REUNITING

“Are you really going to the reunion dressed like that?” came the voice of my imaginary friend from the back seat of the trike. The very same voice that shouts into my ear, “Don’t you think the engine is running a little rough?” every time I fly low over the water, or just above the tree tops. That’s the trouble with imaginary friends. They’re always into your business. “Zip it, Truman.” I replied. “ It’s the only clean costume I’ve got left. And besides, it’s only been two weeks since I last saw the chicks.”

This project is nothing if not an endless series of reunions; not just with the chicks, but with crew members, campers, migration stopover hosts, project partners, and pieces of geography. And let’s face it, reunions are just an essential thread in the fabric of any migration. I’ve spent the last two weeks moving campers and my car to Wisconsin, seeing family and friends, and generally making my annual attempt at maintaining what could best be described as a tenuous grip on a real life , perhaps as insurance for the day when this project ends and I need one…while also serving as a reminder of how important it is not to forget the combination of the lock on your storage container.

Reunions, of course, are all about change. But nothing changes faster…not even the weather…than a Whooper chick. They grow at an incredible rate. If my aunts and uncles grew at the same rate, they’d be flying helicopter tours up my Uncle Ray’s nose and discontinuing them to the depths of my Aunt Paulin’s cleavage for fear of disturbing the condors. It’s all relative, I guess, but then relatives are usually what reunions are all about.

Last Tuesday was Chick Reunion Day. When the pen doors flew open and the chicks spilled out onto the runway , I was shocked to see they had grown so much that they resembled a pack of Velociraptors awaiting a curtain call for their big scene in “Jurassic Park 3”. What have Geoff and Richard been feeding them anyway, I wondered? Small children and radioactive isotopes?!?! Pretty soon we’re going to need a bigger pen, trade this trike in on a 747, and exchange my puppet for a whip and a chair while screaming, “Back, Zelda….Back!” at the beginning of each training session. Suddenly, I know what it feels like to be a meal worm.

“Hey Gang… remember me? I come in Peace!” The chicks just stood staring at me and I would swear I heard #4 say to #5, “Just look at that pathetic little begger would ya. He SHRUNK!”

Guess that’s the thing about reunions…nobody can expect to break into a time capsule without shedding a little blood. But reunions do bridge the crease between our shadow and our reflection, revealing more about ourselves than about others, and though that may not always be an easy pill to swallow, it does make for one hell of a ride.
My heart was in my throat as I stepped down hard on the gas pedal and roared down the runway, managing to stay just inches ahead of the thundering herd.

That’s when I heard #10 call over to #11, “Wonder what he tastes like?”

“Chicken.”

‘GATE HOMEWORK’ FOR 10-12

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

Just when you think you know a bird like the back of your hand, they can still sometimes surprise you. Don’t believe me? Just ask 10-12

The first week or so training, she was a model chick; one of the first ones to come out the for trike, and one of the closer followers. Every once in a while when she first came outside, she’d hang back by the pen. I’m betting clean money she was trying to figure out where the nice costumes who let her outside vanished to. But in the end, she would realize that she was getting left alone out in the runway and missing all the fun, and would run after the trike. So, one would think she would keep up the good work, right? Wellll…

Last week, something in her changed. One morning when Doug and I opened the gates for training she wouldn’t leave the pen. She’d stop as though there was an invisible wall blocking her way out. Eventually, Richard was able to lead her out with a bribe of few smelt and meal worms. Once she was outside, she followed the trike beautifully, just like she always had. Richard, Doug and I were a little fuddled. But we considered it a fluke and just let her be.

But each day told the same story. All the birds would burst through gates while 10-12 putz’d around in the dry pen, staring down at the ground. Richard tried any number of different release tricks to make her more enthusiastic about coming out. The one he favored was opening the pen doors himself, while Doug and I sat behind the trike flapping our sleeves and giving out grapes and mealworms. It got the other five birds’ attention…10-12’s…not so much. Our luck with her hit an all-time low when Doug and I spent ten minutes trying to lead her outside while Brooke conducted training with the other five birds. And keep in mind that once she got out the pen, she trained beautifully like nothing was wrong. For whatever reason, she would not go through those doors.

Brooke and I talked it over, and based on what we saw, and her behavior with the trike, we decided that she seemed to be scared of something. Certainly not the trike, so we figured it was the door, since that’s where she always stopped short. So we decided to give her some in and out training with the gate.

You may’ve seen us via the CraneCam dropping the pen gate and letting the birds out so they can flap and run along the runway. The whole purpose of that exercise was to get 10-12 used to coming out the gate again. And she did wonderfully. First time we let the birds out, she was one of the first ones to come out. Once she was out, we tried to make the experience as positive as we could by feeding them treats and letting them shoot up and down the runway. 4-12 and 5-12 seemed to enjoy the latter, as they would sometimes flap out in the horizon and leave everyone else in the dust. Eventually, they came back (they were never in any rush). Every now and then, 10-12 seemed ever so slightly uneasy to pass through the gate. But ultimately, she did it every time. We continued this routine during morning training and roost checks for the past few days, hoping she’d get her rhythm back. But the only way to know for sure whether the extra gate sessions did the trick was to let her out during training.

That takes us to this past Friday morning’s training. It would be the first day 10-12 would be let out with the trike after her in-and-out sessions. After waiting patiently for an hour for the fog to lift, Doug and I let the birds out of their pen. I waited with bated breath as I watched the first four birds flap out of the pen. When I didn’t see 10-12 out with them, I tilted my head slightly around the door to see where she was. And there, just around the corner, I could see 10-12 slowly stepping through the gate, lifting her legs gingerly and looking down at the ground as if to make sure the earth beneath her wasn’t going to bite. After that, Brooke had them right where he wanted them.

I’m not sure what could’ve made 10-12 scared of the door in the first place. There were no episodes of her getting caught in the door or anything like that. But sometimes these things can be so subtle, you may not even notice them. She could’ve been pushed into the door by an overzealous bird coming out for training. I could easily imagine 5-12, her perennial archrival, arbitrarily jabbing her in the neck just to show her who’s boss as she’s trying to come out for training. Or who knows – the gate could’ve been making noises she didn’t like. It did creak a little every time it opened, plus, the latch is so difficult to close, you have to really push against it to shut it tight. Watching the doors bang (not loudly, mind you) and bulge from inside the pen maybe was a little rattling.

But whatever it was put her off, I hope those one or two baby steps I saw her take on Friday were the her first steps to getting back on track.

SUMMER TRAINING

In his write up of the daily chick records, Geoff reported that Tuesday, the Class of 2012 enjoyed a buffet of grapes, smelt, and mealworms, and that day, made six trips behind the trike. The following day was too windy to fly the trike in so there was no training.

He noted that while the rest of the chicks eagerly came out of the pen for training, handlers had to lead #10 out and she even showed reluctance to go through the gate. Happily, once on the runway, they all flapped away behind the trike with five of them flying about 200 feet. It was #11 who stopped short but she still followed the trike.

Later in the day, Geoff did some in-and-out the gate training with #10 in the hope of making her more comfortable exiting the pen.

Below you can see that at least one of the chicks is getting some ‘airtime’. The photo was captured by OM volunteer, Doug Pellerin. Thanks Doug!

TECHNOLOGY AND CRANES

Our CraneCam, originally obtained through a grant from Duke Energy, has served us well although in the past it earned the name “the Beast” for good reason. Designed as a remote security camera, it had to be modified and reconfigured to serve as a wildlife webcam. That redesign was accomplished by Heather Ray and Mike Deline of Adoni Networks. I listened to the track history of those changes, but to be honest, most of it went over my head. We are very grateful for all the work,especially to Mike who volunteered a lot of his personal time on weekends to keeping the Beast running.

Electronic technology changes almost by the minute and it seems that this project has run a year or two ahead of that market. We borrowed a prototype GPS unit from Sony for the first migration in the early 1990’s and a year or so later they were available to buy. We played with recordable chips to broadcast the brood call well before MP3 players made life so much simpler. We used HD cameras when they were heavy and expensive before mini cameras like the GoPro were available. The same is true for the CraneCam.

Mike spent the winter researching new electronics. This spring he recommended a few additional changes and they have made a huge difference. What was once a spaghetti plate of wires and boxes is now a few components, and the antennas that once lost the signal every day are now reliable. We have a consistent signal and more bandwidth with very sensitive audio, and all of that makes for a better presentation to our growing audience. The better the image that we can present, the more interest we can generate and the more we can educate people about the plight of migratory birds. So please tell your friends to tune in.

The other advantage of our camera is it gives us a means of remotely monitoring the birds and the pensite. Last year a viewer spotted a mink, and that prompted Geoff and me to install an additional layer of wire fencing. This year we have video evidence of a black bear crossing the runway.

Jim Holzwart, White River Marsh State Wildlife Area Manager, says there have been a few bear reports lately. He added that the dry weather there has reduced the blueberry crop to almost zero, and that may have sent the bears wandering farther afield for food.

Hopefully it’s a transient bear, one just passing by and the pensite is not part of its territory. The pen is made of chain-link and steel siding which will not stop an aggressive bear, but they are opportunists, and will scavenge before attacking live prey. We kept the crane food in a metal container inside one of those plastic sheds outside of the pen. Geoff has now moved that back to camp and will take each day’s ration with him in the morning.

Many years ago I worked as an assistant driller in a mine shaft that was 200 miles into the wilderness of the Yukon Territories in northern Canada. There were only two of us there, and I learned the hard way that bears are creatures of habit. Once they find a food source they will keep coming back to check it. We had one that broke into our food cache and thereafter could not be deterred, coming back every day, getting bolder with each visit. At that point you have two choices. Move the camp or remove the bear.

We don’t want that kind of encounter to happen at White River Marsh so we will keep a close watch and remove everything that might attract him. We have also asked the camera drivers to keep watch for return visits.

Vaccinations

Yesterday a team of veterinarians and technicians from the International Crane Foundation arrived at White River Marsh in time to watch the early morning training. They all hid in the blind while Richard taxied up and down the runway with six eager chicks on their daily exercise.

Before the sun rose too high and while it was still somewhat cool the birds were collected, one at a time from the dry pen and carried out the front gate and out of sight of the rest of the flock. They were vaccinated and fitted with a permanent US Fish and Wildlife metal identification band. Blood samples were taken from two of the birds. All of this sounds simple enough, but like most procedures performed by experts, it looks easier than it is.

First of all, holding a bird is part science and part art. It takes a stealthy move to collect it under your arm quickly and carefully before they have a chance to extend their wings. Then the exact amount of pressure must be applied to restrain the bird yet not squeeze it. Your arm and body control the wings while the hocks are held between the fingers. Then of course there is the experience of the vets and technicians and the practiced hands of the person bending the band into place with no protruding edges. Within minutes the birds are back in the pen and smoothing their slightly ruffled feathers and regaining their dignity.

Number 5-12 struggled the most during the procedure and he suffered some sore muscles as a result. In the afternoon he was limping noticeably and we monitored him on the camera. If fact, both Barry Hartup and I were on a WCEP conference call when the team told me of #5-12’s limp. I passed the information to Barry and several members of the WCEP Guidance Team logged onto the camera to have a look.

Number 5-12 was checked several times for signs of serious injury but started to improve slowly. He was given a dose of Piroxicam to ease the pain and was left out of the training this morning. He will get a little extra attention and hopefully will soon recover and forget whom to blame for his troubles.

TRAINING UPDATE

Based on the latest ‘chick records’ available to us, it seems the crew is rating the Class of 2012’s progress at a high level overall.

Using a 1 to 5 scale (with 5 being the highest score), all but #4-12 are averaging 5’s for attention to the handler. And all of the chicks got top marks across the board on July 15th for attention to the trike, with #4, 5, and 6 getting more distance and #7 ‘getting some air’.

In his notes, Intern Geoff Tarbox said that #10 was still a little reluctant to leave the pen but that the others all demonstrated eagerness to train and ‘hung on’ to the trike once training got started. All the chicks have learned to flap behind the trike.

OM volunteer Tom Schultz shared the photo below taken during training on July 16th showing handler/pilot Richard van Heuvelen with chick numbers 6, 7, 10, and 11. My, how they’ve grown!.

HEAT/DROUGHT HITS HORICON HARD

On TODAY’S TMJ4 website, reporter Erik Bilstad headlined a recent article, “DNR: Drought killing thousands of fish, birds

With a dateline from Horicon Marsh, the article quoted officials with the Department of Natural Resources as saying that severe drought was having a major impact on Wisconsin’s wildlife system. Read the article here.

Low water levels have resulted in thousands of fish dying and exposed mud flats which contain the Botulism bacteria. The birds, mostly ducks, get infected with this bacteria and die. To minimize the outbreak, refuge staff are collecting dead and dying birds and fish. Refuge officials hope they can get through the summer without a major die-off of birds.

Officials advise there is no human safety concern, but it is still not advisable to touch any carcasses of any kind.

Last week’s drought monitor map places Horicon and White River Marsh in the moderate to severe drought category. To view the drought monitor map click here.

The Class of 2011 is not at Horicon March. #7, 10, and 12 are in Marquette County, and based on a hit on the PTT worn by 4-11, it is believed that she, and possibly also #3, 5, and 6, have moved to the south shore of Lake Superior. 2-11 was last reported in Portage County, WI and 1-11 has not been located since departing Alabama for the spring migration back north.

July 19 – Correction: It appears there may have been an errant PTT hit on 4-11. The latest recording has her at Horicon.

VACCINATIONS

Yesterday a team of veterinarians and technicians from the International Crane Foundation arrived at White River Marsh in time to watch the early morning training. They all hid in the blind while Richard taxied up and down the runway with six eager chicks on their daily exercise.

Before the sun rose too high and while it was still somewhat cool the birds were collected, one at a time from the dry pen and carried out the front gate and out of sight of the rest of the flock. They were vaccinated and fitted with a permanent US Fish and Wildlife metal identification band. Blood samples were taken from two of the birds. All of this sounds simple enough, but like most procedures performed by experts, it looks easier than it is.

First of all, holding a bird is part science and part art. It takes a stealthy move to collect it under your arm quickly and carefully before they have a chance to extend their wings. Then the exact amount of pressure must be applied to restrain the bird yet not squeeze it. Your arm and body control the wings while the hocks are held between the fingers. Then of course there is the experience of the vets and technicians and the practiced hands of the person bending the band into place with no protruding edges. Within minutes the birds are back in the pen and smoothing their slightly ruffled feathers and regaining their dignity.

Number 5-12 struggled the most during the procedure and he suffered some sore muscles as a result. In the afternoon he was limping noticeably and we monitored him on the camera. If fact, both Barry Hartup and I were on a WCEP conference call when the team told me of #5-12’s limp. I passed the information to Barry and several members of the WCEP Guidance Team logged onto the camera to have a look.

Number 5-12 was checked several times for signs of serious injury but started to improve slowly. He was given a dose of Piroxicam to ease the pain and was left out of the training this morning. He will get a little extra attention and hopefully will soon recover and forget whom to blame for his troubles.

Taxi Training Progressing

Four of the six young Whooping cranes chase after Richard van Heuvelen’s aircraft

The past few mornings began with layers of fog hanging over the marsh making it necessary to wait for it to burn off. With the hangar being 9.5 miles from the the pensite, it’s a commitment to fly out to the pen because you don’t want to get there and have no place to land.

Once at the pensite training begins almost immediately. At first the chicks were hesitant to come out, with either #6 or #4 staying in the wet pen and having to be coaxed out on different occasions.

Rewarding them with treats for coming out though has mostly solved that problem. However, they still seemed to linger at the door, hesitant to pass the ground handlers. So we tried having the handlers hide behind the doors while the pilot peeked in the door to get their attention, and once attained and all the chicks were near the door we quickly opened them wide. With only the pilot in view they readily came out and followed the pilot and subsequently the trike.

As the cranes accomplished each stage of training, they were rewarded with treats, and now, after several days, are very eager to be with the trike.

Today we tried having the ground crew let them out, and again they were confused but it didn’t take much to get them to follow the trike once the ground crew was out of sight. Tomorrow we will try and get them out with more emphasis on the pilot, and try and speed the whole exercise up. Hopefully they will come bounding out by the time they start to fly.

We also try and reward them at different locations around the training area to persuade them that where they want to be is at the trike, not at the end of the run way, and once they do fly they won’t want to land elsewhere on the refuge.

There are more than our Whooping crane chicks in our neighborhood. We have a baby Sandhill chick hanging around, and a pheasant has made an appearance in camp.

Training Update

Now that I’ve arrived in the always accommodating Berlin, Wisconsin, I can take part in the next step of this year’s adventure with the whoopers!  I was happy to see our pen in working order, just the way we left it when we began our tumultuous 2011 migration. I was even happier to see our little chicklets getting comfortable in their new home without a care in the world.  Numbers 6-12 and 4-12 seemed a little spooked of me when I first came into the pen but I eventually got them to approach me and they warmed up to me like they had at Patuxent.

So far the birds have been making me proud during the morning training and for the most part, they’re doing a good job keeping up with the trike as it taxis up and down the runway.  Sometimes, one or two of the birds are little reluctant to come out.  Mostly, it’s either #6-12, who’s a more independent bird and just wants to do her own thing or #4-12, who despite being the oldest and one of the biggest is sort of a softy and may still be a little timid of his new surroundings.  It’s nothing a little guidance and a few smelt can’t fix because once they’re out the door, they usually stay with the trike – At least so far.

Yesterday morning we began the next step of their training. So far, they’ve been chasing after a wingless aircraft, or ‘trike.’ On Saturday, Richard and I agreed it was time to take off the training wheels and introduce them to a full-blown winged aircraft. That first introduction went as well as could be expected and since there were storms in the area on Sunday, Richard didn’t risk flying in and instead opted for the wingless version again. Yesterday was their second day training with the large wing.

As soon as I opened the pen doors, Richard and I sat by the trike, hoping this would get the birds to trust the aircraft, since this new wing can be a little imposing to a critter the chicks’ size.  Sure enough 7-12, 5-12, 10-12 and 11-12 came right out. Even 6-12, who usually has to be led/coaxed out, came out with no trouble.  She’s probably learned that the trike is where the smelt are at, which she has a soft spot for. Number 4-12, however, needed a little push in the right direction to come out but Richard was able to get him out with a little work.

Even though the birds had seen the wing once before, they seemed a little scattered and disorganized at first but like I said, it takes a little time for them to warm up to the big white, triangle thing that looms over their heads.  Once at the south end of the grass strip, chicks 4-12, 5-12 and 6-12 (the three oldest) felt as though they’d be happier on the other side of the fence and climbed over, and into the marsh. Numbers 5-12 and 6-12 easily found their way back onto the runway through a gap in the fence. Chick 4-12 needed a little more one-on-one guidance, as he was meandering toward the back of the wetpen.

The three young birds on the other hand, found their happy place by the winged trike, either playing with wing or taking grapes and smelt from Richard. Once the birds were all together again, they quickly followed him up and down the runway a couple more times.  Unfortunately, 4-12 let his interest in the marsh get the best of him, as he wandered off the runway a second time towards the end of training.  But the good news is, he got the wanderlust out of his system soon enough and was back to chasing after the trike.  7-12 even broke off for a moment to explore an unfenced part of the runway out of curiosity but as soon as she saw the trike dart off without her, she was after it on the double.  By the final lap of training, all six birds were hanging on the trike, taking treats from our flying ace.

All and all, I’d say this was a positive experience for the birdies.  I think they might still be a little timid of the wing, which would explain why they were so scattered this morning, or why a few birds didn’t want to come out.  But all it takes is a little time and a little patience for these birds to realize that the wing is actually their friend.  And each of them are making progress in this front.  Even the free-spirited 6-12 or the meek 4-12. It’s also worth noting that this year, we were able to bring the winged trike much sooner.  Last year, we were training with a wingless trike for a month or so until the runway was smooth enough for a winged trike to land.  That no doubt didn’t do us any favors and probably set the birds back. But this year, we got the winged trike out right on schedule (at least compared to my previous years in Necedah). If these birds keep up the good work, I think we can expect good things out of this flock, which is what I definitely like to see.  After all, we still owe Florida ten Whooping cranes from last year.

EASTERN MIGRATORY POPULATON UPDATE

WCEP tracker, Eva Szyszkoski’s latest report:

General
Maximum size of the eastern migratory population at the end of the report period was 104 birds (52 males and 52 females). Estimated distribution at the end of the report period or last record included 97 whooping cranes in Wisconsin, 2 in Michigan, 3 not recently reported, and 2 long term missing. This total does not include 3 wild-hatched chicks.

Mortality
The carcass of female no. 6-10 was discovered during an aerial survey over the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge on 13 June. Her remains have been sent to the USGS National Wildlife Health Center in Madison for necropsy.

Reproduction Summary
The 2012 nesting season was completed in mid-June. There were a total of 29 confirmed nests including 7 renests this year. Eight pairs hatched out a total of 9 chicks (3 chicks are still alive), five pairs incubated past full term on non-viable eggs, and one pair incubated between 27-31 days and it is unknown if a chick hatched from this nest.

2011 Cohort
Estimated distribution at the end of the report period is as follows:
– Wisconsin (16): 3 in Marquette County, 4 in Dane County, 4 in Dodge County, 1 in Polk County, 1 in Portage County, 1 in   Columbia County, one last reported in Dodge County on 1 June, and one last detected in Juneau County on 15 June.
– No recent reports (1): no. 1-11
– Missing for over 6 months (1): no. 13-11 (DAR)

Long Term Missing
Female no. 27-07 was last reported with sandhills on her usual summering area E of Etna Green, Kosciusko County, Indiana, on the evening of 13 March 2011. Her transmitter is suspected to be nonfunctional. No subsequent reports.
Female no. 13-08 was detected in flight near Necedah NWR, Juneau County, Wisconsin, on 6 April 2011. No subsequent reports.

TRAINING UPDATE

Now that I’ve arrived in the always accommodating Berlin, Wisconsin, I can take part in the next step of this year’s adventure with the whoopers!  I was happy to see our pen in working order, just the way we left it when we began our tumultuous 2011 migration. I was even happier to see our little chicklets getting comfortable in their new home without a care in the world.  Numbers 6-12 and 4-12 seemed a little spooked of me when I first came into the pen but I eventually got them to approach me and they warmed up to me like they had at Patuxent.

So far the birds have been making me proud during the morning training and for the most part, they’re doing a good job keeping up with the trike as it taxis up and down the runway.  Sometimes, one or two of the birds are little reluctant to come out.  Mostly, it’s either #6-12, who’s a more independent bird and just wants to do her own thing or #4-12, who despite being the oldest and one of the biggest is sort of a softy and may still be a little timid of his new surroundings.  It’s nothing a little guidance and a few smelt can’t fix because once they’re out the door, they usually stay with the trike – At least so far.

Yesterday morning we began the next step of their training. So far, they’ve been chasing after a wingless aircraft, or ‘trike.’ On Saturday, Richard and I agreed it was time to take off the training wheels and introduce them to a full-blown winged aircraft. That first introduction went as well as could be expected and since there were storms in the area on Sunday, Richard didn’t risk flying in and instead opted for the wingless version again. Yesterday was their second day training with the large wing.

As soon as I opened the pen doors, Richard and I sat by the trike, hoping this would get the birds to trust the aircraft, since this new wing can be a little imposing to a critter the chicks’ size.  Sure enough 7-12, 5-12, 10-12 and 11-12 came right out. Even 6-12, who usually has to be led/coaxed out, came out with no trouble.  She’s probably learned that the trike is where the smelt are at, which she has a soft spot for. Number 4-12, however, needed a little push in the right direction to come out but Richard was able to get him out with a little work.

Even though the birds had seen the wing once before, they seemed a little scattered and disorganized at first but like I said, it takes a little time for them to warm up to the big white, triangle thing that looms over their heads.  Once at the south end of the grass strip, chicks 4-12, 5-12 and 6-12 (the three oldest) felt as though they’d be happier on the other side of the fence and climbed over, and into the marsh. Numbers 5-12 and 6-12 easily found their way back onto the runway through a gap in the fence. Chick 4-12 needed a little more one-on-one guidance, as he was meandering toward the back of the wetpen.

The three young birds on the other hand, found their happy place by the winged trike, either playing with wing or taking grapes and smelt from Richard. Once the birds were all together again, they quickly followed him up and down the runway a couple more times.  Unfortunately, 4-12 let his interest in the marsh get the best of him, as he wandered off the runway a second time towards the end of training.  But the good news is, he got the wanderlust out of his system soon enough and was back to chasing after the trike.  7-12 even broke off for a moment to explore an unfenced part of the runway out of curiosity but as soon as she saw the trike dart off without her, she was after it on the double.  By the final lap of training, all six birds were hanging on the trike, taking treats from our flying ace.

All and all, I’d say this was a positive experience for the birdies.  I think they might still be a little timid of the wing, which would explain why they were so scattered this morning, or why a few birds didn’t want to come out.  But all it takes is a little time and a little patience for these birds to realize that the wing is actually their friend.  And each of them are making progress in this front.  Even the free-spirited 6-12 or the meek 4-12. It’s also worth noting that this year, we were able to bring the winged trike much sooner.  Last year, we were training with a wingless trike for a month or so until the runway was smooth enough for a winged trike to land.  That no doubt didn’t do us any favors and probably set the birds back. But this year, we got the winged trike out right on schedule (at least compared to my previous years in Necedah). If these birds keep up the good work, I think we can expect good things out of this flock, which is what I definitely like to see.  After all, we still owe Florida ten Whooping cranes from last year.

SIBERIAN CRANES

Although there are fewer Whooping cranes than there are of any of the other crane species in the world, they are likely not the most endangered. Despite the low numbers, the population of Whooping cranes is increasing and there are several projects to protect their habitat and reintroduce them into their former range.

That is not the case for the Siberian crane which has a treacherous migration through countries where conservation is not yet a common practice.

A number of years ago I was fortunate enough to travel to Russia to participate in a United Nations meeting of crane experts from around the globe. Even then the idea of using ultralight aircraft to lead a flock of Siberian cranes was being considered. Among many other dedicated people I met with was Dr. Alexander (Sasha) Sorokin who was keenly interested in our work and wanted to know if it could be applied to the Siberian crane.

That year an attempt was made to condition ‘Sibs’ to follow a hang-glider in hopes that it could soar like the cranes and lead them over the Ural Mountains. The birds did follow and several flights were made but to conduct an entire migration is an extremely ambitious undertaking.

Since them several trial efforts have been made but now it seems that their Flight of Hope Project is gaining momentum. It has found funding and support from their Department of Natural Resources and ten birds are being trained at a captive rearing facility called the Oka Reserve outside of Moscow.

By the middle of July they will be transported to Lipovaya Gora where they will fledge. Prior to the start of the migration they will be moved to Kushevat which is the starting point. They will continue their training and become familiar with that location for a minimum of two weeks. Their migration is expected to begin toward the end of the first week of September.

This information comes from Dr. George Archibald from the International Crane Foundation who has been assisting the Siberian project for many years. I will try to get regular updates so we can keep track of this project. The distance they must travel and the terrain they will cover is daunting compared to our migration. Despite how isolated we try to keep the birds, we are always within easy reach of fuel and food but that is not the case for the migration the Russians will attempt. A Siberian crane could have no greater champions.

BLIND TOURS TO START!

From Doug Pellerin & Tom Schultz

Are you interested in viewing the training activities of the 2012 cohort at White River Marsh? We are pleased to announce that opportunities to visit the blind will be starting soon. Of course, at this point in time, the young birds are not yet capable of flight – but it is very entertaining to watch them as they are trained to follow the (yet-wingless) ultralight aircraft up and down the runway. Some of their time is also spent simply becoming comfortable with their grassy runway in front of their pensite, and periodically getting grapes from the costumed handlers. Like last year, the blind tours will be led by Doug Pellerin and/or Tom Schultz – depending on the date.

Since the young whoopers are not yet flying, you will be able to watch their activities just about the entire time that they are out for training – and the view from the blind is excellent. Binoculars are helpful for getting a closer view, and you are welcome to bring your camera as well (to be used without flash). The advantage of viewing the birds while they are yet flightless is that your blind visit will NOT be cancelled due to unsuitable flying conditions – which is sometimes the case later on.

To arrange to participate in a blind tour and check available dates, please contact Doug Pellerin by email:  pelican0711(AT)gmail.com or call him at 920-923-0016 between the hours of noon and 7:00 PM Central time. These tours will happen somewhat early in the morning – perhaps starting by 6:00 or 7:00 AM – while the day is still cool. You should probably plan for about two hours, although the tour could be somewhat shorter or longer, and not all of this time will be spent in the blind itself. There will typically be opportunities for questions before and after the blind visit – but please remember that you will not be allowed to leave the blind while the birds are out of their pen.

We hope that you will be able to take advantage of this great opportunity to observe these beautiful endangered birds. It is not a memory that will be soon forgotten!

BLOOD FEATHERS

#10-12 wings

As a feather develops it requires a flow of blood. The shaft or calamus is a direct link to the blood supply and the feather grows out something like a flower. Once the feather is fully developed the blood source dries up and is closed. The shaft hardens and the feather becomes functional.

Blood feathers typically appear when a bird molts and normally only one portion of their body molts at a time but when they are young, all of their feathers are developing and each one has a direct link to their blood supply. The primary feathers are the biggest and have the largest shaft. If they break at this stage they can experience severe bleeding. If multiple feathers break, it can be dangerous.

The next time you see a feather on the ground have a look at it closely. If a bird is under stress it will affect the structure of that portion of the feather that is developing at the time. The vane or the ‘leafy’ part of a feather is made up of barbs and hooks that link together like zippers and make for a solid surface. A stress barb is one of those zippers that is not completely developed and will look thin like a transparent line on the feather. You can see what kind of stress the bird experienced while its feathers were growing.

During flight or if the birds get in a fight, their feathers can get all messed up. In fact these little zippers are all pulled apart when that happens. When the birds groom themselves they use their break to realign those feathers and zip them all back together.

Whooping crane #10-12 is our blood feather display model in the photo and at this point she likely has no idea what those appendages are for.