Down Day in Carroll Co., TN

Both Richard and Brooke got airborne this morning to check conditions because despite weather predictions, the actual conditions aren’t always in line with what the meteorologists tell us. This morning, however, they were accurate, as both pilots reported a ground speed of only 14mph on course to our next stop in Harden Co., TN.

The next scheduled migration is 67 miles to the south and at that speed it would take more than 4 hours to reach. Since each aircraft carries only enough fuel for 3 hours, well, now you know why the team will be spending the day on the ground.

We have a number of new people following us this year so I though it would be nice to again include this recent video produced by the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) to showcase their support of our work over the years. Together with Southern Company (SoCo) and the Power of Flight grant fund, NFWF & SoCo have provided consistent funding to support our efforts. We hope you are as appreciative as we are for their support to make this reintroduction possible.


DATE: Nov 8, 2012 – Entry 2 MIGRATION DAY 42
FLOWN TODAY: 53 miles ACCUMULATED: 569 miles
LOCATION: Carroll County, TN REPORTER: Liz Condie

After a very delayed start due to lingering fog, the Class of 2012 touched down for the first time in Tennessee around 11:30 AM. We passed the half way mark during today’s flight. Air mile-wise at least, the migration is half over!

The pilots waited for more than 2 hours before they could launch to fly the 11 mile back to the pensite. Lead pilot, Brooke Pennypacker got off with all five cranes, but due to the rough air, 3 quickly became tired and they began open mouth breathing. However they continued to chase the bouncing trike, and eventually they reached an altitude of calmer air and the birds were able to catch their breath.

They spent the flight dodging clouds – practically the whole trip. The clouds spooked the birds. That meant continually having to get the birds to form up again on the wing.

When they started the descent toward the landing field they encountered a lot of thermal activity and at one point the trike was climbing at a few hundred feet per minute. This was the birds’ first experience thermaling and they sure enjoyed it. While the trikes landed the birds continued to thermal and circled above the trikes until 3 of them disappeared into a cloud.

Brooke took off again and climbed up and rounded up 2 of the cranes that eventually left the thermal and joined the wing. He circled repeatedly until the other three also joined the wing and then began the descent. Soon all the birds were on the ground and Brooke hid with the birds while Richard, John, and Walt set up the pen.

Richard and Brooke the led the birds to the pen before flying off to the airport to hangar the trikes.

At 2:30 PM we still have vehicles and crew on the road….Walter and John are backtracking to Kentucky to pick up the Sierra travel trailer.

Issue du Jour…

is FOG.

but once that clears it’s looking like a flight to Tennessee is quite possible. The pilots are enroute to the airport where our aircraft have been tucked away inside and will wait out the fog. As soon as it does clear they’ll be airborne to check winds aloft but at this point they shouldn’t be an issue.

UPDATE: Today’s lead pilot, Brooke Pennypacker launched with all five young cranes at 9:21 CT and they are currently winging their way into Tennessee!
As the team is expected to cross the halfway point in Tennessee today, one very generous supporter, who happens to live in Tennessee has issued a MileMaker challenge! She has offered to MATCH every MileMaker sponsorship to a total of 3 miles! Sponsor a 1/4 mile – it becomes a 1/2 mile. Sponsor a 1/2 mile – it becomes a FULL mile, and if you sponsor a full mile – it becomes TWO miles!

Visit the MileMaker page to take part in this very generous challenge!

And speaking of matching challenges – Another anonymous supporter has issued a Give A WHOOP! Challenge! Beginning today, each and every Give A WHOOP contribution (to a total of 50) will be DOUBLED!  WHOOP once, it becomes TWO. WHOOP 10 times – it becomes 20. To take advantage of this amazing challenge visit our new secure donation gateway and sign in using the login name/passcode you have created, OR if you don’t already have an account, click to create one.

Once inside, use the dropdown menu at the top of the welcome screen and select ‘Donate Give A WHOOP!’

Foiled again

The crew was hopeful of advancing into Tennessee this morning. Unfortunately it was not the case as small, pop-up rain showers kept, well, popping up along their intended flight path. They will have to wait to see what tomorrow has in store for them.



DATE: Nov 6, 2012 – Entry 2 MIGRATION DAY 40
FLOWN TODAY: 63 miles ACCUMULATED: 516 miles
LOCATION: Marshall County, KY REPORTER: Richard van Heuvelen

First there were wisps of fog floating over the river below. Then rolling hills gave way to bigger and craggier hills. At times the chicks struggled to stay on top of the wing vortices. They were flung out and away from the wing, sometimes up or down, and then sideways at weird angles contorting themselves in crazy attitudes to stay with the wing.

Although the air was seemingly calm, something was amiss. Perhaps the dampness in the air was changing how the air was sliding off the wing tip, or maybe it was due to the wing stalling at a higher air speed. At any rate they were displaying great skill with their aerobatics and I watched them with intense interest and envy.

As the miles slowly ticked by we came upon a large factory spewing billows of steam way up into the sky so we climbed higher to stay above the resulting white  clouds. The intensity of the whiteness reflected off of the wing and the chicks, making them stand out against the gray sky with a stark almost iridescent glow.

As time went on we began a slow descent, and the chicks settled down for the final cruise to our next stopover site. After what seemed to be an eternity on this bleak gray morning, we landed on the harvested bean field and hid away while we waited for the ground crew to set up the travel pen.

After a migration leg of 63 miles, and reaching our second and last stop in Kentucky, we have to call today a great day.


DATE: Nov 6, 2012 – Entry 1 MIGRATION DAY 40
FLOWN TODAY: 63 miles ACCUMULATED: 516 miles
LOCATION: Marshall County, KY REPORTER: Liz Condie

A morning that began with, ‘maybe we can fly’ turned into a successful flight and another migration leg behind us. Richard van Heuvelen was lead pilot this morning and his update will be posted between 4 and 5PM.

In the meantime, the Class of 2012 are all settled into their pen, and the pilots are enroute to a nearby airfield to hangar the trikes. Trackers John Cooper and Walter Sturgeon have followed them on the ground to pick them up and tote them to our campsite.

With the exception of David Boyd who is hauling the Sierra travel trailer behind the white diesel truck, the rest of the crew, Geoff, Julie, Colleen, and Linda, are all getting organized here at camp.

Today’s flight put us just 34.5 air miles short of the migration’s half way point. We’ll reach that mark about 65% of the way to the next stop in Carroll County, TN. In case you haven’t been keeping track, November 6th is 32 days earlier than the date on which we arrived here in Marshall County last year.


For many years researchers have pondered the complexities of avian migration. Exactly what natural stimulus triggers their departure remains a mystery, along with what navigation aids they use to find their way. But the birds don’t trouble themselves too much with questions of how and when. Instead they simply open their wings and leave.

For them there are no arrangements to be made, no long goodbyes, or doors to lock. Theirs is an uncomplicated existence. They have a built in transportation system. The two legs sticking out the bottom are perfectly designed for wading through the water where most of their food is kept, and two more appendages sticking out the sides that are ideally suited for avoiding winter. It is a far different story for us.

Maybe when we were assigned arms instead of wings, life became complicated for us. We can’t fly without special equipment and our man-made wings are far less efficient. And relying of reasoning instead of instinct has led to a whole raft of problems. To accomplish the same migration that they take for granted, requires much more effort on our part and a lot of extra paraphernalia.

To move everything we need and provide accommodation for the team we need two trucks, three motorhomes, and four trailers. Each of these vehicles requires service and repairs. If you remember an update I wrote a few months ago about the white van, some are more repair prone than others.

The most reliable of all of them is our tracking van. It is a 2001 GMC Safari van. It has all wheel drive, a six cylinder engine and a back tailgate that is just large enough to accommodate a crane crate. For some unknown reason General Motors stopped producing them in 2004.

Ours was originally purchased by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and we were able to borrow it for the first three years of the project. It was then decommissioned so we bought it at their surplus auction in the spring of 2005. It now has 200,000 plus miles on the odometer and it still keeps running. Mind you it is looking a little rough around the edges with missing interior panels and a few quirks like intermittent door locks.

Each year we try to budget to replace the tracking van but that is not easy. Modern minivans have a lower roof line and not enough internal space to hold crates, and full size vans do not have all wheel drive. Two advantages that are critical.

We’ve been constantly checking the want ads for a good replacement with lower mileage, but they are rare. We have even been known to stop people on the street to ask if they want to sell their vans, but we repeatedly get the same answer. “Absolutely not, in fact I am looked for another myself.”

I dropped my daughter off at school one day and followed the owner of a shiny black Safari back to the local funeral home where it was parked next to an identical van. His response to my question was the same. In fact he asked if ours was for sale. He has had both of his rebuilt because there are no other vehicles that work as well for carrying crane crates, or the recently deceased.

Once the birds are strong enough to possibly skip stopovers, we use the tracking van to pull the second travel pen trailer. That way we can have a pen set up a half hour after we land, wherever we end up. With the birds and aircraft making 40 miles per hour in a straight line, the tracking van has a tough time keeping pace while negotiating side roads, traffic and stop sign so it takes a lot of abuse.

One of these days it is going to give up on us so we have stepped up our search. One of our supporters has provided us with some funding to help defray the costs if we can ever find one. So if your neighbor has a nice looking 2004 vintage Safari with low mileage and no idea of what a treasure they own, do us a favor and ask if they want to part with it for a good cause.



DATE: Nov 5, 2012 – Entry 1 MIGRATION DAY 39 / Down Day 1
FLOWN TODAY: 0 miles ACCUMULATED: 453 miles
LOCATION: Union County, KY REPORTER: Liz Condie

As we checked the radar this morning we watched a storm cell moving toward us from the northwest. With what appeared to be favorable winds, Brooke and Richard launched to fly the several miles to the pensite. It was only minutes however before they decided a flight wasn’t doable and they turned and headed back to the hangar. So much for wishing…..


DATE: Nov 4, 2012 – Entry 3 MIGRATION DAY 38
FLOWN TODAY: 45 miles ACCUMULATED: 453 miles
LOCATION: Union County, KY REPORTER: Brooke Pennypacker

The ability to look into the future would really come in handy sometimes…like every morning before I get out of bed. But the closest thing I ever had to a crystal ball was a souvenir my sister brought back from her 8th Grade class trip to Washington. It was a little liquid filled orb containing the Capitol Building. One quick shake and I created a snow storm so severe that D.C. area schools had to close for a week. I could have made some serious money if only I had been more bullish on snow removal.

So much for crystal balls…..until yesterday, when Geoff showed the new Magic Eight Ball App he got for his smart phone. “Will #6 fly tomorrow?”, I asked. Geoff gave his phone a magic shake and held it an inch from my nose. “Most probably” it said. Cool! I followed with a few more questions in an effort to gauge its credibility, and back came more answers, all in the affirmative.  The app was obviously written by a politician, but no matter. I need all the optimism I can get.

And so it was with great confidence that this morning I gave the release sign to Geoff and Julie and throttled up down the runway as the birds blasted out of the pen in hot pursuit. Had Geoff shared his Magic Eight Ball App with #6, I wondered, for although she required some coaxing maneuvers early on, she was soon back in her groove as we headed off for Kentucky and our new “old Kentucky home”.

A slight tailwind pushed us over a landscape seemingly cloaked in a brown gauze which added a haunting quality to the effort as the sun tried in vain to punch through the clouds. This was the last of the Illinois flat, with its secure, benevolent, even welcoming fields; where a forced landing or a downed bird was more inconvenience than challenge for the ultralight.

I smiled when I passed over the motel where Bev and I spent a night those years ago when we were scouting the new route…a motel so dirty we crawled into bed fully dressed and when I attempted to trade in the wash cloth sized towel for a real one the little desk clerk just laughed and gave me another just as small. Surely there must exist a language somewhere where migration is defined as the collection of memories.

Soon we landed.  I “hid” the birds, walking them across the adjacent ag field to play while Richard, Joe and John put up the pen…and play they did, for the field has been recently plowed and the soft earth is the Promised Land to the chicks whose greatest pleasure in life, it would seem, is to probe their beaks deep into it. They follow their beaks back and forth with the intensity of an old man sweeping the beach with a metal detector; their prize the occasional spent shotgun shell or flattened plastic soda bottle which they snatch up in their beak, holding their trophy high with an almost comical pride as they strut and dance their little victories. I knelt down and enjoyed the sight of these little dramas, probably more than they do, while feeling a tinge of guilt at having such pleasure while the others work hard and fast to set up the pen.

All too soon the drama was over. I saw Richard on the rise motioning us that the pen is ready and we begin our return from the Promised Land.

At the airport, the camp is quickly established and the team goes off for breakfast. “Hey Geoff! Will we be flying tomorrow?” I ask. A magic shake of his hand and his phone is again an inch from my nose.

“Most Probably”.


DATE: Nov 4, 2012 – Entry 2 MIGRATION DAY 38
FLOWN TODAY: 45 miles ACCUMULATED: 453 miles
LOCATION: Union County, KY REPORTER: Liz Condie

Following a successful flight, the cranes and planes are on the ground at our first stop in Kentucky. As of 9:39 AM, the Class of 2012 are safely away in their travel pen and the aircraft tucked up in their hangar. Tune back in this afternoon for lead pilot Brooke Pennypacker’s posting about this morning’s flight.

Kentucky Bound!

At 6:42 Central time all five Whooping cranes departed Wayne County, IL with today’s lead pilot Brooke Pennypacker. They are currently winging their way to Union County, KY.

Tune in later for a more detailed report!

Addendum: all landed safely in Union Co., KY after a flight time of 1:11


DATE: Nov 3, 2012 – Entry 1 MIGRATION DAY 37 / Down Day 2
FLOWN TODAY: 0 miles ACCUMULATED: 408 miles
LOCATION: Wayne County, IL REPORTER: Liz Condie

Winds that were not particularly favorable were supplanted by rain as the ultimate deterrent for a flight this morning. Kentucky is so tantalizingly close, but reaching our first stopover in that state is not in the cards for us today.


Dear O.M.!
I should’ve written this email earlier this year to say thanks to pilot Brooke for his selflessness in helping us newbie craniacs understand what OM is.  
I live close to the Wheeler Wildlife Refuge in Decatur, Alabama. I read about OM this time last year when it was published in our local paper that west Alabama was on the migration path. I was disappointed that it wasn’t going to be in our area, but was still excited to learn about OM and decided to follow your website.

As it turned out, the cranes ended up being brought in about 5 miles from where I live, so  I knew that I could not miss such a rare opportunity and made several trips to the Wildlife Refuge to see them. On one occasion, Brooke was in the observation building viewing the cranes. He was so kind in taking the time to answer our questions – ones I’m sure  he’s heard hundreds of times! I know that he had the world on his shoulders worrying about the cranes, but his kindness with us strangers will always be remembered.
I was lucky enough to see all of the cranes take flight one morning at WNWR as they flew from one field to another, and it was truly an amazing sight. They are beautiful creatures!
What all of you do is awe-inspiring.  The whooping cranes are lucky to have such a dedicated group of people fighting for their survival.

Please let them know that they have a lot of people rooting for their success, and are praying for their safety. Thanks again!


They say that a great salesperson is one who can sell a refrigerator to an Eskimo. You know the type. You step out of the shower to answer the door and a half an hour later you own a new set of encyclopaedias.  A good salesperson can sell anything and even though you may later wish that you hadn’t succumbed to their charms, at least you are left with something of value.

Fundraisers for non-profit organizations are sales people too but their assignment is far more difficult. Their product isn’t something tangible that you can use or resell. Instead they provide you with the means to give back to your community, protect something you hold dear or share the good fortune life has bestowed on you. Or maybe all you are after is the small tax shelter that the IRS allows on donations.

For most people, charitable giving comes after personal needs and those of their family and friends. If times are tough, their first priority is, and should be, paying the bills. That is generally followed by ensuring their future, with investments or retirement bonds and maybe an indulgence or two. As it should be, it is not until those more pressing needs are in good order that many people will consider philanthropy.  So it could be said that giving to charities is a luxury item. Something considered after more important issues are addressed.

A breakdown of donations to non-profits by category indicates that giving to environment/conservation and animal related causes, totalled 2 percent  of all annual donations in 2010 (US Department of the Interior 2010). The vast majority of that small allotment is used to purchase and protect habitat by organizations like Ducks Unlimited and the Nature Conservancy. This leaves a very small share for non-profits like Operation Migration.

Each of the members of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership brings a critical expertise to the table and each is responsible for the financial means to provide that service. Operation Migration brings the manpower and the experience to teach birds to migrate and the funding to make that happen. Our support does not come from Federal or State taxes, but from people who believe in this cause and are willing to put their money where their heart is.

Leading birds with an ultralight aircraft appeals to many people. It may be the interaction of man and animal or the great adventure of flying halfway across the county. Whatever the attraction, we have a large audience of loyal supporter lovingly referred to as Craniacs. These people have dug deep to help us carry on and even given up personal indulgences to ensure that Whooping cranes will endure on our landscape. But economic times are tough and costs go up, and like most small nonprofits, Operation Migration has to work very hard to stay afloat.

The profits of any small business will be limited by the size of the neighborhood it serves. The number of cars they can sell or roofs they can replace is proportionate to the size of the population they serve. The answer to expanding a business like that lays in increasing their service area. The business term for that is market saturation and to some degree it also applies to us. We have a limited number of very loyal supporters and we are extremely grateful to them. But just as their ability to support their own needs is limited by the economy, so too is their ability to support their favorite charitable causes. So if expanding our audience is the answer, how do we do that?

Three times in the course of this project we have been a hot topic in the National news. The first was when the project began and no one had heard of such a novel approach to wildlife reintroduction. The second was when we lost an entire generation of birds to a freak storm in Florida in 2007. The last time was when the FAA questioned the legality of flying for hire in light sport aircraft and then worked so hard to find a solution in a set of rules that couldn’t anticipate the need to use aircraft to teach birds to migrate.

The publicity generated by these events helped promote the cause of safeguarding Whooping cranes and that helped us expand our audience. Losing birds was a high price to pay for increased awareness and thank heaven those events don’t come up often. So if we can’t rely on regular media coverage to spread the word and we don’t have the budget for advertising, how do we make more people aware of this cause? Luckily social media is providing an answer, however it is not one that guarantees success.

Despite the claims of experts, I don’t think anyone can predict when a particular internet post will capture the interest of the vast web audience and send the number of hits into the millions. We believe that our story can do that but how do we make it happen? There is no formula for success and it is difficult to build a business plan on something so unpredictable, but if we can provide a continuous live video feed of the birds, both on the ground and in the air, our audience should grow. We changed the format of our Field Journal for that reason and made it easier to share and more accessible on mobile devices, but that’s not enough.

The problem is that providing a live feed of birds in a secluded pen, somewhere off the beaten path is not an easy task. It is hard enough at White River Marsh where we can use a radio transmitter to reach our DSL line at our camp, 4 miles away. But it is doubly hard while on the migration when we must rely on intermittent cell signals.  We are also limited by battery life and the amount of bandwidth we are allowed on the datacards we use to connect.

That is a lot of information being sent over the cell system and it is not hard to use more than your plan covers. If you have ever maxed out your phone, you know how quickly that can become expensive. As well, maintaining the camera takes a lot of staff time. Getting it up and running on one of the aircraft, between the time we decide to go and the when the aircraft lift off, is sometimes a panic. One glitch, and there are many when you broadcast remotely, and we have a audience staring at a blank screen.

Our audience has increased dramatically this year and often there are five hundred people watching, but our ambition is five thousand. We are investing a lot of money and staff time into the camera. A good part of that investment of time is donated by Mike Deline who volunteers many of his weekends to keep the camera running, but it still comes at a high cost. We also have to thank Colleen Chase, Terry Johnson, Jo Bellemer , Sue Walsh, Cindy Loken, and other more recently added camera drivers, for their hours of dedication over the summer. See below for a list of the people who give up their time to support the camera.

During the migration, we draw our largest audience but that only lasts two or three months. It is a risky undertaking with no way of knowing if, or when it will begin to pay off. And as one of our Board members pointed out, hope is not a strategy.

So once again we are asking our core audience, the people who support us to the best of their ability, to share our site with others and help us grow the audience until it reaches that magical, unknown number when the return is greater than the investment.

Special thanks to all the people that assist with the camera: Colleen Chase, Malcolm Strickland, Sue Walsh, Suzanne Elsea, Terry Johnson, Dan Harvey, Ella Moyes, Cindy Loken, Jo-Anne (Jo) Bellemer, Frederick Wasti, Peggy Main, Jeanne Husted, and Rich Smith.


DATE: Nov 2, 2012 – Entry 1 MIGRATION DAY 36 / Down Day 1
FLOWN TODAY: 0 miles ACCUMULATED: 408 miles
LOCATION: Wayne County, IL REPORTER: Liz Condie

Optimism turned to disappointment this morning shortly after Richard launched in the test trike. As I stood with the little group gathered at the departure flyover site, Richard’s voice came over the aviation radio calling off the wind direction and speed he was getting aloft. NE 30 to 40 mph was not what we expected or hoped for. The pilots’ commentary was short and sweet – ‘We’re down.”