HIVE OF ACTIVITY

Camp this morning was a veritable hive of activity as the crates and vehicles to be used to transport the nine Whooping cranes in the Class of 2011 were made ready. While this was going on, some crew scrambled to gather up and pack the last few of their personal items in order to transfer them to the vehicle in which they would be travelling back home. Others stored away no longer needed equipment in the bins, boxes, and chests that are the items off season homes in the aircraft trailer.

As I sat in my motorhome plugging away on my laptop the windshield presented me with a front row view. I could see the crew trotting back and forth from one vehicle/motorhome/trailer to the next, and the scene was not dissimilar to watching harried commuters heading in all directions, briskly passing each other as they rushed to catch their train.

Then, abruptly, as all the vehicles pulled out to head for the pensite a couple of road miles distant, silence descended.

It is 53F degrees here and completely overcast. The grey, heavy looking clouds make it more likely than not that the current lull in precipitation we have been experiencing will end soon. We are glad for the cooler temperature today, it will help to ensure the birds will not overheat in their crates. (Air conditioning running in the transport vehicles prevents that from happening during the road trip.)

As you might imagine, we have been responding to dozens and dozens of media calls over the past few days. After gathering the information and commentary they wanted for their stories, they would invariably close by asking how we, the migration crew, felt about the shortened migration.

I’m confident that I can say there is universal disappointment. We were charged with a task – leading the cranes from Wisconsin to the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership‘s choice of wintering sites. That we ten times successfully completed that task before is small consolation for not being able to repeat that feat this season.

However, perhaps Joe best summed up the rest of our thoughts when he said…

“Yes, of course we are disappointed, but in reality it makes little difference to the cranes. There is something, not entirely known, that stimulates a southern migration in birds. It may be temperature, or the angle of the sun, or a surge of hormones, but at some point that urge wears off.

Because of weather delays and south winds, we may have passed that point with the Class of 2011. In addition, these cranes are reaching the time in their lives when they become independent of their parents. In the end, none of this means much to the birds. They are still part of the Eastern Migratory Population and will still migrate back north. All that is left for us to do is to cross our fingers and hope they make it back to Wisconsin’s White River State Wildlife Area.”

Reports continue to come in about both Sandhills and Whoopers that have curtailed their migration this season. Some, like almost 40% of the Eastern Migratory Population, have shortened their southerly migration by hundreds of miles. In the western flyway, the same phenomena is being seen in the Wood Buffalo-Aransas population. Cranes that would normally  winter on coastal Texas have short-stopped on the Platte River in Nebraska and also in Kansas.

The latest news out of Aransas, Texas about the western population of Whoopers is that only 193 cranes were counted on three aerial surveys conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in January. This versus the 300 cranes that were anticipated to winter there. Sixteen more cranes not on their usual wintering grounds were accounted for, some of those being the cranes that had not ventured further south than Nebraska.

In an article by Colin McDonald published in the San Antonio Express-News, officials at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge were quoted as having said, “…..they do not believe 91 birds have died, as they have collected only two carcasses.” Click the link above to read the full article.

We will continue to report here on the Class of 2011 including more about move to the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. IF we can get a signal from the new pensite at the Wheeler refuge, we will attempt to provide you with one last viewing opportunity of the Class of 2011 via the CraneCam. IF that becomes possible, it will not be until later this morning at an as yet unknown time.

THE NEXT STEPS

The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership’s (WCEP) annual two day meeting concluded Thursday. Staff members of WCEP’s nine member organizations attended the meeting in person or joined in electronically. On yesterday’s agenda was the selection of a release site for the ultralight-led Class of 2011.

Of necessity, all options involved crating and transporting the nine cranes by road, and the pros and cons of each of three potential release sites (Florida’s St. Marks and Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuges, and Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama) were discussed. In the final analysis, it was felt that the pros outweighed the cons of selecting the Wheeler NWR.

Today, OM team members will be putting the wheels in motion to carry out that decision. Arrangements were made late yesterday with Wheeler’s staff for our second travel pen to be erected there on an area of the refuge where two adult pairs of Whooping cranes have been sighted.

We added up the time it would take for the trip to the refuge including the drive in to reach the potential pensite, plus the time to unload and set up the pen, and then the return trip. Even with a very early start it was obvious that we’d be in the heat of the day before we’d be in a position to crate the cranes for the move. (The high today is forecast to be in the mid 60’s) Crating can be stressful for the cranes, so accomplishing that in the cool of the early morning hours to eliminate concerns for overheating is a better option. This means the actual move will take place Saturday morning.

Once the Class of 2011 is at Wheeler NWR, they will be held in the top-netted travel pen until the WCEP team arrives with their permanent bands and they are attached to each crane. After a day or two for the birds to recover from being handled and to adjust to their new leg jewelry, Brooke, who will be staying on site with them, will effect the release.

We will keep you posted…

DESTINATION FOR CLASS OF 2011 DECIDED

The discussions at the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership annual meetings being held over two days (yesterday and today) included consideration of choosing an ultimate destination for the ultralight-led Class of 2011.

While the details of when and how are still being ironed out, we can tell you that the nine young of the year will be crated and taken by road to the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge here in Alabama. Wheeler is near Decatur, AL about 45 miles (as the crow flies) northeast of their current pensite location.

More will be posted here as decisions are made, logistics worked out, and that information becomes available

SAYING GOODBYE

The past eight months have been quite the ride. I’ve met all sorts of new people, made countless new friends and seen beautiful areas of the US I otherwise never would have known about.

I could elaborate on those experiences, but I’ve chosen to reflect on other experiences. I want to talk a little about the ‘big kahuna’ of my time with Operation Migration. I want to talk about my experience raising the chicks.

I have certainly developed sympathy for any caregiver who has ever raised a child. Knowing how stressful caring about another creature’s wellbeing can be, has filled me with remorse over all the stress and heartache I have given my parents over the years. But at the same time, it makes me swell with love knowing they dedicated their lives to making sure I was always happy, healthy and cared for.

As for the birds, no one knows how they will reflect, if at all, on their surrogate parents. All I can do is be proud of the fact that I always did everything I could to ensure the birds were as healthy and happy as I could make them.

I have seen the chicks almost everyday for these past eight months. I am blessed to have watched them grow and develop. The cohort has gone from tiny little puffs of downy feathers barely able to hold themselves up, to near-adults. From peeps to growls and alarm calls the birds have turned into a picturesque group of Whooping Cranes.

I am a little upset about having to leave them to the big wild world. I always knew that was the ultimate goal and that the birds would one day be on their own to survive – but I guess kids will always be kids to parents. I’m sure when my parents look at me they still see the little boy – – just like I still see the goofy little chicks when I look at our cranes. THEY GROW UP SO FAST!

After spending so much time with these birds it is amazing how much you learn about them as individuals. They have so many minor but individual traits that seem insignificant at first, but gradually become glaringly obvious.

Parents and friends of twins I’m sure feel the same way when strangers comment on how impossible it is to tell the two apart. “What are you talking about? They don’t look anything alike. Maria has one freckle on her left cheek and Susan has two on her right cheek…it’s so obvious!”

I can pick out every bird from a quick look at their face, a quirky behavior, heck, even the way they peck at things can be a giveaway to their identity.

I don’t really know where I intended to go with this posting, or how to wrap it up. I guess I just felt some desire to and throw out any thoughts I had about saying farewell to the Class of 2011.

I suppose I can hope for a few things. I can hope for their survival in the future. I can hope for their successful reproduction. I can hope for a successful reintroduction. And, if I’m really lucky…I can hope to maybe one day catch a glimpse of ‘my children’ foraging in a field or flying overhead.

If you ever see one of ‘my kids’…don’t be shy about letting me know.

“Hey Caleb, saw your Baby Girl 12-11 today. Don’t get too jealous and overprotective but…I saw her hanging out with some boy Whoopers from the wrong side of the flyway. Remember, you can’t always be daddy and guard her. She looked great… so don’t worry – be happy.”

A BIOLOGIST COMMENTS

After reading Joe Duff’s Field Journal posting of January 29th we received this thoughtful comment, and asked the author for permission to share it with our website readership.

I am biologist in southern Indiana, and although I’m not an ornithologist, I do subscribe to the bird lists here. As you are aware and have reported, we have an unusual number of cranes, both Sandhill and Whooping, that just haven’t migrated beyond Indiana this year. There are other migratory bird species staying in larger than normal numbers as well.

The weather has been mild, with the grass still green and the ground unfrozen. Some early spring flowers are blooming more than a month early. Now the sun feels stronger, with day length increasing.

As Joe said, the signals for stopping and starting migration are not completely known, but I would be surprised if the birds that have spent the winter here [in Indiana] migrated much further now, even if the weather becomes more winter-like for the next month or two. Are they done going south, and is this as far as they got? So your group of Whoopers may just be joining the bird herd this year, much to everyone’s frustration.

It is good that cranes are so flexible with migration patterns, since over their millions of years as species they have seen ice ages come and go, and who knows what else – climate changes that are on par with the one we’re inducing, surely. Timely adaptation to such changes must be part of their repertoire. Even if they never get to Florida this spring, they will be flexible enough to find Florida on their own in a future migration, right? We hope?

When I was a graduate student in the mid-1970s I had the privilege to hear the famous biologist and bird researcher William T. Keeton talk about his work on homing in pigeons.

He said (something close to), “What a bird CAN do and what it WILL do are two different things.” He said people thought pigeons couldn’t find their way home when it was overcast, but in fact they just didn’t like to fly then. He trained them to fly on overcast days, and discovered that could home just fine, and then studied how they navigated without the sun, defying decades of research by others. http://www.pnas.org/content/85/13/4907.full.pdf

Birds do what they will, thank goodness – we certainly aren’t smart enough to make all the “right” decisions for them. Knowing when to follow their lead is tricky when you’ve been training them so meticulously to follow yours. Sounds as if you’ve reached that point.

Thanks again for all your heroic work helping the Whoopers hang onto this world, hopefully for a few million more years to come.     – M.C

I ONLY WANT ONE WISH…

Some people wish they could travel the world or win a lottery, but if I had a genie’s blessing this morning, I would have used all three wishes to help me understand what these birds were thinking. After almost twenty years of flying with birds, I could make an educated guess, but none of what I have to offer accounts for this behavior.

This morning we woke to perfect conditions. The air was cold and still and better than any day we have had in months. It was my lead and I landed next to the pen and called for the release of the birds. They took off in a burst and rather than risk hitting the ones in front of me, I held back until they passed overhead. I climbed up behind them and took the lead as we banked right and began a slow climb past the home of our stopover host. The birds took advantage of the turn and cut the corner to catch up. They were strung off the wing like pearls in the morning sun.

After one turn we were on course and two dropped back. Normally this would encourage these birds to turn as well, but they ignored the stragglers. This allowed Brooke and Richard to move in and collect them.

The climb was smooth and clean and the birds were strong and locked on as we inched up at a hundred feet per minute. We reached 600 feet and the thought crept into my head that maybe we were getting the break we needed so badly. Maybe that was all it took to ruin everything because for no reason at all, they broke. It wasn’t because they were falling behind or the climb was too much for them. And it wasn’t one of those tentative departures we so often see as the birds test their ability to take the lead and change the direction. Instead they peeled away like a fighter jet rolling into a dive.

I intercepted them and they followed me back on course. I hoped it was only a momentary lapse into old habits – but they broke again – and again. Brooke and Richard were getting farther away as I circled twenty times with the same result. When I would catch up to them and re-take the lead, it was always #7 leading the V formation. At one point, when I placed my wing in front of her, she opened her beak and jabbed the wingtip in an angry challenge for the lead. She would follow for a while as long as we were heading in the direction she chose, but even then she would break and take the rest of the flock with her in sheer defiance of the aircraft.

I tried to dethrone her by pushing her out of the lead with my wing, but the second in command was #5, and he was just as bad. After what felt like a hundred attempts, I tried to lead them back to the field and land. I planned for Geoff to put numbers 5 and 7 back in the pen and then to leave again with the others. As we passed overhead I began a descent, but they all kept going.

Afraid to get too far ahead with only two birds, Brooke and Richard came back to try and help. I caught number 7 seven  miles to the north and again took the lead, but each time she would steal them away and head north. I tried leading them east, then west, hoping they would eventually fall into line, but they would turn with such purpose it was obvious I had little authority. As I chased them, she would swing them around on a course due north.

Richard and Brooke joined the fray. We tried to coax them down to tree top level as if we were about to land. They would follow, looking down to see what field we had chosen. We hopped hills and trees leading them back to the pen but a mile out they recognized the rouse and broke again.

After two and a half hours we managed to bring them back to the pen one or two at a time. All except for #10 who had enough after an hour and dropped into a pond like a helicopter. Caleb and Gerald picked him up and brought him back to the pen.

Migration is triggered by stimuli that are still not understood, but at some point it ends. A period of sedentary behavior follows while they spend time foraging at their wintering grounds until that urge hits again for the return trip. Maybe we have stayed too long in Alabama and for them migration is over. Or, maybe they were just too long in one place. Maybe if we had a few flying days in a row to gain back their confidence, or maybe we just have a few too many aggressive birds with minds of their own.

Whatever the cause, it is obvious we will not get these birds to Florida this year in time to acclimate them to the wetlands of St. Marks and Chassahowitzka. We have to admit that it is time to concede to the greater influence of nature, and for this year, stop trying to engineer a behavior we don’t really understand.

The annual Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership meetings take place this week. We will be attending by phone and a decision will be made as to what to do with these birds. They normally undergo a gentle release into the wild and we still hope that is possible, but just where it will take place is yet to be determined. We will keep you posted.

As for me, I only want one wish – well maybe two.

OM – 10, WEATHER – 1

Today, for the first time since departing Wisconsin on October 9th of last year, checking the weather and wind conditions was not my initial task of the morning. How strange it was not to start the day with a sense of anticipation and hope.

With the ability to achieve the last of our yearly tasks on the Whooping crane reintroduction project being entirely weather dependent – that is, the annual ultralight-led migration – we always recognized that conditions could render completion of any fall odyssey an impossibility. Yet, although that recognition existed, as we chalked up one migration after another and began our 11th season, it dwelled mostly in our subconscious.

Now, having been beaten by weather after a decade of countless challenges overcome, I can’t help but look for some kind of consolation however small. Perhaps that is in the scorecard….OM 10 – Weather 1.

MIGRATION DAY 91

The clear skies and total calm of 4AM remained unchanged at sunrise. With a forecast of 5mph NNW winds aloft, the cranes and planes took to the cold air (20 degrees) at 7:22AM. Lead pilot, Joe, got away with what sounded like all the birds, and those that fell back were being chased for pick up by Brooke and Richard.

From the chat over the aviation radio it appeared they had turned on course when Joe’s birds started to breakaway. The handheld radio has limited range and the cranes and planes must be at it’s outer limits as transmissions are faint and broken. From what we can discern, there is a crane rodeo going on.

We’d like to say, “Walker County, AL here we come,” but from the sounds of it, that would likely be premature. Tune in to the TrikeCam to watch this morning’s action. And check back here in the Field Journal for more info of this morning’s ‘migration adventure’.

UNTOLD AIR MILES BUT ZERO PROGRESS

After more than two hours of crane rodeo, and countless turn backs by the birds, the pilots finally managed to get all of the Class of 2011 back on the ground. All nine are in their pen where they started from just before 7:30 this morning.

It was an unbelievable migration morning, one never experienced before. Hopefully sometime later this afternoon today’s lead pilot Joe will shed some light on the action that took place out of our sight and hearing. It will undoubtedly be one for the record books.

MIGRATION DAY 90 – DOWN DAY 4

The forecast that looked promising late yesterday turned into a huge disappointment this morning. The prediction for light and favorable NW winds had vanished to be replaced with the reality of SW winds of 8mph.

Then, just after sunrise, a dramatic change took place as the winds swung around the compass. This prompted all three trikes to launch even as the ground crew zoomed off to get into position.

We listened to the pilots’ over the aviation radio as they called off their air speeds and described the conditions they encountered at various altitudes. Initially, despite it being a little rough and there being perhaps a little too much push, they thought a flight might be doable.

As they continued to test conditions they worried about the velocity of the tailwind eliminating any possibility of leading the birds back to the pensite should they scatter. In the final analysis, that, combined with the potential risk to the birds due to the less than optimal terrain between the pensite in Winston County and our Walker County destination led to their unanimous decision to call it a Down Day.

Some days ‘frustration’ is spelled ‘r-a-i-n’, today it’s spelled ‘w-i-n-d’.

MIGRATION DAY 89 – DOWN DAY 3

The weatherman made good on his promise of NNW winds this morning but they came with too high a velocity for the cranes and planes to handle. Even if we could have handled the winds, the low ceiling would have prevented our getting into the air today.

A very poor cell signal is preventing our CraneCam from broadcasting from the Winston County pensite. The next opportunity for viewers to see live video of Class of 2011 will be via the TrikeCam when weather allows us to fly again.

Suzanne Hall Johnson’s 5 mile MileMaker challenge has been met – thank you to her and those who took up the gauntlet. Each day we edge closer and closer to having all 1,285 air miles sponsored, but there are still 185 miles up for grabs.

MIGRATION DAY 88 – DOWN DAY 2

With the rain falling in sheets, wind strength and direction are of no consequence. Going nowhere this morning.

Folks in the vicinity of St. Marks, Florida and Port Aransas, Texas might want to mark the upcoming events on the calendars.

Coming up soon – Saturday, February 4th – at the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge is the Wildlife Heritage and Outdoors Festival (WHO festival). Designed to reconnect people – children and adults – to nature and wildlife, it’s a fun family event with many organizations there with displays and exhibits.

Join in the activities, take in the exhibits, or visit the historic lighthouse built in 1832. St. Mark’s 68,000 acres are home to an enormous diversity of plant and animal life so why not make this your opportunity to tour one of the oldest refuges in the National Wildlife Refuge System.

The Port Aransas 16th Annual Whooping Crane Festival begins on February 23rd and has activities scheduled through Sunday February 26th. It’s a super event for birders, photographers, and anyone who enjoys all things nature related. Click here for more info.

MIGRATION DAY 87 – DOWN DAY 1

We will not be adding any migration miles to the five the pilots managed to eke out yesterday. Winds on the surface are relatively cooperative, but aloft it is another story with the south sending up it’s blustery and rainy weather.

CRANES TEXAS HABITAT WOES UP THE VALUE OF THE EASTERN MIGRATORY POPULATION
An article recently published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel authored by journalist Lee Bergquist was titled, “Risks to cranes in Texas raise profile of Wisconsin program.”

In the article, noting the reason for starting new flocks [of Whooping cranes] in places such as Wisconsin was as an insurance measure should catastrophe strike in Texas, President and CEO of the International Crane Foundation, Richard Beilfuss, was quoted as saying, “We think it vindicates the decision. There is plenty that can go wrong down there – hurricanes, an oil spill and drought.”

Read the full article.

MIGRATION DAY 86

With long-awaited favorable flying conditions the order of the day, the ground crew and tracking van headed out of camp to get in their respective positions. The three trikes launched not long after sunrise to fly to the new short-stop pensite nine air miles away. At the moment, from what we can gather, there’s a crane rodeo underway.

The lead pilot’s report describing today’s activity and flight will be posted here late this afternoon/early evening.

NEW MileMakers Needed
Taking up Colorado Craniac, Suzanne Hall Johnson’s challenge would be a great way to celebrate the cranes and planes getting into the air today. Suzanne will match up to 5 MileMaker miles (or part miles) sponsored by NEW MileMakers. Taking up her challenge doubles the value of your sponsorship!

Click here to read all the details about MileMaker, (you could be the lucky recipient of a special Thank You gift) or click here to select the mile you’d like to sponsor.

On behalf of Whooping cranes – THANK YOU!

PROGRESS – OF A SORT

They say the best way to tackle a big task is to chew off small bites. We thought an average 50 mile migration leg was a small bite, but as it turns out, today that even that size bite was too big for the cranes to chew.

Following a long and frustrating rodeo, and a story that lead pilot Brooke will likely title, “Confusion,” the pilots only managed to get the Class of 2011 another 5 miles south.

We now have another ‘short-stop’ pensite, this one just over the line into Winston County, AL.