Craniac and Field Journal readers will know that when the 2012 migration began, there were six young ultralight-led Whooping cranes. That changed when 10-12 suffered a broken leg on landing in Piatt County, IL. Despite the best efforts of the great veterinary team at the Wildlife Veterinary Clinic in Urbana, she died on the operating table.

It’s tough losing any one of our Whoopers, even after they’re released, but it’s even tougher when they are still in your care. When you’ve spent as much time with the chicks as many of our team has it’s next to impossible not to become ‘attached’ to the cohort if not individual birds.

The loss of 10-12 hit hard, and you can be sure she wasn’t far from any of our thoughts as the remaining five gorgeous young cranes made their final sparkling public appearance in the brilliant blue sky over St. Marks.

But wait.

Were you at the flyover? Were you watching the TrikeCam? How many cranes did YOU see following the trike during the flyover.

Take a look at the photo below captured at the Arrival Event by Craniac Jim Pinson. Now count again….Is that a trick of sunlight and shadow – – or – – is that the spirit of 10-12 forging ahead above the wing, urging her classmates on?

Don’t be shy about Giving a WHOOP! not for the “Sensational Six”, but for the “Fabulous Five” soon to be added to the numbers of the Eastern Migratory Population.


OM’s good friend, Fred Applegate from Huntsville, GA, sent along the following piece he penned for fellow Craniacs as he took a walk down memory Lane.

CRANIACS: THE ‘OLD’ DAYS by Fred Applegate

My wife and I were visiting relatives in Knoxville, fall 2002. There was a short article in the News Sentinel with the headline “Whooping Cranes are Coming.”  I was totally unaware of Operation Migration at that time. There was probably a website,  I don’t recall, but somehow I made email contact with Heather Ray and came up with a plan of attack: to drive from home in Huntsville, AL, two and a half hours away from Dayton, Tennessee, and try to see the birds.

The article had said that the Whoopers would be following the ultralights into Hiwassee NWR near Dayton, over-nighting there, and then flying out the next morning. The arrival date was unknown (same as nowadays!). But I knew by then that they were in Kentucky.

In those days there was no on-board video downlink from the planes, there was no EarlyBird report at dark-o’clock each morning. But dear Heather would put out an end-of-day report on the website stating whether the birds had flown or not. That was it. So I did know at some point that the birds had arrived near Crossville, TN, the last stop before Hiwassee.

It was a Saturday night when I read that report and so I decided to drive up to Chattanooga Sunday afternoon. If they flew Sunday, I could view them leaving Monday morning………….maybe. If they didn’t fly Sunday, maybe I could see them come in to Hiwassee. And that’s what happened.

I was up and out of my motel before sunrise Monday for the 15 minute drive across the Tennessee River to the wildlife viewing platform at Hiwassee. Three others had arrived before me, two of whom were veteran craniacs. Joe was lead pilot that day,  and before long we spotted them. It was a beautiful blue-sky day and Joe brought them over us before heading out for their next stopover location – out of sight from us as usual.

I was hooked, and have been ever since. I saw them fly a few times into or out of Hiwassee, and a couple of times out of Russellville in Walker County AL, where they now stop since the route was moved West. It’s only an hour’s drive from home now for me.

I missed seeing them this year and Liz emailed me sort of an apology for skipping “my” stop!!!!!!  Good grief, I was just happy for the team!


A plan usually makes perfect sense on paper, but the reality is often quite different. In theory we lead birds on their first migration; imprint them and condition them to follow the aircraft; then lead them from Wisconsin to Florida. It all sounds simple enough, but in truth there are a thousand things can go wrong, and most often they do. The birds can be reluctant to fly, or turn back at any opportunity. Headwinds can slow us to a crawl, or keep us grounded for days or even weeks at a time.

This year we only had five birds. We wish we had our usual double-digit sized cohort, but there were certain advantages to a low number. Firstly, there was only 9 days age difference between the oldest and the youngest which means they were all at the same level and easy to train.

The second advantage was that we flew regularly. Birds are creatures of habit. They learn fast to be sedentary if they stay in one place too long. But they can also be eager to fly if you do it regularly. Yesterday morning was one of those days when they were anxious to get airborne.

I did an air pick up, which means that rather than land in a rough field, I flew a low and slow approach. You attempt to guess the closing speed and how long it will takes them to all get out of the gate. If it works, you pass by the pen just as they emerge and then depart in unison.

Yesterday morning I misjudged their anxiousness, so when they cleared the pen, they took off toward me. I pulled up and over them as they turned under me to lined up off the left wingtip in perfect order. There was no hesitation or reluctance as we climbed on course. Once we gained about 600 feet they settled in for a 45 minute flight to St Marks. Our ground speed was about 48 miles per hour so we had a gentle push in smooth air.

About a thousand people had gathered at the town of St Marks to see the arrival, so we did a few circles, around the crowd before heading to the pensite.

We circled once, and I did one long slow approach as if we intended to land. The birds followed every step of the way. Just as we passed over Richard and Geoff (waiting in the pen to call the birds down) I pulled up hard and began a fast climb. Initially the birds tried climbing too, but they couldn’t match my speed, so they circled the pen one more time before landing at their final destination.

Our push button birds behaved exactly as they were supposed to on one of those perfect mornings when the reality worked out precisely as planned.


Operation Migration Ustream Channel

Just a reminder that just because we’ve finished earlier than in year’s past we still need to fund the entire migration. We’re currently sitting at only 58% of our MileMaker goal. To that end, I just received a 5 mile matching pledge from an anonymous supporter in Illinois. This very generous person has agreed to contribute 5 miles ($1000) to help fund the MileMaker campaign IF we can match it!

If you would like to help out by having your contribution doubled until this match has been met, please visit our secure login site and sign in to your existing account, or create one if you don’t already have one. Once logged in, use the dropdown menu at the top of the welcome page and select Donate MileMaker. Thank you!


DATE: Nov 23, 2012 – Entry 1 MIGRATION DAY 57
FLOWN TODAY: 28 miles ACCUMULATED: 1101 miles
LOCATION: Wakulla County, FL REPORTER: Liz Condie

A huge crowd gathered in the early dawn light waiting to see the Class of 2012 and their mechanical leaders fly overhead enroute to their wintering site on the St. Marks NWR.

The trike wings were left uncovered last night so there was a delay taking off until the frost melted off the wings. Launch with the cranes was at 8:22AM, and by 8:45am the pilots were leading their young charges over the heads of the hundreds of folks watching the arrival of the 12th generation of ultralight-led Whooping cranes in Florida.

Tune back later for more – the lead pilot report and perhaps some photos.



DATE: Nov 23, 2012 – Entry 1 MIGRATION DAY 57
FLOWN TODAY: ? miles ACCUMULATED: 1073 miles
LOCATION: Leon County, FL REPORTER: Liz Condie

Although the heading above shows Leon County, this update is coming to you from Wakulla County. While the rest of the team remained in Leon, I moved to St. Marks late yesterday to make preparations for the Arrival Event which we are hopeful of taking place today.

Richard van Heuvelen and Geoff Tarbox also moved to St. Marks yesterday as they will be stationed at the wintering pensite on the refuge to call the cranes down when the trikes fly over the site.

While the wind direction is not perfect this morning, it appears it is sufficiently favorable for the short 28 air mile flight that is the last migration leg. If you are within driving distance of St. Marks, c’mon to the Arrival Event. You’ll want to be in place by 7:30!!


The weather and the winds look like they will be cooperative tomorrow morning, so come and wear off some of your Thanksgiving turkey cheering for the Class of 2012 as they conclude their very first migration and make their farewell public appearance.

Thanks to the hard working staff and volunteers at the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, there will be another super Arrival Flyover this year.

The Arrival Flyover viewing site is San Marcos de Apalache Park in town of St. Marks. South of where Hwy 363 (Woodville Hwy) intersects Coastal Hwy 98, Hwy 363 becomes Port Leon Drive. Follow Port Leon Drive to the very end, turn right onto Riverside Drive/Old Fort Road and watch for Arrival Signs on your left. You will be directed to parking.

Click for Google Map. The green arrow on the map points to the viewing site.

Don’t be late! Plan at arriving at the San Marcos de Apalache Park no later than 7:30AM EST. The last migration leg is only a very short flight – the pilots estimate 30 – 40 minutes in the air. If they are able to launch shortly after official sunrise (7:10AM) they could be overhead by 7:45-8:00AM.

The temperature for tomorrow morning is predicted to be in the low 40’s so dress accordingly.  Operation Migration and the St. Marks Refuge Association will have merchandise for sale and lots of enthusiastic and friendly volunteers to answer any questions.

Once the pilots have ‘dropped’ off the Class of 2012 at their wintering site, they will be quickly driven over to the Arrival Event site to meet and talk with the gathered crowd. Plan on ‘hanging around’ to meet the entire OM Migration Team and all the wonderful folks from St. Marks NWR who make all the preparations to ensure the young Whoopers have a terrific and safe winter home.


To all friends of OM and Whooping cranes, the entire Operation Migration team – the Board of Directors, staff, and volunteers – send Thanksgiving greetings. We can never say, “Thank You” enough, and on this day of Thanksgiving we especially want everyone to know how appreciative we are for your support – both moral and financial.

Sincere and heartfelt gratitude to all our supporters, and to the thousands of folks who care so deeply for the future and survival of Whooping cranes.


“Mangroves push north, crowd habitat for whooping cranes” by Matthew Tresaugue.
Click to read.

”What can we do Now? Whoopers and more” by Della Moen. Click to read.


DATE: Nov 22, 2012 – Entry 1 MIGRATION DAY 56/Down Day #1
FLOWN TODAY: 0 miles ACCUMULATED: 1073 miles
LOCATION: Leon County, FL REPORTER: Liz Condie

Preparations for the final leg of the 2012 Migration are occupying the crew today. Re-organizing equipment, shifting pen panels, re-locating vehicles and people down route, and some minor repairs are the order of the day. For the final flight, the logistics for both vehicles and people, and ‘what happens when.’ and ‘who does what,’ are all different from every other migration leg.

Assuming the weather and winds cooperate, we will fly last twenty+ miles to the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge tomorrow (Friday.)

Official sunrise Friday is at 7:10AM EST, and barring fog or other delaying condition, the pilots should be in the air with the Class of 2012 shortly after that time. They expect the flight to St. Marks to take no longer than approximately 30 minutes, so to be on the safe side, Arrival Event viewers will want to be in place no later than 7:30AM.

Click here for a description of the Arrival Event location including a link to the site marked on Google Maps.


DATE: Nov 21, 2012 – Entry 1 MIGRATION DAY 55
FLOWN TODAY: 43 miles ACCUMULATED: 1073 miles
LOCATION: Leon County, FL REPORTER: Brooke Pennypacker

“So tell me, Brooke. What’s it like to fly with birds?”

“That’s a tough one, Jimmy. But first let me tell you about today’s flight.”

“It was an aerial pickup. The pen was on a small ‘runway-to-be-someday’ surrounded by cotton fields. Kind of looked like snow all around. Geoff and Julie threw open the pen doors right on time, but as I swooped on by, I saw the birds just standing there outside the door – like yawn, yawn, look at Mr. Blue Max. Then I heard one of the chicks yell, “Wait a minute! That’s our bus!” as they launched into the wake of the trike.

Meanwhile, the trees were coming up fast, giving me just enough time to think on what a great cotton gin my trike would make, when over the trees we popped…me and those birds.

Only 30 and a few miles to go this morning as the birds lined up really nice on the wing except they looked like they were having themselves a “Gaspathon”, their mouths so wide open sucking in air they looked like they could swallow a beach ball.  Warm, wet air does that to them, you know.  Made me feel kind of sorry for those birds.  But then, like the coach said, “No pain, no gain” and soon we were really covering some serious ground. 50 mph…, then 52…then 54!  And air as smooth as a new born baby’s butt.  Figures we’d get a perfect fly day when we were only going so short a ways.  It’s the Fates again…messin with our heads!

The higher we climbed the faster we got, but I’m thinking, what’s the point of climbing all the way up there just to have to turn around and start down a few minutes later. And who needs the trajectory of a mortar round anyway. Too much noise. So we hung at about 1,200 feet as the last of Georgia and the beginning of Florida sped out from underneath us.

Not that it didn’t look seriously cool. I mean, ghostly, almost foamy white serpents of fog and mist snaked around above the creeks and rivers in amongst all those miles of solid pine forest.  Not the kind of country for a pilot who doesn’t ask the waitress for a toothpick after a big feed.  And truth is, one engine failure over these parts and you’re picking splinters out of your wazoo for a year.

Pretty soon it was time to let the air out of the balloon and plant this baby on good old terra firma. But the birds were just reaching their stride and it made me feel bad to have to quit. But then that’s life, and they’d better get used to it.

Soon Jack and Richard had the pen up and the birds were in it and I was done with another memorable flight……..memorable, that is, until I forget it.”

“So Brooke.  What’s it really like to fly with birds?”

“Well Jimmy, some days it’s a little of this, other days it’s a little of that….but then most days it’s a great big darn mystery and I haven’t got the foggiest idea what’s really going on. So anyway, Jimmy,  Happy Thanksgiving.”

“If you say so.”


The team, along with the Class of 2012 Whooping cranes reached Leon County, FL this morning at 8:14ET, following a quick flight from Decatur County, GA.

This is the second to last stop for the young Whooping cranes and the public flyover could take place as early as Friday – weather permitting of course. Here are some details regarding the public flyover:

Whooping Cranes Arriving Soon at St. Marks NWR – Possibly Friday!

Braving the chilly air and bumpy winds, the intrepid whooping cranes and the shivering pilots in ultralights have skipped a few stops, overnighted in Decatur County, Georgia, and landed today in Leon County, Florida.

The whooping cranes and ultralights pilots with Operation Migration left Wisconsin on September 28, and weather permitting, should arrive at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge early Friday morning, November 23.

The flock will rest briefly in Leon County before the final leg of the flight to St. Marks.  All five young whoopers will spend the winter at the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.

“We are excited to be a part of this incredible project to restore a flock of whooping cranes to the eastern United States,” said Refuge Manager Terry Peacock.  “This year, St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge will be the only Florida refuge to host the young cranes.”

There only are about 600 whooping cranes in the wild and to view these magnificent birds is a special treat, even if you are not a hardcore birdwatcher.

Please keep an eye on media reports and the Operation Migration online Field Journal. Plan at arriving at the San Marcos de Apalache Park in the town of St. Marks, Florida, at around 7:30 a.m. Eastern time.

Temperatures will be cool, so please dress warmly, and bring blankets and chairs.  Operation Migration and the St. Marks Refuge Association will have wonderful crane clothing and books to sell and friendly volunteers will gladly answer all your whooping crane questions.


For the second straight day we are unable to offer folks an opportunity to view a departure flyover. We had to do a last minute search for a new pensite on arrival here today, and the crew is south of our Decatur County campsite on their way back to camp after searching for a new pensite in Jefferson County, FL. That’s three new pensites and campsites in a row we’ve had to find quickly.

The next and last opportunity to view a flyover will be at the arrival event in St. Marks. Hope to see YOU there.



DATE: Nov 20, 2012 – Entry 3 MIGRATION DAY 54
FLOWN TODAY: 116 miles ACCUMULATED: 1030 miles
LOCATION: Decatur County, GA REPORTER: Richard van Heuvelen

The sound of velcro being ripped apart echoed in the morning air as we stripped the wings of their frost covers. It was like foreplay for the coming flight to us pilots.

We took off as the last of the fog dissipated from the field where the pen was located. The birds readily joined up on the wing as we circled over the home and heads of our hosts below and we were soon on course for Clay County, GA.

A couple of the birds would occasionally start open mouth breathing due to the morning’s humid and warm air making it necessary to climb very slowly in order to not tire them out. Eventually, the sunny sky gave way to cloudy conditions, and then overcast.

As we crossed into Georgia we picked up speed by changing our heading. We were at 3,000 feet, so we decided to we could do a skip over Clay County and make for Decatur County.

Because of clouds above us it was necessary to level off our flight path. This gave the birds some relief and soon they were energized and began to challenge the trike for lead position. With the trike doing its best to keep ahead of the birds our air speed increased and we gained more ground speed. By the time we began our descent the bar was pulled all the way in resulting in top speed for the trike and still the birds continued their aggressive flight. All of which resulted in us getting to our Decatur stopover site faster.

Just two more flights before we have to say our good-byes to the Class of 2012.


DATE: Nov 20, 2012 – Entry 2 MIGRATION DAY 54
FLOWN TODAY: 116 miles ACCUMULATED: 1030 miles
LOCATION: Decatur Co., GA REPORTER: Heather Ray

They’re in the homestretch now! Joe Duff, flying in the chase position just reported that he and Richard, today’s lead pilot will be skipping our Clay County, Georgia stopover and are heading to Decatur County. With only two Georgia stops – the Florida state line is in sight!

Not to late to come by and join us LIVE!

The Class of 2012 surfs the wing vortices off Richard’s lead aircraft over Georgia




DATE: Nov 20, 2012 – Entry 1 MIGRATION DAY 54
FLOWN TODAY: ? miles ACCUMULATED: 914 miles
LOCATION: Pike County, AL REPORTER: Liz Condie

We had lift off at 6:46AM CST. Lead pilot, Richard van Heuvelan launched with the Class of 2012 and we watched as they stuck to the wing, circled the field, and turned on course. Beautiful sight in the clear, sunny sky.

We’re now Georgia bound and excited to tick another stopover site off the list. Just 3 stopovers remain between us and the arrival event at St. Marks, FL. Here’s hoping we’re able to get those migration legs in before we lose the predicted favorable flying conditions.

More here later when Richard’s Lead Pilot report is ready for posting.