the youngest which means they were all at the same level and easy to train.

The second advantage was that we flew regularly. Birds are creatures of habit. They learn fast to be sedentary if they stay in one place too long. But they can also be eager to fly if you do it regularly. Yesterday morning was one of those days when they were anxious to get airborne.

I did an air pick up, which means that rather than land in a rough field, I flew a low and slow approach. You attempt to guess the closing speed and how long it will takes them to all get out of the gate. If it works, you pass by the pen just as they emerge and then depart in unison.

Yesterday morning I misjudged their anxiousness, so when they cleared the pen, they took off toward me. I pulled up and over them as they turned under me to lined up off the left wingtip in perfect order. There was no hesitation or reluctance as we climbed on course. Once we gained about 600 feet they settled in for a 45 minute flight to St Marks. Our ground speed was about 48 miles per hour so we had a gentle push in smooth air.

About a thousand people had gathered at the town of St Marks to see the arrival, so we did a few circles, around the crowd before heading to the pensite.

We circled once, and I did one long slow approach as if we intended to land. The birds followed every step of the way. Just as we passed over Richard and Geoff (waiting in the pen to call the birds down) I pulled up hard and began a fast climb. Initially the birds tried climbing too, but they couldn’t match my speed, so they circled the pen one more time before landing at their final destination.

Our push button birds behaved exactly as they were supposed to on one of those perfect mornings when the reality worked out precisely as planned.

MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!

Operation Migration Ustream Channel

Just a reminder that just because we’ve finished earlier than in year’s past we still need to fund the entire migration. We’re currently sitting at only 58% of our MileMaker goal. To that end, I just received a 5 mile matching pledge from an anonymous supporter in Illinois. This very generous person has agreed to contribute 5 miles ($1000) to help fund the MileMaker campaign IF we can match it!

If you would like to help out by having your contribution doubled until this match has been met, please visit our secure login site and sign in to your existing account, or create one if you don’t already have one. Once logged in, use the dropdown menu at the top of the welcome page and select Donate MileMaker. Thank you!

MISSION SUCCESS – 2012 MIGRATION COMPLETED

DATE: Nov 23, 2012 – Entry 1 MIGRATION DAY 57
FLOWN TODAY: 28 miles ACCUMULATED: 1101 miles
LOCATION: Wakulla County, FL REPORTER: Liz Condie

A huge crowd gathered in the early dawn light waiting to see the Class of 2012 and their mechanical leaders fly overhead enroute to their wintering site on the St. Marks NWR.

The trike wings were left uncovered last night so there was a delay taking off until the frost melted off the wings. Launch with the cranes was at 8:22AM, and by 8:45am the pilots were leading their young charges over the heads of the hundreds of folks watching the arrival of the 12th generation of ultralight-led Whooping cranes in Florida.

Tune back later for more – the lead pilot report and perhaps some photos.