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.

FAA GRANTS WAIVER

Guest author:  David Sakrison, Director, OM Board of Directors

We learned late this afternoon that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had granted Operation Migration a one-time temporary exemption to allow its pilots to finish the 2011-2012 crane migration. The waiver extends through the end of March.

A statement released by the FAA on Monday afternoon said in part: “Because the operation is in ‘mid-migration,’ the FAA is granting a one-time exemption so the migration can be completed. The FAA will work with Operation Migration to develop a more comprehensive, long-term solution.”

We appreciate the agency’s efforts on our behalf, and we thank everyone; supporters and the public for the overwhelming outpouring of support on behalf of Whooping cranes and Operation Migration.

2011 ULTRALIGHT-LED MIGRATION ON HOLD

Guest Author:  David Sakrison, Director, OM Board of Directors

The 2011 ultralight-led Whooping crane migration is currently on hold in Alabama while the Federal Aviation Administration sorts out a regulatory issue involving OM’s pilots and aircraft.

The FAA is working with OM to resolve the issue as quickly as possible. In the meantime, this year’s cohort is safely penned in Franklin County, Alabama, watched over daily by OM personnel.

The issue in question is whether or not OM’s pilots are flying “for hire,” or, for the furtherance of a non-profit. OM aircraft are licensed as Light Sport Aircraft (LSAs) which came into effect in 2008. FAA regulations prohibit flying LSAs for hire or as part of business activities. The FAA has begun the process of evaluating a waiver to OM, exempting its pilots and aircraft from that rule.

OM has always maintained that its pilots are hired for a wide range of non-flying skills and duties, and that they volunteer their time as pilots. In 2010, the FAA Flight Service District Office (FSDO) in Milwaukee investigated the status of OM’s flight operations and accepted OM’s explanation. We were told by the FSDO director that “no further action would be taken.” Based on that ruling, we began the 2011 season.

In August 2011 the FAA inspected our aircraft, which passed with flying colors. In November a Letter of Investigation was sent to each pilot. After discussions with the FAA in December, Operation Migration voluntarily ceased any flying while the matter is resolved. We hoped that would happen during the Christmas break, but it is taking longer than anticipated.

The FAA is in support of this project and is working hard to resolve the matter in our favor. We appreciate their efforts.
We are also working with our WCEP partners to develop a contingency plan for completing the migration without aircraft, if necessary.

An FAA waiver would be based on two main factors: safety and public good. OM has never had an aircraft-related accident and its contribution to wildlife conservation is well-established. If you would like to offer support for OM in this matter, post a comment on our GuestBook. Supportive comments will be collected and forwarded to officials at the FAA.

BE SURE BEFORE YOU SHOOT

Some states have a Sandhill crane hunt, and in some cases the hunt season for Sandhills and other game coincides or overlaps the period of time that Whooping cranes migrate.

Be Sure Before You Shoot” is a video produced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help people identify/distinguish between Sandhill cranes and Whooping cranes as well as other avian species. Please watch the video if you are a hunter, or if you have friends who are hunters, please pass it on.

PERSISTENCE PAYS OFF

Guest Author:  Walter Sturgeon

Spring 2010 was an exciting time at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge (NNWR) as 12 pairs of Whooping Cranes nested and initiated incubation. One of those pairs, 9-03, and her mate 3-04 nested for the fifth time. The female has a checkered past.

As a young bird she had wandered far and wide and had been in, or flew over, just about every state in the eastern United States and at least two provinces in Canada. Of all the birds I have helped to reintroduce into the Eastern Migratory Population of Whooping Cranes, she is by far the most interesting, and one that I had a post-reintroduction experience with.

I monitored her one whole winter in North Carolina where she wintered with two other Whooping Cranes on a beaver pond in Jones County. Some of you might remember my story in OM’s website Field Journal about her leaving on her northern migration and flying over my house to say farewell. But I have only abstracted a few tidbits in this introduction. ”And now for the rest of the story” as radio personality Paul Harvey used to say.

Number 9-03 hatched at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center on May 5th 2003. She was described as, “ the most independent member of her cohort and strays farthest from the trike during taxiing.” Obviously her wanderlust could be predicted at a very young age.

She was a small female, but a super forager, and Brian Clauss from Patuxent observed that if, “You could drop that bird in the middle of a city and she’d find something to eat!” She made her first trip to Wisconsin on June 19, 2003 aboard a Windway Capital aircraft in a box especially designed for young cranes, and joined the rest of her cohort in one of the training site pens at NNWR.

Her summer was uneventful and she learned to fly and follow the ultralight. She left Necedah on October 16, 2003 and flew all but 18 miles of the ultralight-led migration, arriving at the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Citrus County, Florida on December 8th after a 54 day migration. Yes, I said a 54 day migration.

Winter at Chassahowitzka was uneventful and 9-03 left the refuge on March 30, 2004 at 9:33am with 7 other cranes. By midday on April 1st, the eight birds had made it to Macon County, North Carolina, 462 miles north of the departure point. This put the young cranes east of the mountains and 85 miles from their original migration route. By late morning, winds had increased to 15-25mph from the northwest – a strong headwind – and on reaching western North Carolina they were met by a low cloud-ceiling and drizzle.

On April 3rd the Whoopers were still in North Carolina along a river in the Nantahala National Forest when they were discovered by a person who started crossing the river intent on approaching the cranes. Fortunately, a conscientious passerby stopped the person before he was able to get close enough to catch one of the birds – which was his stated purpose.

On April 4th another unthinking person who lived nearby arrived on the scene in his car, with his wife and three children. He drove as close as he could get to the young cranes, and the five exited their car and approached the cranes. The wary cranes had had enough. They flushed immediately, and at 5 p.m. as they climbed out of their less than serene setting of the past 3 days, one of them hit a power line.

One observer reported that all eight cranes continued to climb however, and as darkness fell he watched as they circled overhead, gaining altitude for almost an hour, before setting course toward the north. Richard Urbanek, a USFWS biologist/tracker, was nearby and was able to track them through the forested area for only a short time before losing their radio signals.

I go into this detail because many of us think that this one instance in the cranes’, and especially 9-03’s, first northward migration accounted for their odd migration routes and behaviors over the next few years.

Number 9-03 carried a satellite transmitter that allowed her and the others traveling with her to be located on a frequent basis. She, and 4 other cranes wound up in Michigan that summer. Included in that group were 1-03, 5-03 and 18-03, who would stay with her as they migrated south that fall.

Number 5-03 was killed, probably by a bobcat, on the night of November 13/14 on the Cape Romaine National Wildlife Refuge in Charleston, South Carolina. The three remaining cranes moved northward the next day to Georgetown County, SC. After several short northward flights they ended up in Jones County, NC on November 20. There they roosted in a beaver pond loaded with crayfish and never traveled more than a couple of miles to various grain fields during the rest of the winter.

Living about two hours away, I took on the job of monitoring them a couple of times a week. They developed a routine that saw them fly out in the early morning to glean what they could in nearby corn fields. Eventually they discovered a hunter’s seed plot very near their beaver pond roost area. The plot included milo, corn, and millet. It was there that I saw them for the last time that winter. They left on their northward migration on March 30, 2005.

You might have read my story about being there that day and having them come into a mixed grain field and land near a small pond where I was hidden in a hunter’s tree stand. They didn’t bother to graze, staying only about 15 minutes. They took off and circled the field a couple of times and headed off to the northwest.

I listened on my tracking radio receiver for about half an hour until the signals died out. I had about a 30 minute walk back to my car and then a two hour drive home. For some reason I never turned off the radio receiver, and as I turned into my driveway it started beeping. For the next 30 minutes I listened as the cranes flew over my house. Had come to say goodbye? It was a chilling experience.

The three cranes stayed together until they reached Ontario, east of Lake Huron. On May 8th, number 9-03 was seen alone on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River northwest of Lake Ontario, just across the New York border. She next turned up in Vermont on June 9th, and went from there to Lewis County, NY. While she traveled around the northeast, 1-03 and 18-03 were captured in Michigan and relocated back to Wisconsin.

In the fall of 2005 9-03 was still in New York state, having last been seen there on October 27th. In December she showed up in Beaufort City, NC. Her satellite transmitter had run out of battery power so no one knows where she was in the interim. On December 9th she was captured, fitted with another transmitter, and moved to Madison County, Florida. This is where the persistence story begins as the tracking team tried to reorient her to the desired migration route. Later that year she visited the pen at Chassahowitzka where she had spent her first winter in Florida.

In the spring of 2006, 9-03 migrated north with a young female, 20-05, on March 27. They were seen together in Tennessee on March 29th and 30th. She again didn’t make it back to Wisconsin, once again ending up in New York, but this time with the young female she had led astray. On May 6th both were captured and moved by plane to NNWR. This move was the second attempt at reorientation. The two cranes stayed together in central Wisconsin all that summer.

9-03 and 20-05 migrated together in the fall and appeared at the Chassahowitzka pensite on December 20, 2006. The reorientation was beginning to work it seemed. It was the first time she had returned to Florida since she was led there by the ultralights. They to cranes stayed in the Chassahowitzka area and the nearby mainland for the winter.

On the 2007 spring migration 9-03 and 20-05 left Florida on March 19. The younger female, 20-05, went to Wisconsin, while 9-03 went on a grand tour to Michigan, New York, Ontario, and then back to New York. She still had not found her way back to Wisconsin on spring migration.

In October of 2007 she was captured yet again and flown back to Wisconsin. As they say, ”the third time is the charm”, and in this case the third relocation worked. She immediately stole male 3-04 from female W1-06, the first wild-hatched chick. The question was…would the bond last and would they migrate together?

In fact they did migrate to Florida that fall and stayed together during the winter. In the spring of 2008 the big question of where they would go was answered on March 27 when they showed up at the Necedah refuge. On April 9, 9-03 was observed incubating eggs. She and 3-04 incubated until May 3rd when their nest failed. They spent the summer on the refuge and migrated together to Florida that fall along with 9-03’s old friend, 20-05.

In late February 2009 the three cranes left Florida and 9-03 and 3-04 arrived in Wisconsin on March 23 and were already incubating eggs by April 8. Their nest failed again on May 3rd, but this time their eggs were salvaged. Both eggs hatched and became ultralight chicks 6-09 and 8-09 in the ultralight-led Class of 2009 – both chicks are still in the population. The parent pair re-nested, but their second nest failed on June 14.

The pair left Wisconsin on December 7, 2009 and was seen by plane on January 20, 2010 in a swamp in Lafayette County, Florida where they spent the rest of the winter. On March 9, 2010 they were observed during their northward migration in Richland County, Illinois and were found to be nesting on April 5 on the Necedah refuge. That nest failed on April 11th.

By April 29-30th they had nested again. This time they hatched two eggs and the family was spotted by OM pilot Richard van Heuvelen during a monitoring flight on May 31. Unfortunately, one of their chicks had disappeared by the 6th or 7th of June. The other chick, a female, designated W1-10, fledged in August and in the fall, left on migration with her parents.

Persistence does pay off! The work of a lot of dedicated and talented individuals re-oriented 9-03 to a life of migrating as desired from Wisconsin to Florida and back by capturing it 3 times and moving it once to Florida and twice to Wisconsin. They made it possible for her to meet and pair with 3-04. Once that bond was established she followed the male who is faithful to his own natal area, as are most male Whooping Cranes. Together they have produced 3 living off-spring in the Eastern Migratory Population. I say again, PERSISTENCE PAYS OFF!

Author’s Note: I am indebted to Jane Duden of Journey North for her fine history of each of the Eastern Migratory Population of Whooping cranes from chick to the present. Without her work it would have taken weeks to reconstruct the history of 9-03 and her associates.

(Walter Sturgeon is a member of Operation Migration’s Board of Directors, and for the past 7 years, his 30 years of crane experience and many other skills have been invaluable assets in his role as a volunteer member of the migration crew.)

WHOOPING CRANES CARRY ‘BIGGER’ MESSAGE

Guest Author:  Christine Barnes

“These newly hatched Whooping crane chicks have no parents. So we teach them what they need to know to survive. But they neither see us, nor hear us.”

The room is silent as students ponder, then watch and listen in rapt attention as the story unfolds.

We are Gordon Perkinson and Christine Barnes, Operation Migration’s education team, and we offer presentations in schools along the migration route. Our presentation lasts about an hour, and consists of a variety of interesting activities, including interactive sharing of knowledge and information, a slide show, and videos. We introduce and/or reinforce age-appropriate vocabulary and concepts.

On this 2011 migration, we have visited 15 schools and met with over 1670 students and their teachers. Principals, other education staff and interested community members have sometimes joined our groups. And what a wonderful time we have had along the way, working with children in Illinois, Kentucky and Alabama! We have worked with a single class of 23 students, and an entire school of 667 students packed into an auditorium. We have presented on a school night at a nature center with 70 community members and twenty-four high school students and their teacher present.

Many classes follow the cranes’ journey and are very well-prepared. Some are new-comers to the Whooping cranes’ story, and are fascinated from the beginning. Students ask many thoughtful questions at the beginning and end of the presentation, which we either answer or give back to them for their own investigation in class or on their own. Nearly every student in the schools where we presented was respectful, enthusiastic and engaged. It has been a privilege to work with each and every one.

As we present the cranes’ story, there are audible gasps among the participants – the life-sized photo of a 5 ft. tall crane with an 8 ft. wingspan amazes most, and the youngest children need to be reassured that these birds will do no harm from their wetland home.

There is laughter at the photo of the tired crane chick, asleep in its food bowl. Listeners’ faces reflect their sadness, and sometimes there are tears, when we share the blatant disregard for wildlife and law, and reveal that misguided persons with firearms still shoot and kill these magnificent birds. And ironically, as we end 2011, yet another Whooping crane has died at the end of a gun in Indiana.

We speak of the inspiration of the founders and staff of Operation Migration and its WCEP partners to dream the impossible dream and move forward to save a species from extinction. The individuals who work on this project see a need and an opportunity to make a difference, and many make personal sacrifices to do so.

We talk with students about how this can be their story, too – how they can strive to be scientists, mathematicians, teachers, environmentalists, conservationists. We encourage the children to reflect on what each one can do to make things better each day, or what project their class, or even their entire school can do.

The lights are low, the room is silent. They neither see us nor hear us: from the back of the room, the solution to the opening riddle enters: a silent crane handler in costume. For the first time, students understand, on some level, the reintroduction project’s extraordinary effort to teach the cranes while preserving whatever wild instincts exist innately in these birds. It is, after all, their only hope.

In the end, we talk with the children about the bigger picture: this is not just about Whooping cranes. It’s about learning to live together on our beautiful planet Earth in a respectful, caring and reflective manner – being aware of our actions and what consequences, intended or not, may unfold as a result.

It is a story about making mistakes, and working hard to fix them before it’s too late. In fact, the journey of the Whooping cranes is an acknowledgement and commitment to the sanctity of life.

Editor’s Note – The Education component of the 2011 migration was made possible thanks to a joint grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and Southern Company through the Power of Flight program. Both organizations have also supported Operation Migration’s ultralight-led project in past years and they have our sincere gratitude for their generosity and abiding interest in the welfare of endangered Whooping cranes.

A SORROWFUL START TO THE NEW YEAR

Regrettably, the first news of 2012 we bring you is sad and upsetting. Another Whooping crane has been shot.

We were advised late yesterday that 6-05 was found dead in Indiana by resident Dan Kaiser. Dan found the crane in Jackson County, not far from the Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge, a former stopover location when the ultralight-led migration used a more easterly migration route.

This is the second shooting of a Whooping crane in Indiana. The first occurred in 2009 when 17-02, the seven year old matriarch of the “First Family”, was killed.

In 2006, female 17-02 and her mate 11-02, (dubbed the First Family) the only successful breeding pair in the reintroduced Eastern Migratory Population at the time, hatched, reared, and migrated a chick, Wild 1-06. Their offspring, Wild 1-06, was the first wild, migratory Whooping crane hatched in eastern North America in more than a century.

17-02 was shot and killed in central Vermillion County, IN. The pair had been observed by WCEP trackers in late November, but by December 1st when subsequently checked, 17-02 was missing. Tracker Jess Thompson eventually found her remains in a ravine near a rural road.

Two culprits were eventually identified (one a juvenile) and they pled guilty to the shooting. Their punishment, which drew the outrage and the ire of many in the wildlife conservation community, was one year of probation and a $1 fine.

In the face of the struggle to safeguard these rare birds from extinction, this shooting, added to the three cranes shot in Georgia in December of last year, the two in Alabama in February 2011, and most recently, two (and perhaps three) in Louisiana, at best, can only be described as disheartening. Ironically, the Louisiana cranes, killed by juveniles firing from a vehicle, died on the same day OM launched its 2011 ultralight-led migration in the hope of boosting the numbers of  the slowly growing reintroduced population.

At the time of the Louisiana shootings, Dr. John French, Research Manager, at the U.S.G.S. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland where the majority of all reintroduced Whooping cranes are hatched and reared, said….

“These cranes – including each of those senselessly killed by people – represent an investment of hope for Whooping cranes to wing their way back to a more certain future. And with only about 430 Whooping cranes now in the wild, each bird counts.

Each such death is a robbery of the investment made by the American public, and negates countless hours of careful work by scientists, aviculturists, volunteers, and others toward the conservation of this magnificent bird.”

At present, we have no further details on the killing of 6-05 beyond what has appeared in various news stories. Below are links to several articles that have been posted to the internet.

http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/chi-ap-in-whoopingcraneshot,0,4952306.story

http://wcsi.whiterivernews.com/templates/localnews_temp.asp?id=4323&storyno=2

http://www.whas11.com/news/local/Endangered-bird-shot-in-Ind-136486983.html

http://www.tribtown.com/articles/shot-34081-bird-brownstown.html

CHANGING DYNAMICS

While most of the team is away for Christmas volunteer crane handlers, Gordon Perkinson and Christine Barnes, have been helping me with the day-to-day care of the Class of 2011. As a result, what I had only suspected before is now clear to me; the dynamics and behavior of the cranes in our cohort changes based on who is in the pen. It appears the birds can somehow distinguish one costume from another.

My first introduction to changing group dynamics occurred in La Salle County, Illinois when discussing our dominant birds with Brooke. Brooke was adamant about 10-11 being a tough, dominant bird as he had observed that crane pecking and bullying other birds. I staunchly took the opposite view. The 10-11 that I knew was quite a shy bird who was badgered and beat by #5 and #7. We never came to an agreement.

“Do the birds act differently when different costumes are in the pen?” I later asked Richard. “Yeah,” was all he responded.

Back in Livingston County, Illinois I really picked up on behavior change when Walter Sturgeon entered the pen with a clean costume and a freshly refurbished puppet. The birds, particularly #1, went nuts. #1 was frantically trying to establish dominance over this new puppet head. He flapped, rasped, and pecked relentlessly at the ‘new bird’, and by the time Walter and I were leaving the pen, #1 had aged his new puppet significantly.

It was strange to me, because although #1 was certainly a dominant bird, I had never experienced him trying to pull rank on me. Sure, I had been on the receiving end of a few crown displays, but other than that, nothing more forceful than some strong pecks at my puppet’s beak. This is when it became clear to me that when I’m in the pen, I become the dominant one.

Throughout the past week I have seen Gordon and Christine deal with several dominance interactions and it seems Christine receives the worst of it. Numbers 1, 6, and 10 have been the leaders of the offensives on the new costumes. The first few times the ‘new costumes’ entered the pen, those three birds were determined to establish their sovereignty and the three cranes tried desperately to beat the unfamiliar puppet heads into submission.

They have since calmed down and become accustomed to their interim surrogate parents. I expected the aggression from numbers 1 and 7, but never thought # 6 and #10 would react so strongly. 10-11 even jump-raked the newcomers, something I had never seen a colt do to a costume. The cohort constantly surprises me, and I never quite know what to expect next.

Some of our regular readers might be a little perplexed about my assumption of #7 being an aggressor. While at White River Marsh I never commented or observed a strong personality from this bird. Geoff though, was observant enough to catch her youthful dominance. He noted early on that she wasn’t afraid of going after #1 if he bothered her too much. It wasn’t until we were on migration however, that I first observed her start to take a leading role in the cohort.

At the start of migration when I thought of dominant birds, it was #1 and #5 that came to mind. While #1 has retained his top of the heap position, it seems #5 has dropped down in the pecking order, or at least has backed off. He no longer rushes us when we enter the pen, and seems to not fight for grapes with the same vigor he used to. Numbers 6 and 7 have either filled that void, or pushed him aside as they now seem to have taken on dominant roles within the cohort. I would even go so far as to say #7 is the most aggressive bird. She certainly isn’t afraid of any other bird in the pen and seems to regularly chase other birds around and jump-rake at them.

This leads to another reflection. The birds obviously react differently to different costumes, and seemingly must be able to differentiate between them. It also is plain that the dynamics of the group from within changes as time passes. Much like in high school when popularity rises and falls, the cranes’ pecking order shuffles and re-aligns from time to time.

Once upon a time at Patuxent, 12-11 was a tough little girl. 1-11 was top dog, and 9-11 liked the costumes. As time progressed at White River Marsh #1 retained his chief position, #12 became one of our shyest birds, and #9 developed an attitude of indifference and disregard for the costumes. During the summer #5 surged to the top of the cohort and was lost in a grape-desiring frenzy for a few months.

As time has gone on, #5 has calmed down, fading somewhat into the background. Numbers 6 and 7 have taken a liking to their newfound tough-guy roles. #9 has began to warm up to the costumes as she will follow me around the pen sometimes, and come up to peck gently if I crouch down.

There is no doubt in my mind the group dynamics change over time. I am grateful and count myself extremely lucky to have the opportunity to observe such intriguing interactions between these fascinating creatures.

DELAY

Bill Lishman became the first human to fly in formation with a flock of birds in 1988. By 1993 he wanted to attempt the first human-led migration. At that time I was a disenchanted photographer having spent too many years at one thing. His invitation to see if we could actually lead a migration, sounded like a great summer time adventure. Little did I know it would be a life changing experience.

Since that time we have flown with geese, swans, Sandhill cranes and Whooping cranes. I have led birds south nineteen times and covered over 18,000 miles but it has come at a cost. My daughter was born in 1999 and I had to rush home from a meeting in Wisconsin to be there at the birth. Every year we are away from September to whenever the migration is complete. Every fall I miss my wife’s birthday, Halloween, and my daughters Christmas recital.

I am not sure why I am compiling this brief history. Maybe it’s an excuse, or to somehow appease my own guilt for not being with the team now. Whooping cranes are demanding, not only of the people who lead the migration, but of their families. Each of us on the team must balance one against the other and find the limits of what they are prepared to sacrifice. I reached mine when I headed home to join my family a few days before Christmas.

For several months we have been planning a trip to Costa Rica. The rest of the team was prepared to carry on without me so I felt confident my absence would not slow things down. Another week of bad weather ended those plans to carry on so a skeleton crew was left with the birds and the rest of the team headed home too.

The idea was to reconvene shortly after Christmas when the weather improved and I would join them after New Years. But plans are nothing more than ideas and reality hits hard. Over his break Brooke injured his back and should not be flying an aircraft as physically demanding as a trike. With me a few thousand miles away and Brooke temporarily out of commission, we are down to only one pilot. That means the migration is stalled until early in the New Year when Richard and I will carry on.

It is a unplanned for delay and one we would have preferred to avoid, but it is not unprecedented. Twice before we have held birds at this stopover while the team went home for Christmas. This is a longer stay than most, but it compares to previous years when we had to leave the birds penned in Florida while we waited for the older generation to stop in a Chassahowitzka NWR and then move on to their preferred wintering grounds.

It is not ideal, but there is no real down side. Migrations have taken longer with no adverse effect, and the birds are in a secure place in the hands of good people. The only negative is the migration will be prolonged, and of course Brooke has some recovering to do.

THE ANSWERS TO TRUE OR FALSE QUIZ II

Here are the answers to yesterday’s True or False quiz.

1. Puffins are poor flyers. TRUE
They flap their wings 300-400 times per minute. (The hummingbird, in normal flight, flaps 80 times per second!). However, the Puffin can hold its breath for up to a minute underwater. They can catch an average of ten fish in one dive.

2. Every month Americans throw out enough glass bottles and jars to fill a giant skyscraper. TRUE
It is all 100% recyclable. A glass container can travel from the recycling bin back to a store shelf in as little as 30 days. Manufacturers of glass containers have set a goal to have 50% recycled content by 2013 when making new bottles.

3. Monarch butterflies hatched in the early summer migrate in the fall. FALSE
Only Monarchs born in the late summer or early fall with make the round-trip journey. They are the only butterflies to make the massive trip, which is up to 3,000 miles. By the time next year’s migration begins, several summer generations will have lived and died and it will be last year’s migrators’ great grandchildren that take flight. Somehow these new generations know the way, and follow the same routes their ancestors took—sometimes even returning to the same tree.

4. There are nearly 100 species of freshwater mussels in the United States. FALSE
There are nearly 300 species and they are in peril. Habitat destruction and water pollution are their biggest threats. Ohio State University and the Columbus Zoo are working together on a study looking into the Northern Riffleshell species. They were abundant at one time in the upper Ohio River system but now only a few reproducing populations remain.

5. Approximately 5% of the water on Earth is accessible and fit for human use. FALSE
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, it is only about 1%. Conserving water at home helps protect the water sources available. Collect rainwater at home by using a rain barrel. It’s ideal for your garden or lawn. You’ll avoid using the water from the tap or an outdoor faucet. This reduces your overall water consumption and reduces the amount of energy needed to treat water at a water treatment facility.

6. The North American Wood stork is endangered. TRUE
They typically live in the wild for 11-18 years. The Wood stork uses an unusual yet effective fishing technique. It opens its bill, sticks it into the water and waits for an unfortunate fish that wanders too close. It then snaps its bill shut in as little as 25 milliseconds—an incredibly quick reaction time matched by few other vertebrates.

TRUE OR FALSE QUIZ II

Here is a second set of wildlife and environmental questions to test your knowledge. Try this True or False quiz and see how you do. For the answers check tomorrow’s Field Journal.

TRUE OR FALSE
1. Puffins are poor flyers.

2. Every month Americans throw out enough glass bottles and jars to fill a giant skyscraper.

3. Monarch butterflies hatched in early summer migrate in the fall.

4. There are nearly 100 species of freshwater mussels in the United States.

5. Approximately 5% of the water on Earth is accessible and fit for human use.

6. The North American Wood stork is endangered.