USFWS CRITICIZED RE CRANE CENSUS, DRILLING AT ARANSAS NWR THREATENS WHOOPING CRANES

Two items of interest to Craniacs were recently posted online.

TAP Criticizes USFWS re Crane Census
The first, entitled “State of The Whooping Crane Flock 2011-2012” appeared on the website of the Whooping Crane Conservation Association (WCCA). The posting quotes an article published by The Aransas Project (TAP) disputing the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s claim regarding the size of the Wood Buffalo/Aransas population, and is critical of the new census method employed by USFWS since the retirement of Aransas Whooping Crane Coordinator, Tom Stehn. Read the article here.

Drilling at Aransas NWR Threatens Whooping Cranes
The second online item of interest is a blogspot authored by environmentalist/wildlife conservationist and former OM Board of Director, Laura Erickson. Laura’s August 3rd blog is about proposed drilling at the Aransas National Wildlife refuge, the wintering grounds of the only wild, naturally occurring flock of Whooping cranes.

She notes, “There is a very limited period for public comment – letters will be accepted by the US Department of the Interior through August 17. We can’t stop the drilling, but we can ask that all exploration be limited to areas away from where the cranes are, and we can also exert a bit of pressure on the publicly-held Hillcorp Energy Company to make them aware that people are watching them.”  Read the full posting here.

I WONDER…

There’s a traditional church hymn with a verse that goes, “I once was lost but now I’m found,” but sometimes you have to wonder if being found is all that it’s cracked up to be. I mean, are the members of the recently discovered “Lost Tribe” in the Amazon really that pleased at being “found” by the members of the tribe of “Civilized White Men” – when the fact is they never considered themselves lost in the first place? Being lost…like everything else, is all relative.

So I wonder how our little #1-11 felt last week when he looked up from where he stood alone in a field south of here and saw the Wisconsin DNR plane circling above as Bev homed in on the beep-beeps of his transmitter. Did he break into a celebratory touchdown victory dance with such flagrant exuberance that the nearest referee threw a flag costing WCEP a 15 yard penalty? Or, did instead a thought balloon suddenly rise above his head containing the words “Oh crap?”

As some of you know, #1 had not been seen since he and his classmates heard the final call of migration and took to the air on that magical morning back in April, spiraling higher and higher above Wheeler Refuge until they disappeared into the deep blue of the Alabama sky. All were later present and accounted for in Wisconsin …even #2-11 returned from her trip to Florida and was regularly observed….but not him. Where did he go?

Then followed the usual string of possible sightings; one in Alabama at a refuge a few dozen miles from Wheeler which scrambled the refuge biologist for an unsuccessful verification effort. And then some others in areas along the migration route until #1 sightings rivaled those of UFO’s in number, prompting the suggestion that he was really hanging out in Area 51 in the Nevada desert where the government keeps all those gate crashing aliens from outer space (the ones from inner space are too small to see without a microscope) unfortunate enough to have taken that galactic shortcut that brought them to our ‘not so blue anymore’ planet.

I felt confident, however, that he would turn up alive because after all, he was my favorite bird. Oops! Did I really say that? I’m not supposed to have a favorite bird. That wouldn’t be scientific! So much for my chances for a Nobel Prize, or an advanced degree in something I probably couldn’t pronounce let alone spell. But even the aliens have their favorite humans.

Truth is, each year produces for me a favorite bird and last year it was #1. Why #1? Lots of reasons, many of which lie within the boundaries of the subconscious rather than the conscious and can best be explained only by the words, “ just because.” Bev shared my little secret, and so she called shortly after the discovery, which caused the nearest camp referee (those darn guys are everywhere!) to throw the flag so hard it left a bruise on my arm when it hit me.

And so one morning last week as I looked out into the morning darkness while the rain pounded hard on the roof of the camper, I wondered what the little fellow was up to. What he’s thinking? What the day and the week and the month hold for him? And, where has he been all this time? What a story he has to tell. What an Update!

Perhaps one day technology will enable us to communicate such things. Or perhaps it will be just the opposite and we’ll evolve as human beings enough to discover within ourselves a portal through which to converse with the natural world and learn its secrets…and his. Maybe only then will we really know for sure which column we fall under, the “Lost” or the “Found.” Until that day, we can only wait…and wonder.

PLEA AGREEMENT IN INDIANA WHOOPING CRANE SHOOTING

Jason McCarter of Wheatland, IN, who shot and killed Whooping crane #27-08 in early January of 2012, filed an Agreement to Plead Guilty for violating the Migratory Bird Act by Taking or Killing of a Migratory Bird, thus avoiding a criminal trial.

The plea agreement includes 3 years probation during which period he may not hunt, possess or use of a firearm or alcohol. In addition to “an unprecedented number” of community service hours to be served at the Goose Pond Fish and Wildlife area he also must pay a $5,000 fine to the International Crane Foundation.

Taught its migratory path by Operation Migration’s ultralight aircraft in the fall of 2008, the three year-old male Whooping crane was part of a nesting pair. (Mate was female 8-09.) According to the case report filed with the prosecutor, the Whooping crane had been spotlighted at night and shot and killed with a high-powered rifle in Knox County.

Read #27-08’s complete bio on Journey North’s excellent website. The bio documents his life from hatch to his summer flight training; his ultralight-led migration with OM’s pilots, and his life as a wild bird.

#27-08 was the third confirmed shooting death of a Whooping crane in Indiana. The first shooting mortality occurred in late 2009 when the first female in the reintroduced Eastern Migratory Population to successfully hatch and raise a wild chick in the U.S. in more than a century was killed. Crane #17-02 was 7 years old when she was shot.

In December 2011, male Whooping crane number 6-05 was found shot to death in Jackson County, In. His carcass was found by a photographer near the Muscatatuck River basin about 40 miles north of Louisville, Kentucky.

Read the online article re McCarter’s Plea Agreement here.

EASTERN MIGRATORY POPULATION UPDATE

WCEP Tracker, Eva Szyszkoski’s latest report covering the period July 1 to August 6 notes that the maximum size of the Eastern Migratory Population is 105, consisting of 52 males, 51 females, and two chicks whose gender is unknown. In this report, * = female; NFT = non-functional transmitter; DAR – Direct Autumn Release

Eva estimated that the distribution at the end of the report period or last record of the Whooping cranes was:
Wisconsin -98 (including the two surviving wild-hatched chicks)
Michigan – 2
Long Term Missing – 2; (#27-07*NFT was last reported in Kosciusko, IN March 13, 2011. #13-08*was last detected in Juneau County, WI April 6, 2011.)

On July 6th the carcass of female #9-11 was found in Polk County, WI, the remains of W5-12, the wild-hatched chick of parents 13-02 & 18-02 was found on the Necedah NWR July 24th. Both remains were sent to the USGS National Wildlife Health Center in Madison for necropsy.

All but one of the seventeen 2011 hatch year Whooping Cranes were located in Wisconsin with distribution reported as:
Marquette County – 3
Dane County – 2
Dodge County – 7
Adams County – 2
Columbia County 2
The only 2011 crane unaccounted for is DAR#13-11

Thanks go to pilots Beverly Paulan (Wisconsin DNR) and Mike Frakes (Windway Aviation) for aerial tracking support.

FROM A TO B NOT ALWAYS A STRAIGHT LINE

Whether it’s a boat, an airplane, or a truck, in general terms the bigger it is the less precise the controls. You don’t steer a semi the way you do a sports car. More accurately, you herd it, making small adjustments and waiting for the results.

Teaching birds to migrate is a similar experience. It’s less of a science and more of a hit and miss situation. When it doesn’t work exactly as planned, you make a correction, cross your fingers and then judge the results. Rather than travelling in a perfectly straight line from when the chicks hatch to when they follow us into the air, we bounce from side to side, generally following the correct path but never perfectly.

One of the definitions of an animal is that it will consistently respond in exactly the same manner to a specific stimulus. That’s why you can depend on birds to migrate in the fall or nest in the spring. Mostly we don’t know what triggers that behavior, but the response is always the same.

It’s the “don’t know” part that is the problem for us. We judge the effectiveness of our training protocol by the results, but we really don’t know what lessons we are teaching. If things go wrong, we have a list of corrections that we can apply that have worked in the past, but it is more like herding than steering. We guess at the problem, apply a “fix”, and judge the results. But apart from that, it’s all speculation.

Number 11 is a classic example. She is our youngest bird, but only nine days behind the oldest. She is not the smallest of her flock mates nor is she the least aggressive. Her behavior was normal for awhile, but then something happened and she began refusing to come out of the pen for training. While the others rushed to the door when they heard the aircraft approach, she would head to the back of the wet pen.

One morning Geoff and Doug tried repeatedly to coax her out while the others ran up and down the runway. The next day we tried training her by herself, thinking maybe she didn’t like to be with the others. She did follow the trike, but when it stopped at the end she kept going, prompting a half hour search in the tall grass.

We also checked to see if she was gate-shy. The dominance of the birds is based in part on space; If you crowd me, I will poke you so keep your distance. That works until we try to funnel them all through a narrow gate at the same time. Some birds react negatively to that confinement and develop a fear of the front door. Number 11 however walked back and forth through the gate nonchalantly when we tested her.

One morning Brooke was in the pen while I trained the birds. After a short delay he managed to get her out. I watched her closely as we began to taxi to the runway’s west end. She walked close to the aircraft, so it wasn’t the wing over her head bothering her. And, she was within pecking distance from the rest of the flock so it wasn’t a space issue. She flew the length of the runway with the aircraft and this time stayed with it when we stopped at the end so it wasn’t a lack of attentiveness.

Brooke trained the birds the next day and Richard after that. Number 11 got over whatever it was that was bothering her. She now comes out of the pen with the others and eagerly flies behind the trike. It is not an issue because we only have six birds and it is easy to spot a problem and spend the time fixing it, but we would all like to know what threw her off. She obviously got the wrong message from whatever lesson we were teaching. We are heading in the right direction but it is certainly not a straight line.

‘TAXI’ TRAINING NO MORE – NOW IT’S FLIGHT TRAINING

Saturday was one of those kind of dark mornings with clouds looming overhead head in menacing formations. Once aloft, I found that the air was slightly bumpy, but flyable. As Brooke wanted to test fly his trike after doing maintenance the day before. I was the pilot on tap for training that day. I’m sure he just wanted to fly.

All of the young cranes came out of the pen almost simultaneously and we were off and airborne in a flash. They all followed as the trike did a steep turn off the end of the runway. Then, two of the chicks turned back and landed on the end of the run way, but the rest the group attempted to follow the trike.

Numbrs 10, 5,and 6 landed with the trike on the runway at the far south end, while #4 and #11 flew in from the other end. One, two, three, four, five – five birds. Where was #7? As I gazed around, he circled in from behind the trike and landed under the right wing. Ah, perfect.

After a brief rest and some well deserved treats handed out under the wing, I took off for a second flight. Yes, we can now call them ‘flights’.

I circled around beyond the north end of the runway with five chicks following. While the trike landed down at the south end, the chicks landed at different points along the runway. But they flew up to the trike just as it rolled to a stop next to # 5 who had just stood there for the entire flight.

Oh-oh. Still only five birds. Glancing up I saw that #10 was still airborne, but with no activity in the air she too soon landed next to the trike. Fumbling around excitedly I managed to dispense treats to these reward-worthy birds.

Trying to stay calm, I again slowly taxied down the runway, waiting for that moment – for all of the chicks to turn around and want to fly. Suddenly #5 flapped it’s wings and then all of the birds sprung into action. Pushing the trike to full throttle we were once again off into the sky. Another steep turn off the north end they all followed. Although some took a short cut to land back with the trike, three chicks circled momentarily before landing next to the aircraft. Again, as the chicks crowded around the trike, a very excited pilot gave out treats.

Once more into the air – this time taking it little farther out and with the chicks getting some altitude. As the trike came around a couple of the chicks landed on the runway so I couldn’t touch down. Instead, I circled around for another try, but the chicks, anticipating where the trike might land, were once again in jeopardy. So around I went again with at least three chicks trying to follow, and #10 almost on the wing. As the trike circled around yet again, all the chicks landed except #10 who continued to try and catch the wing. Upon my attempts to land the other five chicks would fly from one end of the field to the other preventing me from putting down. After a couple more attempts #10 and I were able to find enough space to land.

What a great morning! The chicks all gathered around for treats and rested while #10 regained her breath after her long flight. Slowly, the chicks were let back into the pen where they could continue a well deserved rest.

On the way back to the hangar a crazy looking cloud with different wind pattern loomed overhead. Bracing myself for the turbulence to come – and come it did – I continued on, fighting to keep the aircraft straight and level. Then as the aircraft passed through the burst of outflow I encountered calmer air.

Suddenly Brooke came on the radio asking my whereabouts. He had also encountered the same outflow and aborted his landing through the trees and landed instead in a big field to the east of the airstrip to wait out this burst of air. I continued on in the now calmer air, landed at the airstrip and radioed back to Brooke that conditions were good again. Soon both trikes were safely back in the hangar and both pilots humbly went back to camp for yet another day of study for our private pilot certificates.

MILEMAKER SPONSORS NEEDED

APPLY WITHIN!  As with every year for the past decade, the young Whooping crane chicks in the Class of 2012 will be relying on you to help fund the biggest adventure of their young lives – their first-ever migration this fall behind out small aircraft. And they will NEED YOUR HELP!

Won’t you become a MileMaker sponsor today? A one mile sponsorship is $200; a half mile is $100; and a quarter mile is $50. Remember too, that being a 2012 MileMaker sponsor might also net you a sensational Thank You Gift!

All MileMaker sponsors are eligible to be drawn for a Thank You Gift of a two-week stay at Mot Mot Manor in fabulous Costa Rica! Mot Mot Manor is located on the Nicoyan Peninsula in the beautiful gated community of Roma del Mar. The closest airport is Liberia, Costa Rica (~2.5 hour drive). A total of $2000.00 will be provided to cover airfare and car rental for your Costa Rican getaway!

MileMaker Sponsors’ names will be entered in the Thank You Gift Draw as follows: 1 entry per quarter mile | 2 entries per half mile | 4 entries per one mile sponsorship.

View a photo gallery featuring images taken at Mot Mot Manor and surrounding area.

Become a MileMaker today… and help the Class of 2012 young Whooping cranes reach their winter home in Florida this coming fall.

WE ONCE THOUGHT IT WAS SILLY

It’s funny how your perspective changes with familiarity. There was once a time when we thought the white costumes looked ridiculous – as if you were donning a tutu. You almost felt when you pulled one over your head for the first time that you should dance around clown-like for fear of being taken too seriously in such a get up. But after you wear them for a while, they simply become a tool that allowed us entry into the world of Whooping cranes. Considering how few humans have that privilege, our costumes have almost become a cloak of honour, mud stains and all.

There is a similar situation with our aircraft. Ultralights, or more accurately, Light Sport Aircraft, Weight Shift Category, have long been considered flying lawn chairs or worse, lawn darts. To the pilots of larger, certified aircraft with retractable landing gear and heated cabins, our trikes are the scooters of the motorcycle world. But for a lowly ultralight they made history, and one hangs on display at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, while another is tucked under the nose of the Concord in the Smithsonian.

There is something silly about dressing up in a costume and leading birds with an ultralight. On the other hand there is something serious about trying to save a species from extinction with whatever method works best. Either way, you lose perspective once you have been doing it for a while. When my daughter was five, she asked one of her JK classmates what kind of bird her father flew with, so I am not alone. For her it was ordinary, like everyday life, and I often feel the same.

It is hard to believe that working with Whooping cranes would ever become routine, but repetition breeds familiarity, and before long it seems commonplace to climb into an aircraft and lead a flock of birds in a high speed taxi down the runway. It seems perfectly normal that they will follow us and fly in the wake of the wing. The joy of all that gets buried in the management and administration that makes it possible.

The fastest way for me to lose that detached perception is to see the project through the eyes of someone new. Doug Pellerin and Tom Shultz have volunteered to assist in the pen this year. Doug has been following this project for years and knows the history as well as he knows his family tree. Tom is an experienced birder and illustrator with an extensive background in aviculture. They are both well experienced but neither has been close to the birds until now. It is eye opening to see the delight with which they approach each day in the pen and the enthusiasm they bring to the job.

We all want to thank Doug and Tom for their hours of hot, sweaty work in the costume, and the long, pre-sunrise drives to be there on time. I personally want to thank them for reminding me what a privilege it is to be a part of this team. They have helped me put aside the politics and the problems, and focus on the joy of flying with Whooping cranes.

BREAKING (GREAT) NEWS

Some of the best news we’ve had in a while came in late yesterday. Wisconsin DNR pilot and ex-OM’er Bev Paulan reported that #1-11 had been located in Columbia County, Wisconsin.

You will recall that the last we’d seen or heard of #1-11 was when he departed Wheeler NWR in Alabama with the rest of the Class of 2011 to migrate back north. That was back in early April.

We are guesstimating his location as being no more than ~40 miles from the White River Marsh pensite.

Over the eleven years of the project we have had cranes that were slower than molasses in January when it came to departing on their spring migration, but none that summered on their wintering grounds. With no sightings or reports whatsoever, the odds of that being the case seemed slim, so we were beginning to fear the worst.

You can be assured that there were some very loud WHOOPS! heard in camp and at the OM office when the good news arrived. Maybe you’d like to celebrate with us and Give a WHOOP! too?

POOPER SCOOPING

Collecting poop samples in the chick pen is like an Easter Egg hunt…only different. No bunny. You stand quietly in a zen-like state waiting and watching for the rabbit to lay the egg, so to speak, so you can scoop it up with a tongue depressor (really) and scrape it into a plastic vial for analysis, all the while expecting the “Spanish Inquisition” from a Monty Python skit to charge in through the gate and arrest you for impersonating an Olympian.

An Olympian?? Think about it. After watching some of the Olympic events on TV, you have to acknowledge the possibility. I mean, doesn’t Synchronized Poop Scooping just draw you to the TV like a moth to a light bulb? The only reason it isn’t already included is that the event would probably be won from a team from some country we never heard of let alone tried to spell, and if they were to have a revolution, Congress would have to debate whether or not to send in the troops.

And it’s not a case of “You’ve seen one poop, you’ve seen ’em all” You got to get the fresh ones. Since no squeezing is allowed, you just have to wait for the chick to hear the “call”, listen for the squirt, then home in on it like a lazer-guided munition and scoop up the right one which is sometimes hard to do because the theme from the movie “Born Free” is playing so loud in your ears, it’s hard to concentrate.

But there’s a reason for all this, and the reason is that every poop tells a story…in this case, if there’s an invasion of the body snatchers/aka parasites going on in the neighborhood, so we can treat it before it gets too serious. They test the poop sample using the “fecal float” method which is not only self explanatory, but also conjures up the vision of old black and white movies with a young Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland jumping up on stools at the soda fountain and announcing, “That’ll be two fecal floats, Mr. Johnson.”

Here at camp, we collect poop samples the easy way…with a porta-potty, often referred to as a “Don John” named after the guy that invented instant plumbing. (they call them “Don Juan’s” south of the border with an appreciation for the romantic potential of even the most unusual of places). It’s just another case of if you can’t get Mohamed to go to the mountain, you bring the mountain to Mohammed….or something like that. Ours is the same little beauty we had last year, only last year it was placed between the hog pen and the cow barn, which led the hogs to believe it was just a giant air freshener. The hogs and pigs and their ever present massive weather changing clouds of flies have since, by the way, gone on to a better place, leaving us to wallow in our own smell.

Our Don John has become like a member of our crew. It is about the only place in camp you can go to be really alone, but it comes at a price. It’s so dark and cave-like that we have to be tested for white nose syndrome every time we leave it. But at least we don’t have to keep changing the magazines. Only trouble with it is the spring loaded door is so hard to open that if the appropriate care and attention are not paid to its operation, you will gain entrance only to be catapulted into the opposite wall when it closes.

We have since padded the wall and added a mop and bucket to clean up the blood. And the door produces such a thunder clap of sound when it slams shut that folks in three neighboring counties run out and pull their clothes off the line in anticipation of a thunderstorm. In fact, so intimidating is the door that I Googled the manufacturer and found it was the same company that produced bear traps for Grizzly Adams.

Early one morning last week I pulled open the door only to have a leg fly out and land at my feet…no body to be seen. I realized immediately that some careless soul had become trapped during the night and chewed his leg off rather than starve to death. I followed the blood trail to the Sierra and found Geoff on the floor holding his bleeding stump screaming, “The sucker bit me!”

Richard, always the resourceful one, drove to the International Crane Foundation sculpture garden, cut the leg off one of his life size crane sculptures and fitted it to Geoff’s stump – which worked out just fine. Trouble is, now the cranes will follow Geoff and only Geoff, prompting the creation of a new protocol which states we must all be fitted with crane legs next year.

But then, the sign on the Don John door does say, “No Pain, No Gain”…right below the sign that says, “All ye who enter here…give up all hope”.

As for myself, I don’t mind the smell, or the dark, or even the door. None of these things would bother me one darn bit if I could just get the sucker to flush! Till then, it’s “Bombs Away”.

SAGA OF #11

Location: White River Marsh SWA, Green Lake Co., WI

One thing Craniac Doug Pellerin has remarked on when we go to let out the birds every morning, is how every day is a new adventure. That just goes to show how well he’s come to understand this job in the couple months he’s been volunteering for us.

When I last checked in here, we were fighting a battle to get #10 to come out the pen and stop being frightened of the gate; a battle that Brooke and I eventually won. She now pops out the pen with the zeal all of the other birds have. All but one.

Ironically, almost as soon as #10 came around, #11 decided to take her place. However, unlike #10, she doesn’t seem scared of the gate. When the gates open, she’s content to stay in the back of the wet pen while everyone else goes out to train. Some days she eventually comes out on her own, slowly but surely. Other days she has to be bribed out with grapes and treats. But she always eventually comes out.

But these past few days, she hit a new low. Sunday, she would not come out of pen no matter how much begging and pleadingDoug and I did. We tried offering her grapes and mealworms aplenty, but as soon as she got to the wet pen gates, she quickly turned around. And ‘herding her’ just made her uncomfortable, which is why we don’t like doing it unless everything else has failed.

Eventually, we locked her in the dry pen, but unfortunately training was already going on while this was happening. As Joe led the other five birds up and down the runway, occasionally taking off with them, #11 was pacing madly to get back in the wet pen. For one brief shining moment, we led her to the gate, but just as we opened it, she quickly got second thoughts and turned right around. Not that it mattered, by that time, training was just about finished, anyway. She never once set foot on the runway that day.

After training was over, Joe and I worked out a plan of attack. The next training morning, Tom Schultz and I will enter the pen and lock all the birds in the dry pen, bribing #11 with smelt. From there, we’ll let the birds out for training, and if #11 doesn’t come out or proves to be too hard to lead out, we’ll leave her in the pen and train her separately.

The logic behind this plan was that #11 is apparently behind all the other birds, who are all either flying or at least catching ground effect after the trike. All she can do is frantically run after the trike, which could be starting to demoralize her as she watches her older penmates effortlessly and gracefully soar after the trike. Or, in some cases, (#4, 5 and 6 I’m looking at you three) would fly without the trike. She may have also taken bottom rung in the social trike hierarchy, which would also be a turn off. So maybe what #11 needed was a little one-on-one time where she could move at her own pace.

That brings us up to Sunday morning. With some effort and some smelt, Tom and I got all six birds in the dry pen. But ultimately, #11 still wouldn’t come out with the other birds and didn’t want to be led out. So we opted for Plan B: Train her separately.

But then, on a whim, Joe decided to let her out halfway through training, just to see if she’d come. Much to our surprise, she came out with gusto. But what she did next surprised us even more.

Without really waiting for the trike, she got up, took off, and landed out in the marsh. Once we put the other birds back, Joe and I set off into the wilderness to try and find her. Joe thought she’d landed out towards the end of the runway. Since Joe couldn’t see her from the air, I spent a good five minutes poking around in brush and thickets, trying to see where she was hiding. Imagine our surprise (and maybe embarrassment) when we found she was hiding behind the wetpen the whole time. With a little smelt and some corralling, we led her back to the runway.

Joe felt she was ready to follow the trike and so wanted another chance to train with her, but ut just as Tom and I were about to back into the pen, #11 took off and landed out behind the wetpen again. Joe hadn’t even started up the trike yet.

Undaunted, I went out to get her, and once again, with a little help from Tom and Joe, we got her back on the runway. But two or three runs later with the trike, #11 vanished off into the marsh again. Neither Joe or I saw where she went. She went behind the treeline, and that was the last we saw her.

Joe looked for her high and low from his trike, but turned up absolutely nothing. So it was Tom’s and my job to venture out into the marsh to find her again. Joe even recruited Doug, who was out in the blind, to give him and hand and look along the ground with him, as he felt the trike might’ve been scaring her into hiding, something birds occasionally do when they’re lost.

Without any better ideas, I traipsed all through the marsh, climbing over ankle-twisting hummocks and thick shrubs for any sign of our little delinquent. But no luck. To make matters worse, the humidity was steaming up my visor and my glasses, forcing me to stop every couple feet to wipe both of them so I didn’t feel like I was wandering through a fog.

By this time I was starting to flash back to the time last year when all the birds scattered to the wind (on 9/11 of all days). The day when Caleb and #1 got lost in the woods. I was deeply worried we were going to be all day beating every bush looking for this bird. On one hand, she couldn’t have flown too far; she was still only just learning how to fly. But on the other hand, she had no transmitter. If we couldn’t spot her from the air, we had no way of tracking her and she could wander anywhere while we tried to find her.

Once again, enter our white knight: Tom. As he was going down a path out in the marsh, who should walk out in front of him, but #11. Apparently, she was willing to count that as ‘being anywhere’. What made it even more amazing was, she followed Tom right back onto the runway without missing a step or a moment’s pause. Once she was back out on the runway, she turned to the pen and let Tom lead her back inside. The world was saved once more.

There are a couple of things that astonish me about this story. One, that #11 can fly. As I said, up until now she had just been running after the trike, only occasionally catching ground effect. This was the first time either of us had seen #11 take to the skies this easily. Secondly, that she had so little loyalty to the trike that she took off into the marsh, not once, not twice, but THREE times in a row. I’ve never seen a bird with a rebellious streak like that.

Joe remarked on 1-11, who on that ill-fated training session last year, made a beeline into the woods past the trike, past the other birds, past the pen for no apparent reason. But to me, this was different. In order for #1 to bolt like that, something must’ve scared him. What it was, only he knows for sure. 11-12 wasn’t scared of anything on that runway. I think she just had other plans than following the trike. The third surprise was how quickly and readily she followed Tom. As he tells the story, as soon as she saw him she was right on his heels. He didn’t have to offer smelt or grapes. She was just that happy to see him.

Now, despite our costumes, the birds can still tell the difference between me, Joe, and Tom. Between our mannerisms, different size, make of our costumes, and puppets, there are certain features that distinguish us from each other that the birds pick up on. Perhaps that bird recognized Tom as the guy who wasn’t the one trying to lead her or coral her, and decided to follow the costume that was ‘nice’. It is kind of funny to think of it as a good cop/bad cop scenario. Or, Joe and I as the stuffy parents, and Tom as the cool uncle. All I know is, if #11 decides to run off again, I hope Tom isn’t far away.

Now where does this leave us? One thing’s for sure, we’re not training her by herself any more. As we’ve learned, #11 has a funny concept of ‘moving at her own pace’ – which happens to be not on the runway. We’ll still lead her out with smelt, since she loves them to pieces. But we are going to have to think outside the box of ‘open the doors and hide behind them as the birds come out’. Perhaps if she sees another costume outside the pen, she’ll be happier to come out. Indeed, she was one of the birds who came out when Richard and I were experimenting with that technique. We just need to stand closer to the pen doors so we’re not racing the birds back in the pen.

Will it keep her from leaving the runway? Only time will tell. But now that we know she has penchant for doing that, Joe stands a chance of being ready to intercept her from the air if she does. If nothing else, I’m at least proud that she can fly again though nonplussed as to why she was holding out until now.

OFFICIALLY FLEDGED

Joe’s recent training report noted that they had finally had a morning with some calm cool for once. “In fact,” he said, it was 63 degrees.” Joe said that the cohort was on the verge of flying, and the advent of the cool air and light wind helped.

Cooler air is more dense than warm air and the oxygen particles are closer together. This helps the birds breathe and gives them something thicker to push against when they pump their wings.

We lined up at the east end of the runway and did a high speed taxi the entire length. They were perfectly on the wing so we all took off together. All but one flew a short circuit out over the marsh, and this time they all made it back. I couldn’t tell which one stayed behind but it is safe to say that they have now all now fledged. They have finally learned what those big, floppy feathered things are for.”

A fully fledged cohort – – something to Give a WHOOP! about!!

Below, three of the Class of 2012 ultra-cranes fly in ground effect air alongside one of Operation Migration’s small aircraft.

ALMOST AIRBORNE

The wings on our aircraft are big and cumbersome, and when we train the birds at Patuxent we do it without the wings. That allows us to train on most days even if it’s windy. When I came out to White River earlier this summer to prepare the pen and get ready for the birds I had a chance to train them once or twice. In the new surroundings, everything is different for them so we leave the wing off the trike for a few days so it’s more familiar. It only takes a short time to get them accustomed to that massive appendage over their heads and they are soon relaxed.

There is something horribly wrong about an aircraft without a wing. It’s like removing its only asset and leaving it as mundane as anything else that can’t fly. We are always anxious to get it back into its intended flying configuration, and yesterday was my first chance to train the birds in a proper aircraft.

All of them, including the diminutive number 11, are flying in ground effect. Because the smooth surface of the runway helps reduce drag on their wings, they are able to fly just above the grass. They don’t yet have the stamina to climb up and make a circuit but they can glide beside the trike as it races down the runway.

The wind was blowing from the northeast , and when the birds came out of the pen together the breeze inspired them to take off before I was able to take the lead. I taxied down behind them more like the student than the teacher.

I led them back to the downwind end and turned around for a second run, but they took off again, anxious to fly. Once again I led them back, but this time I walked while pulling the aircraft. They seem to know that we were not going anywhere if I was not sitting in it, and I wanted to keep them calm long enough to get a head start.

They perked up when I climbed in but I was able to distract them with grapes long enough to maneuver in front of them. From there I could take the lead and they all flew beside the aircraft in a precursor of what is to come in only a few days.

After a little rest, we did one more run into the wind, but this time I took off hoping they would follow. A few did make a big circle out over the tall grass before landing back on the runway. Number four went farther than any of them, but as a result, did not make it back. He ran out of steam and landed in the tall grass. I flew over their heads and landed at the other end to avoid any risk of hitting one. They all flew to the aircraft once it stopped, except number four. We taxied down to see where he was and soon he came walking out from the reeds and flew to meet us.

The wind was picking up and it was getting hot so it was time to end the session. I can’t wait for that moment when they lift off and find the sweet spot off the wing tip. It reminds me of gently releasing my daughter’s bicycle on the first day she left the training wheels behind. It is a pivotal moment when both my daughter and the birds discover their freedom.

TAXI TRAINING SOON TO BE FLIGHT TRAINING

July 23rd’s Chick Record notes that all the birds readily came out of pen for training except #11 who lingered in wet pen but eventually made her own way out to runway. Joe noted that the chicks seemed to be hot, not flying or flapping after the trike as much as they normally do with #4 and #5 visibly open mouth breathing. He reported that #11 did ‘catch some air’ but was still mostly just running and flapping after the trike.

The photos below come to us compliments of OM volunteer, Doug Pellerin.