UP, UP, AND AWAY…

“So long, It’s been good to know ya,” is the song the classic American folk group, the Weavers, used to end every concert with. And I could hear Pete Seager and Company singing away in the background when about 9:30 yesterday morning a flock of about 60 Sandhills took flight and the DAR’s with them. They spiraled up into the cloudless blue above, and headed north to begin their migration.

They, of course, were vocalizing their own accompaniment, more raucous than melodic. But hey,… whatever works. Soon they were reduced to beeps on the radio receiver until those too faded into silence. There’s always something hauntingly sad yet joyous about such an occasion.

The wonder of it all might be best celebrated with a toast to all the great people and all their great efforts that made this moment a reality. But still, you’re left with the feeling you had when you put your child on the school bus for the first time. It’s a jungle out there, and a hell of a long way to Wisconsin. And I wish I’d gotten to know them better…the DAR’s, I mean. Sure 19-09 was a familiar ultralight alumni. But those other two DAR chicks. They were just so darn cute! Meanwhile, our nine little characters looked up briefly in half interest, then went about their foraging. Perhaps they were dining on “It’s all about ME” grubs.

Not that the day started out that way. What I mean is, things started out pretty mellow. At 6:05 am the twelve Whoopers flew in together from Dinsmore Slough. No Sandhills, no ducks, no geese. Just white! You could almost hear them singing “We are the World” as they moved as one across the field, probing and grubbing as they went.

Then at 7:30 the Sandhills arrived. First a dozen, then maybe 20, followed by more in dribs and drabs until they numbered about 60, loosely coalescing into three distinct groups. That’s when the DAR’s traded the novelty of new friendship for the security of old and mingled with the Sandhills. Meanwhile the nine UL chicks simply wandered through the maze of grey, out the other side and off to the far side of the field.

All this was punctuated by the arrival of three playful bucks (as in deer), two sporting wall worthy racks as they sparred for a quick round or two in the midst of the Sandhills. One could not escape the urge to blame the complete incongruity of the scene on Monty Python. Soon the bucks ran off to answer their hormonal call of the wild, leaving the Sandhills to listen for their call of migration above the ever present din of nearby traffic, and the occasional lonesome train whistle, the kind that lives in at least every third country and western song.

But Mother Nature can out shout even the loudest of man produced ear worms, and when she calls, nature listens and the curtain rises on the symphony that is migration.

It was lonely for a while. The chicks continued their probing explorations in their favorite places with complete innocence and trust. Perhaps too much of both. What will life be like now without the presence of these other spirits, without their vigilance, their wisdom, their experience? Though the ties were loose and seemingly non-binding, did there exist by their presence a karma of protection? Has the threat level just ratcheted up? Have the challenges and threats just grown exponentially?

I sat in the bush watching the chicks a few hundred yards away, haunted by all this when seemingly out of nowhere a small flock of Sandhills appeared from high above. They parachuted down to where the chicks foraged in complete innocence. Then a larger flock appeared, then another, until there were over 100 Sandhills standing shoulder to shoulder with the still unimpressed chicks.

The mountain was again coming to Mohammed and perhaps bringing with it that special something that makes things turn out okay. And as the sun dropped like a lead sinker into a pool of dirty water, they all flew off to the slough to roost together.

It was dark when I got out of the van to unlock the visitors center gate, and as my hands wrestled with the lock, something ran out onto the driveway 10 yards in front of me, stared at me momentarily, then ran across into the bushes. A bobcat!.
Nice.

TO CARE OR NOT TO CARE…THAT IS THE QUESTION

“Rhett, Rhett, …Rhett! If you go, where shall I go? What shall I do?” to which Rhett Butler replies to Scarlet O’Hara “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” And so, that wonderful piece of dialogue in the final scene of “Gone With the Wind” became forever the unofficial definition of the condition we call “indifference”.

And it is indifference that so far best describes the interaction our chicks have had with both the Sandhills and the DAR’s. (the title I use to describe the group of two DAR birds and 19-09). It’s neither like nor dislike, happy nor sad. They just don’t seem to care.

The Sandhills and DARs will usually fly over to the chicks in the morning, surrounding them in large numbers with playful enthusiasm, but the chicks usually barely acknowledge their presence and continue to forage, more often than not eventually wandering away as if in need of their alone time, while the Sandhills follow after them. It is definitely a case of the mountain going to Mohammed instead of Mohammed going to the mountain. And it is the same for the DAR’s.

Now 19-09 believes himself to be “Big Man on Campus” and struts his stuff accordingly, as if wearing a college letter sweater from Migration U., where you earn a letter for completing a migration. You know the type. But this attitude elicits no response from the chicks. After all, they earned their letters for being stuck in a pen for almost 6 weeks without developing any parasite problems and leaving the pen far stronger fliers than when they went in thus proving the naysayers wrong once again. An amazingly resilient group of chicks, these.

But there have been exceptions to this theme of indifference. One night two weeks ago, #7 flew out with the Sandhills to roost, and on another night, #5 did the same. Then this week, for three straight nights all the chicks flew out to the slough with the last remaining flock of Sandhills and roosted. But the following two nights they remained here to roost alone at their usual spot. So they are not completely indifferent and they do show signs of caring.

Perhaps they know just how important it is to care, and they are not like the Youtube Honey badger who just doesn’t give a #@#%$. (If you need a real laugh…and who doesn’t, google the Youtube Honey badger and see first hand what it means not to care).

Maybe they know that caring morphs into not caring and back again just as day turns into night, and that without all this ebb and flow of caring, not caring, where would we be? No yard sales, no divorce courts! Life would simply not be worth living! And sure, not caring can be a valuable survival tool, but it can also be a disability worthy of a handicap parking sticker. What we do and don’t care about, after all, is one of the biggest pieces of the puzzle that is each of us. Surely the chicks are well aware of all of this. Hanging around for many millions of years has got to teach you something!

Last night, hidden behind the blind, as the last of the day’s light faded into shadow and I mentally put the finishing touches to this update, I heard the Sandhill’s preflight cacophony begin to erupt from across the field. Soon what was left of the horizon filled with the large remaining flock of grey, embedded with 12 white Whoopers heading off for the night’s roost at the slough.

I guess some nights you just care more than others.

BIRDS STRUGGLE TO ADAPT

We are always appreciative when folks send us links to web articles related to wildlife conservation, particularly those focused on cranes, but also those about migratory birds. One such link came to us recently from Ontario resident and OM office volunteer George McCubbin.

Authored by Joel Boyce, the article is entitled, “Migratory Birds Struggle to Adapt to New Climate.” The article reports on the results of a Swedish survey.

Quoting… The 20 years of data collected on migratory birds…”suggests that European species have been adapting to warmer temperatures, but not enough. Set temperatures are approximately 250km (155 miles) more to the north than at the beginning of this period. What this means is that since average temperatures for a particular time of year are warmer throughout the continent, migratory routes should also adjust. Specifically, each species should be shortening its trips south during the winter, and spending their summers farther north than previously.”

The article goes on to say, “But what the Swedish group has discovered is that, although bird species have been moving northwards, they haven’t been adjusting their routes as quickly as the climate itself has been changing. In fact, they’ve only adjusted their wintering and summering spots by half the distance they should have in order to maintain the same living temperatures. The danger is that the health of the birds will be badly affected if they don’t learn to move to a better temperature range for their physical needs.”

Also notable are the ripple effects related to food sources and other factors. All very interesting given the short-stopping of their fall migration’s exhibited by the Wood Buffalo-Aransas and Eastern Migratory Populations this past season. What will also be interesting to see is whether or not the cranes will conclude their return migration at their usual summering grounds, or begin to seek more northerly habitats.

Click here to read the full article.

I SPY WITH MY LITTLE EYE….

In the words of Wheeler refuge volunteer Nancy, “The cranes are going to do what they want to do, and when they want to.” And so they do. We never know exactly where they will be and what they will be doing.

For the most part they are spending the day in the field across the pond from the viewing tower. But refuge staff has seen them far and wide in areas we don’t have access to. Yesterday morning I observed the birds foraging alone in a field, only to fly across the field and join a pair of Sandhill cranes. After mingling with the Sandys, they meandered away and remained in the field for a couple of hours.

Last night, when we arrived at our viewing spot, the two DAR chicks and 19-09 were in their same field with the usual contingent of Sandhills. Our chicks were not seen, but were heard on the telemetry, so we walked over to another field and, sure enough, there they were foraging alone. After observing them for a time from our hidden spots in the trees, they took off and flew over to join the ever-growing flock of cranes.

By the time we walked back to our blind, we could catch occasional glimpses of white through the sea of gray. It was impossible to count just how many white birds were there, and when one Whooping crane flew off, Brooke quickly grabbed the telemetry gear and identified it as the male DAR chick. On our walk back to the blind, we missed 19-09 flying off with the female DAR chick.

After watching and listening for a very short while, several groups of Sandhills took to the air and headed back to their unseen roost site. On every previous evening but one, our chicks have stayed put and have waited to roost until after sun has set. On this evening, we could clearly see the Whoopers preparing to fly. Could it be that Brooke would get his wish of an earlier roosting time?

Instead of their usual nonchalant grubbing, they stood alert, looking towards their departing smaller cousins. Soon, they assumed the preflight posture, leaning ever farther forward, until their necks were almost horizontal. With one powerful downbeat, they began to lift off and joined up with the throng, heading to roost. We soon lost sight of them as they disappeared behind the trees, and for the first time since the release, we walked out while the sun was still touching horizon.

CLASS OF 2011 UPDATE

The news from Brooke Pennypacker, who is monitoring the Class of 2011 at the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama, is there has been a behavior change. Up until this past Sunday, the young cranes have been going to roost on their own in the evening. They continue to frequent the same spot during the day as the two Direct Autumn Release (DAR) cranes and a group of Sandhill cranes, but as evening approached, the three groups would depart and go their own way.

Brooke said the Sandhills generally begin heading for their evening roost site around 4:00-4:30pm; the DAR birds for theirs about an hour later. Then, around six-ish, the nine cranes in the Class of 2011 fly off to their favored roosting location. Monday that changed.

Beginning that evening, the Class of 2011 joined the Sandhills at their roosting spot, but in Brooke’s estimation, not until too much time had elapsed. You see, while the nine young birds altered their roost location, they didn’t alter their timing. They are still waiting until six o’clock or after before they make that move.

Brooke says this habit makes him nervous, and that he wishes they’d pick up on the roosting timing of their Sandhill cousins. He said, “I’d worry a whole lot less if they would get safely settled in a roost site earlier, because once dusk begins to fall, predators come out to hunt for their dinner. As it is, it’s getting pretty dark by the time they decide to call it a night.”

Isn’t that just like teenagers? When they will learn? Let’s hope they pick up on that survival skill lesson soon.

Eastern Migratory Population Update

In a report received yesterday from WCEP Tracking Team, the maximum size of the Eastern Migratory Population (EMP) as of February 19th is estimated at 107 consisting of 54 males and 53 females. At almost exactly the same time last year the population size was 106, a growth of just one despite the release of an additional 18 Whooping cranes this past season.

Accounting for this minimal growth in the population are mortalities due to shootings, attrition, and that WCEP has removed  four more Whooping cranes from the population that are now consider dead as they have been missing for more than a year. The four Whooping cranes no longer included in the population total are 16-03, 14-05, 13-07 and 13-09.

Also estimated in the latest tracking report is the population’s distribution as of February 19th, 2012 (or last record). The unusual distribution prompted us to check our past records. The chart below shows a comparison of the flock’s current locations versus their locations at approximately the same time in 2010. (Note 2011 location summary not readily available but may be added later.)

2012 LOCATED IN 2010
40 Indiana 8
  5 Illinois 0
  4 Georgia 3
16 Alabama 8
  2 South Carolina 4
  2 North Carolina 0
  5 Tennessee 8-9
  6 Kentucky 10
11 Florida 50
14 Location unknown 5-6
 2 Long term missing 7

STILL ON WINTERING GROUNDS

Close to 40 percent of the Eastern Migratory Population (EMP) chose to short-stop their fall migration considerably north of their usual wintering grounds, Where in 2010/2011 there were 23 Whoopers wintering in Florida, as of mid January 2012 there were just 13. Since 2005 Florida has never hosted less than 23 over-wintering Whooping cranes and has had as many as 46 Whooping cranes wintering there.

Some members of the EMP made the complete journey to their usual territories however. Pictured here are two such Whooping cranes. Their favored spot to pass away the winter months is in Lowndes County, Georgia.

This photo of the pair consisting of female 39-07* and male 7-07 comes to us compliments of Craniac SB, their ‘resident guardian’.

Pair 7-07 & 39-07* were the first to arrive, and they were later joined by 3-07 & 38-08*. For this photo op they were joined by a visiting Sandhill.

A Good Morning

Guest Author: Bev Paulan

A good morning is never guaranteed after a good evening, but yesterday morning might have been the exception. We got as good a show as has been performed yet this season at the Wheeler theater in the round.

Brooke and I arrived at our blind around 0730, which is very close to sunrise. Our radio receiver told us all 12 birds were in the fields near the pond where the pen had been set up, so we were anxious to get a visual confirmation of the audible position report.

As we brought our binoculars to our eyes, we simultaneously uttered “cooooolllll!” as we saw all twelve birds standing in a line among a flock of Sandhill cranes. Lowering the binocs, we smiled at each other, enjoying the ease of the morning check. I thought that if every morning was this easy, I would have no problem removing myself from the comfort of my bed while still in the pre-dawn gloominess.

We continued to watch our charges as they melted into the gray flock, sometimes disappearing completely, just to reappear moments later as their smaller cousins moved aside. Flocks of Greater white fronted geese flew in making their squeaky, unhinged door call.

As the morning grew brighter, the activity of the chicks increased, with one or more jumping at the Sandhills trying to show that, “yes I am bigger and therefore badder”. The Sandhills paid no mind to the chicks, and as the morning wore on they slowly departed for parts unknown in groups of twos and threes and sometimes up to twenty.

We were still watching, enjoying the show, not realizing that the best performance was yet to come.

Around 0800, the two DAR chicks and 19-09 lifted off with a large group of Sandhills and headed toward the slough. The air was filled with ducks, geese, gray and white cranes, and the cacophony was almost deafening, drowning out the morning traffic on the highway.

Still glassing our chicks, we were amused by a Sandhill crane that kept leaping into the air and tossing a stick, seemingly for the enjoyment of the act itself.

About ten minutes after the first three birds left, the nine ultralight chicks all leapt into the air and flew towards us. My camera was clicking madly as I tried to capture digitally a moment that is too remarkable to do justice to with either words or images. One has to experience the moment firsthand to fully appreciate the beauty of nine juvenile, now wild, Whooping cranes, stretching their 7 foot wings and climbing ever higher in the brightening sky. Slowly they came towards us, then overflew us. Mouths agape, we stretched our necks to try to keep them in our view, and then watched them land in the pond near the refuge visitor center.

Knowing that the morning could not get any better, we walked away from the blind, thankful for the show and with the full knowledge that most mornings are not better than the evening before—-but this one sure was.

Wood Buffalo-Aransas Population Update

Chester McConnell noted in a recent post to the Whooping Crane Conservation Association website that, “Aransas National Wildlife Refuge biologists now estimate the population of Whooping cranes [in the Wood Buffalo-Aransas flock] within their survey area to be approximately 245 individuals.” Not included in the 245 are Whooping cranes known to be at other locations in Texas as well as several other states.

The method of counting Whooping cranes on Aransas Refuge has been modified. Known as ‘distance sampling’, census flights along straight lines set at specific distances within the survey area are flown. Where previously, an aerial survey consisted of one flight, now, to estimate the population, the birds are counted on three flights on three separate days.

Aransas officials explained that, “Over the years the Whooping crane population has been growing, the habitat changing, and the birds naturally dispersing. The primary goal is to ensure the recovery of the species and to do that the refuge and its partners must adjust with the ever-changing conditions.” Read the report.

A NIGHT ON THE REFUGE

Guest Author: Bev Paulan

Every night in birdland is different than the last. When Brooke and I walk out to our observation blind, we never know exactly where the chicks will be. Before we walk out, we pull out the telemetry receiver and listen to the beeps to get a general idea of the birds’ proximity and direction. Some nights, all the beeps are loud and clear. Other nights only a few of the birds are close, and it is never the same birds in the same location.

Last night, on listening to the receiver, all 12 signals (we are also scanning for the two DAR chicks and 19-09) were of a medium strength. That told us the birds were near what had previously been their pen site, but not right at the pen area. In the morning, the signals had been weak, telling Brooke that the birds were off at the Sandhill’s roost area, approximately ¾ of a mile south of where the pen had been.

Sneaking into the blind Brooke had set up, we saw initially no birds. Scanning the area, we still saw no chicks, so we left the blind and walked down a path that would take us towards the fields the chicks have frequented. We no sooner got on the path, than we spotted some white through the trees and made a quick beeline back to the blind. Six of the chicks came walking from the field they had been in the previous morning, then flew across their roosting pond and over toward a gathering of their gray brethren. One chick peeled off and landed in the pond, and the other five quickly melded into the flock of Sandhills.

That left six cranes still unaccounted for, other than the audible beep on the receiver. The field that the birds feed in during the day has several dips, and a portion cannot be seen from Brooke’s small blind hidden in the trees. We can only see them when they fly up out of the wet depression, or pop their heads up if something causes concern.

Since we could not see the other six, Brooke decided to hike the long route out of sight of the birds that runs through the trees and over the hills to a vantage point overlooking the flyway to the Sandhill’s roosting slough. Each night the two DAR chicks and 19-09 have roosted with the Sandies, and on two occasions so has 7-11. Bearing that in mind, Brooke wanted to be pre-positioned in case they flew that way again. I stayed in the blind keeping watch on the field in case the missing six flew into view.

Shortly after five, right on their usual schedule, the Sandhills started rising into the air in small groups, calling their prehistoric, indescribable call. And, because of all that ruckus, I spied three cinnamon and white heads pop up over the rise across the way as if they were rubber-necking at an accident. If there were three, perhaps there could be six. I would just have to wait and see.

My patience was rewarded, because within five minutes, just as a large group of Sandhills were lifting off, four white shapes emerged from the depression. Quickly grabbing my binoculars, I saw that three still had buff colored heads while one was sporting a beautiful red crown and full black mustache. That left two still unseen. I made a quick call to Brooke to let him know white birds were headed his way and then went back to check on the original five across the field. After a rapid back and forth scan, only one bird was visible. How could I have missed the other four flying away? Another call to Brooke and then back to scanning.

Wheeler refuge is situated along a rather busy state highway and the traffic noise can be fairly loud. Sandhill cranes can be louder though, and every time a group became airborne, the traffic would be drowned out. Over this whole din I could hear the plaintive and very loud peeps of a chick in distress. Like any parent, I immediately became hyper-aware, and looked to see the cause of the angst.

The remaining chick across the field was looking in every direction for her fellow cohort members and calling loudly to them. With a very observable double-take on her part, she took off at a very quick walk, going completely opposite of where I thought the birds had flown. The chick that had landed in the pond also started walking the same general direction. Then I glimpsed white far across the pond. I waited until the two chicks were a good ½ mile away and I crawled out of the blind into the periphery of the field to see if I could get a beak count.

Since it has warmed up, not only was I looking for chicks, but snakes as well, since I was now on a nose to nose level with any reptile lurking about ( I am especially paranoid after a sneak attack by a frog last night). While trying my best to sneak, I looked up just in time to see the last two unaccounted for chicks take off from their hidden position across the way and fly Brooke’s general direction. By this time I had gotten to a spot to count six chicks on the north end of the pond, and finally sighed a grateful sigh that all 12 birds were found and accounted for.

After sneaking back into the blind, I once again called Brooke, who having seen the last two fly by his hidding spot, was walking back to my location. After he returned and before leaving the blind, we watched the six chicks forage their way back to a good roosting position. Another interesting evening in birdland and as we walked back to the van, we reveled in the music of geese, ducks, and frogs, content in our muddy condition knowing that all the birds were well on their way to independence.

CLASS OF 2011 UPDATE

It wasn’t exactly ‘love at first flight’, but it was an exciting moment in this new reality show called ‘Hard Core Release,’ when yesterday morning our ever curious, yet curiously independent Whooper chicks met the two Direct Autumn Release (DAR) birds and 19-09, their protective mentor, for the first time.

The Class of 2011 and the DAR cranes have been casting their collective eyeballs on each other for a few days now, but had not shown any interest in getting up close and personal – until Tuesday morning.

Our chicks sauntered slowly across the field where the DAR threesome stood among their usual flock of Sandhill cranes. For lack of a better word I say ‘sauntered,’ because they moved heads down, grubbing and probing for who knows what. This made it look like they were pulling themselves in slow motion across the field with their beaks, until they finally made it over to who some expect will become their new best friends.

As the imaginary orchestra tuned up to accompany the moment with a Disneyesque movie score titled “Meet the DAR’s,” #19-09 (far left in photo) raised up his head and greeted each chick with its own special aggressive slam. Momentarily, the chicks responded with surprise, then immediate resignation, and then resumed their probing completely unaffected and disinterested while the Sandhills looked on in what one could perceive as amusement. Meanwhile the thought balloons over the DAR chicks heads read, “Harsh!!!!”

As the music transposed to a minor key you could almost hear the voice of John Wayne saying, “Welcome to the Wild West, Pilgrims.” But John didn’t know what life for the chicks with the Costumed People’ has been like, and compared to that, this was like a leisurely stroll down Easy Street.

In time, our chicks and the DAR birds leisurely moved away from each other. Later in the day though, our little darling #7-11 flew over to the DAR’s for more face-time, and this resulted in not an ounce of drama. It was just an, “Think I’ll probe with you guys for a while.” Thus, the accompanying picture….and as everyone knows, “a picture tells a thousand probes.”

WOOD BUFFALO-ARANSAS POPULATION UPDATE

The January aerial surveys at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and surrounds produced a low count of Whooping cranes compared to previous years.

USFWS biologists’ census results revealed that only 193 Whoopers were sighted, of which 23 were juveniles. Officials estimate that at least 16 others from this population are wintering in areas distant from their typical locations, some as far away as Nebraska. Five of the Aransas cranes, including a family of three, a juvenile and a lone adult, are known to be wintering in south central Kansas.

The low count is worrisome because at the season’s start, experts estimated the population number could be as high as 300. The drought is drastically changing the habits of the Texas wintering cranes. With a lack of rain and river inflow at estuaries that the cranes depend on, there is a shortage of potable water and a decrease in the supply of their preferred food, blue crabs. As a result, some cranes are deserting the bay areas and flying inland to search for food and water.

We wait anxiously for the report from the next aerial census which is scheduled for mid-February.

Click the link to visit the website of the Whooping Crane Conservation Association (WCCA) to read the most recent full report on the Wood Buffalo-Aransas Population of Whooping cranes. To help ensure an adequate food supply for cranes wintering at Aransas cranes, the WCCA has been urging the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to effect a closure on crabbing in the area. Click here to read that article.

CLASS OF 2011 UPDATE

The Class of 2011 has a special visitor this week. Bev Paulan, former OM Ground Supervisor and now a pilot with the Wisconsin DNR, has been spending some vacation time checking out what the nine young cranes released at the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge are getting up to.

Bev tells us that on Monday the cranes were mingling with Sandhills, but spent the best part of their day on their own loafing, foraging and meandering around the pond. By nightfall they were feeding in the field surrounding the pond, and right before roosting, she watched as they flew a lap around the pond.

For a time, the Whoopers could be seen from the refuge blind and we have Bev to thank for snapping these photos to share with us and with you.

CLASS OF 2011 REPORT

Brooke Pennypacker reported this morning that cold, high NW winds restricted flying of most of the birds at the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge yesterday. He noted that even the Sandhills didn’t make an appearance at their usual haunt until late afternoon and then only stayed for about 20 minutes before leaving for the roost site.

For much of the day, the Class of 2011 stayed in the wetland region they had been using, moving only to an area that was somewhat out of the wind. Brooke has been waiting for an opportunity to take the travel pen down. Yesterday that happened, but the young cranes only remained out of sight long enough for him to extract the electric fencing surrounding the pen that had previously been disconnected and left lying on the ground.

The current weather front is predicted to move out tonight to be replaced with warmer weather delivered by winds that will shift to come out of the south.

Those conditions are forecast to last for at least two or three days, and Brooke expects that is likely to prompt more departure activity. Like other species across the country who have launched their return north more than a month ahead of ‘usual’, many of Wheeler’s wintering Sandhills have already departed.

We will be checking with Brooke each day for a ‘status report’, so stay tuned to the Field Journal for the latest Class of 2011 news.

NINE WHOOPING CRANES RELEASED

Yesterday morning around 8:00am CST, the nine young Whooping cranes in the ultralight-led Class of 2011 were released from their temporary pensite at the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama. Along with OM’s Brooke Pennypacker, on hand for the event were WCEP Tracker, Eva Szyszkoski from ICF, Interns Olivia and Ben who were up from Florida’s Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, and Bill Gates, Biologist at the Wheeler Refuge.

The cranes had their health checks as well as their permanent bands affixed on Thursday, the 9th, and normally would have been held in the pen a bit longer to allow them more recovery time. Brooke advised that moving up the timing for their release was based on several factors.

He said it appeared the young cranes had made a speedy recovery from being handled. Also, because many of the Sandhill cranes were leaving and the behavior patterns of the two Direct Autumn Release juveniles present were changing, the timing was auspicious. These reasons, along with a predicted weather front moving in that was likely to motivate birds to head north, prompted the decision to effect the release a day or two early.

When the pen gates were opened, the birds came out walking and flapping. No residual soreness or limping was seen and all the birds flew, three of them for an extensive period. They appeared to be enjoying their new-found freedom and eventually they flew to a nearby wetland. With the release of the Class of 2011 into the wild, the estimated maximum number of Whooping cranes in the reintroduced Eastern Migratory Population is 112.

Brooke remains on site to monitor their activity. Once they have removed themselves to where they are out of sight of the travel pen enclosure, he will be able to go in to take it down and pack it up so it can be hauled out.

“So far the cranes are foraging and hanging around in flooded fields close to the pen,” said Wheeler Biologist, Bill Gates. The photos we share with you below came to us compliments of Bill. Photo credit: USFWS – William R. Gates

Pen gates open

Pen gates open and the Whoopers leave their pen.

One crane jumps and flaps as Brooke watches others.

Four young cranes stroll and forage in nearby wetland.

Headed for the wetland with ‘landing gear’ down.

Testing their wings and enjoying their new-found freedom.

Click this link to view more photos, including those captured during the health checks and banding procedure. We will post more news on the Class of 2011 here as it comes in. Stay tuned!