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!!

MIGRATION DAY 75 – DOWN DAY 1

With westerly surface winds blowing up to 12mph and WNW winds aloft ranging between 20 – 30mph, Friday the 13th is indeed unlucky for the Class of 2011. There will be no cranes and planes in the air today, this first day of the resumed migration.

The snow showers we had here ended overnight, but the cold air mass that brought them also delivered sub-freezing temperatures that have produced black ice in many areas around the county and elsewhere. The cold temperatures are predicted to remain with us, with west winds on the ground of up to 20 mph, which in turn, translates into a wind chill in the single digits. Interestingly, just before sunrise it was just 10 degrees warmer at Florida’s St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge this morning.

Check back here late afternoon for our best guess for a flight tomorrow, Saturday. For those individuals hoping to join us at the departure flyover – whatever day that happens – here is a link to the flyover viewing location. We’re hoping for a great turnout to give us a rousing send off from Franklin County.

RAMPING UP AGAIN

As of yesterday, the entire team is ‘back on station’ and immediately pitched in to help Caleb and Brooke to finish off getting everything ready to resume the migration. Both winged and two-legged creatures are raring to go, and by the end of today, all that needs to be done will have been accomplished.

For many days now a weather cell has hovered over our heads here in Franklin County giving us degrees of rain ranging from sprinkles to coming down in buckets. All that precipitation has been accompanied almost without exception by fog, heavy enough at times to obscure the end of the runway nearest our motorhomes.

We’ll be re-starting the Migration Timeline ‘clock’ as of tomorrow, Friday morning, and our EarlyBird bulletins will resume then too.

Check back here late this afternoon for our Predicting entry…that is, what our best guess will be for our chances of a flight on Friday morning. If only the weather would be as kind to us as was the FAA.

The cranes and planes have 592 air miles and a potential 11 stopovers between them and their final destination, and, 235 of those air miles are still unsponsored. (16 left in both Kentucky and Tennessee; 172 in Alabama, and 31 still unsponsored in Florida.)

If you haven’t already, please help the Class of 2011 and Operation Migration by becoming a MileMaker Sponsor.

Equally as appreciated would be a General Donation to help offset fixed costs including the recent unexpected expense for legal fees as a result of the FAA situation.

Folks who would like to express their gratitude for its favorable and speedy decision might consider Giving a WHOOP! of Thanks to the FAA.

PREDICTING

Chomping at the bit to get going would be the best way to describe how the migration crew is feeling at the moment, but it looks like we could be chomping for a while yet.

We are under a high wind advisory this afternoon with strong westerly winds riding the coattails of a strong cold front going through. Along with the wind and cold, snow showers are a possibility but accumulations are not expected.

With the windchill, it feels like 24F right now, and that is about the temperature that is forecast for sunrise tomorrow. That, along with clear skies and a light 4mph wind out of the NW made the odds for a flight in the morning look promising until we checked the expected conditions at altitude. If the prediction for 35mph WNW winds holds true, it is not likely that Friday the 13th will be a fly day.

CRANES FACE TOUGH WINTER IN TEXAS

The story lead on the website 10000birds.com reads, “It’s a mixed bag for our most charismatic of North American waders this week. While the ultralight aircraft leading a flock of your Whooping cranes to Florida may again take to the skies, that good news is tempered by the effects of the drought in Texas, which has already led to the death of at least one Whooping crane there.”

Too little rain has resulted in marshlands being too salty for blue crabs, Whooping cranes’ main source of protein, to flourish, and the drought conditions have affected the supply of Wolf berries, another staple in the diet of wintering cranes. Exacerbating the reduction of food sources for the cranes is a toxic algae bloom in the salty water. Aquatic life retains the algae’s toxin and it is passed up the food chain to the creatures who feed on it – such as when cranes eat clams.

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge Manager, Dan Alonso, was quoted in an article in USA Today as saying, “We’re very apprehensive, very concerned, and are monitoring the population very closely to see what it is the reaction might be.” Alonso noted further that, “This year, at least one crane has already died.”

Click here to read another web news article on the subject.

A VISITOR FROM CHASSAHOWITZKA

Although the migration was hanging in limbo, thoughts about the end of the journey in Florida, and the people waiting there for the Class of 2011, weren’t far from our minds. We were all too conscious of the teams of dedicated people waiting anxiously at the Class of 2011’s two wintering locations; the St. Marks and Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuges.

One of those people, in the person of Chassahowitzka Intern Olivia Bailey, was able to take advantage of our time on the ground in Franklin County, AL. With the blessing Deputy Refuge Manager, Boyd Blihovde, Olivia drove up for a several day stay with us in Alabama.

During her visit, along with a ‘Whooping crane 101 orientation’, we were able to introduce her to the young cranes, some of which she would soon be helping to tend to as part of her winter monitoring duties. Olivia, whose field of education is ornithology, caught on fast, and quickly convinced us that the cranes will be in good hands at Chass over the winter.

Being the ‘new costume in the pen’, Olivia was given much the same treatment that Gordon and Christine experienced until the birds became accustomed to them. Some of the cranes, particularly 10-11, went after her a few times and tried to beat her puppet down. Luckily for Olivia the onslaughts were not as aggressive as a couple that Christine was on the receiving end of.

When we conducted the usual pen check this morning, (Olivia’s last chance to work with the cranes before returning to Florida), I managed to snap a few photos of our cohort hanging out and interacting with the costumes. We fortunately timed the morning pen check for between downpours which, as you can see left the pen somewhat muddy – much to the joy of the birds who were happy as clams, enthusiastically poking and probing to find the odd goodie.

Here you can see 1-11 is not too impressed with the new costume. He gives her a textbook crown display.

This photo is a close up of the debonair 5-11 with his puffy-as-ever cheeks.

Saying hello to Brooke via a few pokes to his helmet is 7-11.

It’s amazing how noticeable the birds mustaches are now. The first hints of black began to appear at our first stop in WI, but now they are really established.

Lately, with pumpkin season over and watermelon unavailable, we’ve been treating/entertaining the cranes with corn cobs and different varieties of squash. Brooke tossed an acorn squash across the pen and the excitement was on!

Finally, I can’t show pictures of the cranes in our cohort without including a shot of my little baby girl 12-11. Too cute.

MIGRATION TO RESUME

It is in times of crisis that you learn who your friends are.

When the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) began its investigation, many of you came to our support, or more accurately, to the support of the Whooping cranes, and we will be forever grateful. It was surprising to us just how many people stepped up to help. And that support came not just from our donors and supporters, but also from hundreds and hundreds of people from all walks of life who demonstrated that they too care about the survival of the species.

An online petition launched by one such person garnered 1400 names in only two days. Our website GuestBook seized up and nearly crashed as it filled with supportive comments. Three State Governors and several congressmen contacted the FAA in support of this project. Several other influential people, including a former U.S. President, also encouraged a speedy resolution, and hundreds of media outlets from all over the county covered the story.

The FAA made it clear that they were trying to resolve the matter, but we are certain the outpouring of support helped to make that happen more quickly than the normal process. The waiver we have been granted is a temporary exemption allowing us to complete the current migration, but the FAA indicated they will work with us to develop a long term solution.

All of this took place over the Christmas break and shortly thereafter, so we left many of the team members at home with their families while we waited it out. Now that we have permission to fly again, we are pulling the team back to our stopover site in northern Alabama. While we will be ready to go very shortly, the weather forecast looks dismal until at least Thursday. We are anxious to be on our way and to leave Franklin County, Alabama behind us. That is not to say we are not grateful to everyone there for their generosity and hospitality – it has been outstanding.

There are no guarantees, but the southern half of our migration traditionally moves faster than the northern portion. After all that has happened, certainly the birds deserve a break, and a few good days of flying weather would be welcome. It is time for them to be wintering in Florida and learning the ways of the wild. Our job is to get them there as quickly as we can and we thank you all for helping to make that possible.

WHOOPING CRANES STILL NEED YOUR HELP

With the long awaited good news received yesterday from the FAA in hand, our focus returns to the resumption of the migration with the Class of 2011. Underway are all the logistics for getting the balance of the crew in back in place, as well as the necessary preparation of equipment and vehicles before we can once again take to the sky and roads.

What we still need everyone’s help with, is to ensure the dollars are there to cover the cost of our journey leading the nine young Whooping cranes hatched this past April and May – soon to become the newest members of the reintroduced Eastern Migratory Population.

MileMaker, the program that allows folks to select and sponsor a migration air mile (or part mile), is far from being totally underwritten. At the moment, there are still more than 270 unsponsored miles, added to which will be the additional expense as a result of the unanticipated ground time spent in Franklin County, AL.

In the words of Anne Harrington from Palo Alto, California, taken from her email which we received this morning, “Here’s something to help get you moving again. I’m sure this delay has resulted in added expense – not to mention some extra grey hairs. I will match the sponsorship of five full or partial MileMaker miles.”

Click here to become a MileMaker Sponsor. If you would like to help us defray operational and other costs, including the legal fees incurred arising from the FAA situation, please click here to make a General Donation.

Thank you in advance for your financial support. As in years past, we are confident that Whooping cranes and OM can rely on you.

UPDATE

In the hundreds of emails we have responded to in the last week there have been some common questions that I thought I would answer here in case others were wondering the same things.

Firstly, the birds are doing fine. They are well looked after and as entertained as we can keep them. Since they were hatched in April and May, they have spent most of their time in a pen, so for them, it’s part of a normal life. (Note: Click the link for a live, real-time view of the Class of 2011 in the pen in Franklin County via OM’s CraneCam.)

It would be nice if they had a wet pen to roost in, but since we started the migration on Oct 9th they have lived without it. That’s the case with every migration but as soon as we reach the wintering site, they have access to water again. Their propensity for wetland habitat is instinctive and we don’t have to re-teach them to water roost.

In the past we have short-stopped the birds near Dunnellon in Florida, just one stop away from their winter home at Chassahowitzka. This was done to allow the older birds to stop in at the pensite, as they often do on their way south, and then to move on to their preferred wintering sites. That practice left the pensite clear and free from the interference the older birds can have on the chicks.

We have done that short-stop since 2005 and it has been for as long as 27 days with no ill effects. The only problem is getting them to follow us again but so far that has not been an issue.

One of the FAA concerns is that Light Sport pilots are not allowed to fly for hire. In fact, a pilot must hold a commercial rating before they can be paid to fly. Many commercial pilots have offered to fly for us and finish the migration. We are very grateful for the offers, but it is not as simple as that. It takes at least a year to learn how to fly with birds. It is certainly not rocket science, but you must work with them for at least a season to learn their flight characteristics and how to deal with them, once you are back on the ground.

Secondly, we fly trikes which are controlled much like a hang glider. They don’t have a stick and rudder and the controls are completely backwards to what most pilots are accustomed. As an example, it becomes second nature for a pilot to pull back on the stick or yoke to go up. In our aircraft that makes you go down. In a conventional aircraft you move the stick to the right to go right. In ours you move the wing to the left to accomplish the same turn. Flying a conventional aircraft and a trike is a lot like driving a car and a motorcycle. Once you learn how it is not difficult, but there are not a lot of airline captains with trike time.

The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership is holding meetings to decide what to do if the FAA will not grant us a waiver. The FAA states that process can take up to 120 days, but we are hoping that it can be expedited. We will keep you posted but in the meantime, thank you all for the support.

FAA GRANTS WAIVER

Guest author:  David Sakrison, Director, OM Board of Directors

We learned late this afternoon that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had granted Operation Migration a one-time temporary exemption to allow its pilots to finish the 2011-2012 crane migration. The waiver extends through the end of March.

A statement released by the FAA on Monday afternoon said in part: “Because the operation is in ‘mid-migration,’ the FAA is granting a one-time exemption so the migration can be completed. The FAA will work with Operation Migration to develop a more comprehensive, long-term solution.”

We appreciate the agency’s efforts on our behalf, and we thank everyone; supporters and the public for the overwhelming outpouring of support on behalf of Whooping cranes and Operation Migration.

2011 ULTRALIGHT-LED MIGRATION ON HOLD

Guest Author:  David Sakrison, Director, OM Board of Directors

The 2011 ultralight-led Whooping crane migration is currently on hold in Alabama while the Federal Aviation Administration sorts out a regulatory issue involving OM’s pilots and aircraft.

The FAA is working with OM to resolve the issue as quickly as possible. In the meantime, this year’s cohort is safely penned in Franklin County, Alabama, watched over daily by OM personnel.

The issue in question is whether or not OM’s pilots are flying “for hire,” or, for the furtherance of a non-profit. OM aircraft are licensed as Light Sport Aircraft (LSAs) which came into effect in 2008. FAA regulations prohibit flying LSAs for hire or as part of business activities. The FAA has begun the process of evaluating a waiver to OM, exempting its pilots and aircraft from that rule.

OM has always maintained that its pilots are hired for a wide range of non-flying skills and duties, and that they volunteer their time as pilots. In 2010, the FAA Flight Service District Office (FSDO) in Milwaukee investigated the status of OM’s flight operations and accepted OM’s explanation. We were told by the FSDO director that “no further action would be taken.” Based on that ruling, we began the 2011 season.

In August 2011 the FAA inspected our aircraft, which passed with flying colors. In November a Letter of Investigation was sent to each pilot. After discussions with the FAA in December, Operation Migration voluntarily ceased any flying while the matter is resolved. We hoped that would happen during the Christmas break, but it is taking longer than anticipated.

The FAA is in support of this project and is working hard to resolve the matter in our favor. We appreciate their efforts.
We are also working with our WCEP partners to develop a contingency plan for completing the migration without aircraft, if necessary.

An FAA waiver would be based on two main factors: safety and public good. OM has never had an aircraft-related accident and its contribution to wildlife conservation is well-established. If you would like to offer support for OM in this matter, post a comment on our GuestBook. Supportive comments will be collected and forwarded to officials at the FAA.

BE SURE BEFORE YOU SHOOT

Some states have a Sandhill crane hunt, and in some cases the hunt season for Sandhills and other game coincides or overlaps the period of time that Whooping cranes migrate.

Be Sure Before You Shoot” is a video produced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help people identify/distinguish between Sandhill cranes and Whooping cranes as well as other avian species. Please watch the video if you are a hunter, or if you have friends who are hunters, please pass it on.

PERSISTENCE PAYS OFF

Guest Author:  Walter Sturgeon

Spring 2010 was an exciting time at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge (NNWR) as 12 pairs of Whooping Cranes nested and initiated incubation. One of those pairs, 9-03, and her mate 3-04 nested for the fifth time. The female has a checkered past.

As a young bird she had wandered far and wide and had been in, or flew over, just about every state in the eastern United States and at least two provinces in Canada. Of all the birds I have helped to reintroduce into the Eastern Migratory Population of Whooping Cranes, she is by far the most interesting, and one that I had a post-reintroduction experience with.

I monitored her one whole winter in North Carolina where she wintered with two other Whooping Cranes on a beaver pond in Jones County. Some of you might remember my story in OM’s website Field Journal about her leaving on her northern migration and flying over my house to say farewell. But I have only abstracted a few tidbits in this introduction. ”And now for the rest of the story” as radio personality Paul Harvey used to say.

Number 9-03 hatched at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center on May 5th 2003. She was described as, “ the most independent member of her cohort and strays farthest from the trike during taxiing.” Obviously her wanderlust could be predicted at a very young age.

She was a small female, but a super forager, and Brian Clauss from Patuxent observed that if, “You could drop that bird in the middle of a city and she’d find something to eat!” She made her first trip to Wisconsin on June 19, 2003 aboard a Windway Capital aircraft in a box especially designed for young cranes, and joined the rest of her cohort in one of the training site pens at NNWR.

Her summer was uneventful and she learned to fly and follow the ultralight. She left Necedah on October 16, 2003 and flew all but 18 miles of the ultralight-led migration, arriving at the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Citrus County, Florida on December 8th after a 54 day migration. Yes, I said a 54 day migration.

Winter at Chassahowitzka was uneventful and 9-03 left the refuge on March 30, 2004 at 9:33am with 7 other cranes. By midday on April 1st, the eight birds had made it to Macon County, North Carolina, 462 miles north of the departure point. This put the young cranes east of the mountains and 85 miles from their original migration route. By late morning, winds had increased to 15-25mph from the northwest – a strong headwind – and on reaching western North Carolina they were met by a low cloud-ceiling and drizzle.

On April 3rd the Whoopers were still in North Carolina along a river in the Nantahala National Forest when they were discovered by a person who started crossing the river intent on approaching the cranes. Fortunately, a conscientious passerby stopped the person before he was able to get close enough to catch one of the birds – which was his stated purpose.

On April 4th another unthinking person who lived nearby arrived on the scene in his car, with his wife and three children. He drove as close as he could get to the young cranes, and the five exited their car and approached the cranes. The wary cranes had had enough. They flushed immediately, and at 5 p.m. as they climbed out of their less than serene setting of the past 3 days, one of them hit a power line.

One observer reported that all eight cranes continued to climb however, and as darkness fell he watched as they circled overhead, gaining altitude for almost an hour, before setting course toward the north. Richard Urbanek, a USFWS biologist/tracker, was nearby and was able to track them through the forested area for only a short time before losing their radio signals.

I go into this detail because many of us think that this one instance in the cranes’, and especially 9-03’s, first northward migration accounted for their odd migration routes and behaviors over the next few years.

Number 9-03 carried a satellite transmitter that allowed her and the others traveling with her to be located on a frequent basis. She, and 4 other cranes wound up in Michigan that summer. Included in that group were 1-03, 5-03 and 18-03, who would stay with her as they migrated south that fall.

Number 5-03 was killed, probably by a bobcat, on the night of November 13/14 on the Cape Romaine National Wildlife Refuge in Charleston, South Carolina. The three remaining cranes moved northward the next day to Georgetown County, SC. After several short northward flights they ended up in Jones County, NC on November 20. There they roosted in a beaver pond loaded with crayfish and never traveled more than a couple of miles to various grain fields during the rest of the winter.

Living about two hours away, I took on the job of monitoring them a couple of times a week. They developed a routine that saw them fly out in the early morning to glean what they could in nearby corn fields. Eventually they discovered a hunter’s seed plot very near their beaver pond roost area. The plot included milo, corn, and millet. It was there that I saw them for the last time that winter. They left on their northward migration on March 30, 2005.

You might have read my story about being there that day and having them come into a mixed grain field and land near a small pond where I was hidden in a hunter’s tree stand. They didn’t bother to graze, staying only about 15 minutes. They took off and circled the field a couple of times and headed off to the northwest.

I listened on my tracking radio receiver for about half an hour until the signals died out. I had about a 30 minute walk back to my car and then a two hour drive home. For some reason I never turned off the radio receiver, and as I turned into my driveway it started beeping. For the next 30 minutes I listened as the cranes flew over my house. Had come to say goodbye? It was a chilling experience.

The three cranes stayed together until they reached Ontario, east of Lake Huron. On May 8th, number 9-03 was seen alone on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River northwest of Lake Ontario, just across the New York border. She next turned up in Vermont on June 9th, and went from there to Lewis County, NY. While she traveled around the northeast, 1-03 and 18-03 were captured in Michigan and relocated back to Wisconsin.

In the fall of 2005 9-03 was still in New York state, having last been seen there on October 27th. In December she showed up in Beaufort City, NC. Her satellite transmitter had run out of battery power so no one knows where she was in the interim. On December 9th she was captured, fitted with another transmitter, and moved to Madison County, Florida. This is where the persistence story begins as the tracking team tried to reorient her to the desired migration route. Later that year she visited the pen at Chassahowitzka where she had spent her first winter in Florida.

In the spring of 2006, 9-03 migrated north with a young female, 20-05, on March 27. They were seen together in Tennessee on March 29th and 30th. She again didn’t make it back to Wisconsin, once again ending up in New York, but this time with the young female she had led astray. On May 6th both were captured and moved by plane to NNWR. This move was the second attempt at reorientation. The two cranes stayed together in central Wisconsin all that summer.

9-03 and 20-05 migrated together in the fall and appeared at the Chassahowitzka pensite on December 20, 2006. The reorientation was beginning to work it seemed. It was the first time she had returned to Florida since she was led there by the ultralights. They to cranes stayed in the Chassahowitzka area and the nearby mainland for the winter.

On the 2007 spring migration 9-03 and 20-05 left Florida on March 19. The younger female, 20-05, went to Wisconsin, while 9-03 went on a grand tour to Michigan, New York, Ontario, and then back to New York. She still had not found her way back to Wisconsin on spring migration.

In October of 2007 she was captured yet again and flown back to Wisconsin. As they say, ”the third time is the charm”, and in this case the third relocation worked. She immediately stole male 3-04 from female W1-06, the first wild-hatched chick. The question was…would the bond last and would they migrate together?

In fact they did migrate to Florida that fall and stayed together during the winter. In the spring of 2008 the big question of where they would go was answered on March 27 when they showed up at the Necedah refuge. On April 9, 9-03 was observed incubating eggs. She and 3-04 incubated until May 3rd when their nest failed. They spent the summer on the refuge and migrated together to Florida that fall along with 9-03’s old friend, 20-05.

In late February 2009 the three cranes left Florida and 9-03 and 3-04 arrived in Wisconsin on March 23 and were already incubating eggs by April 8. Their nest failed again on May 3rd, but this time their eggs were salvaged. Both eggs hatched and became ultralight chicks 6-09 and 8-09 in the ultralight-led Class of 2009 – both chicks are still in the population. The parent pair re-nested, but their second nest failed on June 14.

The pair left Wisconsin on December 7, 2009 and was seen by plane on January 20, 2010 in a swamp in Lafayette County, Florida where they spent the rest of the winter. On March 9, 2010 they were observed during their northward migration in Richland County, Illinois and were found to be nesting on April 5 on the Necedah refuge. That nest failed on April 11th.

By April 29-30th they had nested again. This time they hatched two eggs and the family was spotted by OM pilot Richard van Heuvelen during a monitoring flight on May 31. Unfortunately, one of their chicks had disappeared by the 6th or 7th of June. The other chick, a female, designated W1-10, fledged in August and in the fall, left on migration with her parents.

Persistence does pay off! The work of a lot of dedicated and talented individuals re-oriented 9-03 to a life of migrating as desired from Wisconsin to Florida and back by capturing it 3 times and moving it once to Florida and twice to Wisconsin. They made it possible for her to meet and pair with 3-04. Once that bond was established she followed the male who is faithful to his own natal area, as are most male Whooping Cranes. Together they have produced 3 living off-spring in the Eastern Migratory Population. I say again, PERSISTENCE PAYS OFF!

Author’s Note: I am indebted to Jane Duden of Journey North for her fine history of each of the Eastern Migratory Population of Whooping cranes from chick to the present. Without her work it would have taken weeks to reconstruct the history of 9-03 and her associates.

(Walter Sturgeon is a member of Operation Migration’s Board of Directors, and for the past 7 years, his 30 years of crane experience and many other skills have been invaluable assets in his role as a volunteer member of the migration crew.)

WHOOPING CRANES CARRY ‘BIGGER’ MESSAGE

Guest Author:  Christine Barnes

“These newly hatched Whooping crane chicks have no parents. So we teach them what they need to know to survive. But they neither see us, nor hear us.”

The room is silent as students ponder, then watch and listen in rapt attention as the story unfolds.

We are Gordon Perkinson and Christine Barnes, Operation Migration’s education team, and we offer presentations in schools along the migration route. Our presentation lasts about an hour, and consists of a variety of interesting activities, including interactive sharing of knowledge and information, a slide show, and videos. We introduce and/or reinforce age-appropriate vocabulary and concepts.

On this 2011 migration, we have visited 15 schools and met with over 1670 students and their teachers. Principals, other education staff and interested community members have sometimes joined our groups. And what a wonderful time we have had along the way, working with children in Illinois, Kentucky and Alabama! We have worked with a single class of 23 students, and an entire school of 667 students packed into an auditorium. We have presented on a school night at a nature center with 70 community members and twenty-four high school students and their teacher present.

Many classes follow the cranes’ journey and are very well-prepared. Some are new-comers to the Whooping cranes’ story, and are fascinated from the beginning. Students ask many thoughtful questions at the beginning and end of the presentation, which we either answer or give back to them for their own investigation in class or on their own. Nearly every student in the schools where we presented was respectful, enthusiastic and engaged. It has been a privilege to work with each and every one.

As we present the cranes’ story, there are audible gasps among the participants – the life-sized photo of a 5 ft. tall crane with an 8 ft. wingspan amazes most, and the youngest children need to be reassured that these birds will do no harm from their wetland home.

There is laughter at the photo of the tired crane chick, asleep in its food bowl. Listeners’ faces reflect their sadness, and sometimes there are tears, when we share the blatant disregard for wildlife and law, and reveal that misguided persons with firearms still shoot and kill these magnificent birds. And ironically, as we end 2011, yet another Whooping crane has died at the end of a gun in Indiana.

We speak of the inspiration of the founders and staff of Operation Migration and its WCEP partners to dream the impossible dream and move forward to save a species from extinction. The individuals who work on this project see a need and an opportunity to make a difference, and many make personal sacrifices to do so.

We talk with students about how this can be their story, too – how they can strive to be scientists, mathematicians, teachers, environmentalists, conservationists. We encourage the children to reflect on what each one can do to make things better each day, or what project their class, or even their entire school can do.

The lights are low, the room is silent. They neither see us nor hear us: from the back of the room, the solution to the opening riddle enters: a silent crane handler in costume. For the first time, students understand, on some level, the reintroduction project’s extraordinary effort to teach the cranes while preserving whatever wild instincts exist innately in these birds. It is, after all, their only hope.

In the end, we talk with the children about the bigger picture: this is not just about Whooping cranes. It’s about learning to live together on our beautiful planet Earth in a respectful, caring and reflective manner – being aware of our actions and what consequences, intended or not, may unfold as a result.

It is a story about making mistakes, and working hard to fix them before it’s too late. In fact, the journey of the Whooping cranes is an acknowledgement and commitment to the sanctity of life.

Editor’s Note – The Education component of the 2011 migration was made possible thanks to a joint grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and Southern Company through the Power of Flight program. Both organizations have also supported Operation Migration’s ultralight-led project in past years and they have our sincere gratitude for their generosity and abiding interest in the welfare of endangered Whooping cranes.