MIGRATION DAY 78 – DOWN DAY 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FRUSTRATION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MIGRATION DAY 77 – OH MY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned…

ROUNDING UP

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

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

THE ‘LOST’ IS FOUND

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

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

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

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

MIGRATION DAY 76 – DOWN DAY 2

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

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

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

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

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

PREDICTING

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

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

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

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

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.