MIGRATION DAY 70 – DOWN DAY 6

Due to an equipment issue, the cranes, planes, and OM team will be unable to advance today.

Speaking of progress, or lack thereof, a comparison to previous years reveals that on this date in 2010 we were already in Gilchrist County Florida. However, in both 2008 and 2009, the only other years we’ve flown this more westerly route, we’ve been right here in Franklin County on December 17.

MIGRATION DAY 69 – DOWN DAY 5

The weatherman was correct. We were on the receiving end of lots of rain last evening and overnight and there has been no let up whatsoever today. What ever is in the ‘atmosphere’ is even playing games with our air cards so our internet connection was coming and going until now.

Photos below taken by Walt Sturgeon of Joe Duff and Richard van Heuvelen leading the Class of 2011 into Franklin County on December 11.

Joe leading four cranes

 

Richard leading five cranes

PREDICTING

As our intrepid Migration Crew Chief, Walter Sturgeon, would say, “It’s hard telling not knowing.”

That about sums up what we can say about the chances for a flight tomorrow. The winds both on the surface and aloft look about as light as they can be without being non-existent. The stinker is likely to be rain which the weatherman is predicting will be an overnight and all day affair.

MIGRATION DAY 68 – DOWN DAY 4

With that good ol’ rock ‘n roll experience we had throughout the night it would be understandable if everyone woke up thinking we were back in Illinois. Anything not nailed down is blowing by in the 20mph southerly wind. At altitude the wind velocity is more than double what we have on the ground. We will be staying put again today.

WOOD BUFFALO-ARANSAS POPULATION UPDATE – From Dan Alonso, Project Leader, Aransas NWR
“Individuals the Aransas-Wood Buffalo Whooping crane population began arriving on the Texas coastal bend and Aransas National Wildlife Refuge wintering grounds in late October.

Habitat conditions appear to be somewhat challenging for Whooping cranes this year, specifically with regard to drought and salinity aspects. Salinity levels in the San Antonio Bay are currently 35.3 parts per thousand, resulting in many cranes frequently utilizing inland freshwater sources.

To date, Aransas National Wildlife Refuge has received 14 inches of precipitation, which is approximately 23 inches below the annual average. In addition, harmful algae blooms, known as red tide, have occurred along the Texas coast. Red tide toxins can accumulate in fish, oyster, and clam populations in the bays, possibly causing illness and/or death to cranes and other wildlife consuming toxic seafood. Fortunately, there are no known reports of cranes dying from red tide in past outbreaks; biologists continue to keep a vigilant watch. Recent cooler temperatures have helped reduce red tide blooms.

The first Whooping crane census flight of the season was conducted on Thursday, December 8th, in response to confirmation of the first Whooping crane mortality discovered the previous day. One juvenile crane was found dead from unknown causes. The carcass has been sent to the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, WI for disease testing.

The goal of the flight was to assess the general distribution and condition of the Whooping crane population. During the flight, biologists noted a significant number of cranes were observed in the uplands, as opposed to marshlands where they are typically found. Field observations have resulted in biologists finding evidence of wolfberry and blue crab remains in crane scat. It appears that cranes are utilizing some resources within the marsh.

A second flight to estimate the population will be scheduled for January. In recognition of extreme drought conditions along the entire Texas coast, refuge officials spent the summer planning for the return of cranes. This included initiating work to maximize freshwater output from existing wells located throughout the refuge.

The Friends of Aransas and Matagorda Island NWR, a non-profit organization of volunteers dedicated to supporting the refuge in its goal of enhancing habitat and wildlife, have been instrumental in raising funds for converting windmills to solar pump energy. Prescribed burning, which can provide additional food resources for cranes lasting several weeks, has been planned for over 9700 acres. The refuge recently conducted its first burn of the season, consisting of 654 acres of Whooping crane habitat, and refuge officials observed immediate use by cranes.

After a successful nesting season, with approximately 37 chicks fledging from a record 75 nests in August 2011, biologists anticipate that the flock size could reach record levels this winter – possibly 300.”

MIGRATION DAY 67 – DOWN DAY 3

It was a warm 53 degrees at o’dark thirty, the warmest temperature early morning temperature we’ve experienced since leaving Wisconsin in early October. With a dense fog advisory, a ceiling of 100 feet at our destination, and ESE headwinds at 5mph on the surface and 25mph SSW winds aloft it was ‘three strikes and you’re out’ for the cranes and planes this morning.

There will be no advancement along the migration trail today. The Class of 2011 and OM crew will be spending a third Down Day in Franklin County, AL.

IN SEARCH OF STUDENT PRESENTATIONS
Jointly sponsored by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and Southern Company

The Operation Migration Education Team consisting of Gordon Perkinson and Christine Barnes, are offering presentations to schools along the migration route. (Within an approximate 30-40 mile radius) Their presentation lasts about an hour, and includes a PowerPoint show with video as well as a variety of interactive activities. Utilizing age-appropriate vocabulary and concepts, experienced educators Gordon and Christine engage and entertain students while expanding their science, math, geography, biology, and conservation knowledge. Optimum grade levels are 3 to 7, and groups size can range from 20 to 100.

If you, or someone you know is aware of schools or teachers you think would be receptive to an interesting and enlightening wildlife conservation presentation for their students, please let us know. Email class-visitAToperationmigration.org. (replace “AT” with @)

FLIPPING THE BIRD

The other night our dinner hosts were asking if we all had favorites among the young cranes. Each of us had our own response for our own reasons, but my choice was #1-11

During our sixteen day layover in Illinois, #1 got into a minor altercation that left him with a little bare spot of missing feathers on the front of his neck. It has now grown back but the feathers came in white while the rest of his neck is still the fawn color of youth. This little white rectangle makes him look clerical and also easier to spot when we are flying. You may remember that #1 one was a problem at White River Marsh.

Whooping crane chicks fledge when they are 80 to 100 days old, and until the first time they lift off the ground, the function of their wings must be a complete mystery. I am not suggesting that they actually contemplate the purpose of appendages that fold up on their back and flop around when they run, but there must be a point when the penny drops.

Because of his age, #1 reached that “ah-ha” moment before all the other birds in his cohort. When they all ran down the runway after the aircraft, he was the only one able to follow it into the air. The rest of his flock-mates stopped at the end of the runway when their smaller wings wouldn’t carry them any farther. He soon learned to circle back and join them and it didn’t take long for that action to become habit. Later, when all the chicks began to fly, he soon learned that if he simply landed they would all come back, and in the meantime he could poke in the grass and chase grasshoppers. For him, flying began to mean a quick circuit around the pen and then an opportunity to forage until his friends came home, at which point he would go back into the pen just like all the rest of them.

During the first stages of the migration, he would land in a nearby field before being loaded into a crate for a bumpy ride in the van. Maybe that unpleasant experience convinced him there was benefit in sticking with the aircraft and it only took one completed migration leg before he had it figured out. Thereafter he became one of the best followers. But following just wasn’t #1’s forte. If turning back wasn’t working for him, he tried leading.

Each bird has its own flying characteristics and #1 preferred the lead. Instead of tucking in behind the wing, he liked to fly above it. Gliding a few inches above the tip, he would be carried along, but his presence there destroyed some of the lift on that side, and our aircraft would turn in his direction. The pilot would have to shift the wing the other way to balance the uneven load, and two arms and a lot of extra effort was needed to carry him.

To correct this annoying habit, I tried speeding up, slowing down, or even making a steep turn. That would cause all the birds to chase the wing and sometimes he would lose his lead position when they reformed. He would follow in the number 2 or 3 spot for a while, but it wasn’t long before he would work his way up to his favored location again.

All things that fly have a center of gravity or C of G. In an aircraft, it must be balanced in order to fly level. As an example, a Piper Cub, which has tandem seats (one behind the other) must be flown solo from the back seat only or it will fly so “nose down” that it will crash. Even birds have a C of G. Generally it is right at the wings, or the center of the lifting point. That’s why cranes must fly with the legs and neck outstretched while herons fly with the necks curved.

After my arms grew sore from carrying #1 one on my wing tip, I decided to try some behavior modification. I slowed very slightly until his body was ahead of the wing but his legs were still over it. Then I pushed up quickly, which raised my wing, caught his legs and tipped him off balance with his head down.

This upset in his C of G would cause him to plummet thirty feet below the wing before he regained balance and climbed back up. Our trike wings are made of fabric so there was no fear of causing injury and it only took a couple of tries at “Flipping the Bird” before he learned to avoid that annoyance.

MIGRATION DAY 66 – DOWN DAY 2

The low ceiling started to lift, so Richard repeated his early morning test flight around 8:30am. He reported topping out at around 1600 feet and was only able to get up to about 22mph of speed. In fact it was virtually moments after his going aloft before the aviation radios squawked, “No way we can do this. We’re down.”

The team spent the next while returning trikes the the hangar and vehicles to their positions in camp so we could re-hook up again.

MIGRATION DAY 65 – DOWN DAY 1

At 43, it was exactly 20 degrees warmer in Franklin County, AL this morning than it was at the same time yesterday in Hardin County, TN. That alone should have been a good indication of the wind direction. However…

While the weather sites were reporting 5mph ESE winds on the surface, the flag here in camp was hanging straight down in dead calm air. That was the situation on the surface. At altitude on the other hand, the weather sites were reporting 15 to 20mph winds out of the WSW. The question was – if they were wrong on the surface were they wrong aloft.

Only one way to find out; send up a test trike. In fact all three trikes went up to check conditions. What they found was strong headwinds no matter the altitude.

This means we will not have a fifth consecutive fly day, rather, it will be Down Day 1 in Franklin County, AL.

For those of you interested in ‘stats’, there were three years in which we flew on five or more consecutive days. In 2001 we had two long stretches of flights, one was a five day stretch and the other seven consecutive days. In 2002 we had one occurrence of seven consecutive flights, and in 2004 we flew on six consecutive days. Matching this migration’s four straight days of flying were the years 2002 and 2004.

ABSURD ATTACKS

Have you ever said a word over and over to yourself so many times it loses meaning, abstracts, and stretches into the absurd? For some reason the repetition results in a mental disconnect between the sounds being produced, the mental image, and the link between the two. All sense and logic is lost for those brief moments before collapsing back into reality.

“Car, car, car, car…car….” What does that even mean? What really is a car? Pistons firing in a cylinder igniting compressed carbon from ancient bogs resulting in the turning of a crankshaft that ultimately rotates two tires – all steered by an advanced hominid.

I am all to often overcome by these moments of sheer absurdity. I’ve noticed I am prone to what I will dub in this prose, “absurd attacks” especially when I’m spending time with the birds. It would be all too easy to accept what it is I do as normal and forget how absolutely unique and uncommon it actually is. I wear a large white suit to act as a surrogate parent to an endangered crane.

Wait, I don’t think you heard what I said. I WEAR A BIG WHITE SUIT AND ACT AS A SURROGATE PARENT FOR ENDANGERED CRANES!!!

Are you starting to follow me? How many people through out the expanse of human history can say they have shared a similar experience? On a daily basis I dress up in a large white costume, complete with helmet and crane-puppet and go spend time with a group of young Whooping Cranes. This opportunity which I have been given by Operation Migration has allowed me to experience things unimaginable to many, and because of this, has permitted me to think about how lucky I am to be here. I am lucky to be here, now, alive, breathing and sharing this life with such amazing animals.

I felt the desire to express my experience with these ‘absurd attacks’ after having one in the pen the other evening during roost checks. I was crouched down tossing around a cornhusk as my cohort of nine crowded around pecking away at the earth and me.

I felt the need to try and express how absurdly wonderful my situation was. And, all the while, deal with trying to rationalize the dissociated state in to which I fall, into another understanding – the appreciation that there is something real, so very real, in my situation.

While in the pen all fear about the future melts away, regret for the past…gone. All worries about paying my bills evaporate. All stress and turmoil of the daily grind we as people have created for ourselves is obliterated. When I am in there it is just ten creatures experiencing each other. Ten creatures exploring what the universe has to offer. We are all complex organic machines; complex arrangements of molecules combating entropy.

Yet, there is something more there, even if we as creatures can be broken down to strictly the mechanical and chemical level we still share something ethereal and intangible. We share the beautiful, magnificent, and absurd experience of life. We all share the ability to explore new things, see new things, smell new things, hear new things, and interact with new other unique creatures.

Every time I leave the pen I leave with a renewed sense of awe and wonder at my experience in life. I want to grab everyone I see when I get back to camp, shaking them and screaming, “Don’t you see how beautiful and amazing it all is? Be kind to each other! Care about our fellow creatures! Think outside yourself! We’re all in this together!”

Everyone wants to leave a legacy for him or herself. It’s hard to cope with the idea of disappearing from this earth. It’s even harder to come to terms with the idea that 100 years from now we’ll all be gone and we might not have left something to be remembered by.

This leads into the point I may or may not have been trying to make when I started writing this. It is the experiences, the indefinable experiences I am attempting to capture here. They are truly what matters for all individuals. – past, present and future.

In this case, it’s the experiences of the future I want to protect and make possible. Even though none of us will truly know what life is like from within a young Whooper’s head, by protecting their species we will continue to make their exploration of life a possibility. By protecting this species we will be protecting future generations exploration and wonder of the world. By protecting this species we are ensuring future humans and cranes may get to experience the awe and wonder of simply interacting with each other.

Whoa…Sorry, that might be a little intense. But, the feelings that rush over someone during an absurd attack can certainly surge with intensity and wonderful peculiarity. This may or may not make sense, but I felt the need to share. Thanks for listening!

PREDICTING

It is not looking particularly promising for a flight tomorrow. Winds are forecast to be light but easterly on the surface at both at our departure and arrival points, and from 5 to 10mph from the WSW aloft. Between now and then we could see a change either way but maybe we’re just being overly optimistic.

Folks in the area who are interested in coming out to watch the flyover departure should note that the viewing site is new this year. It is at the junction of Hwy 243 and County Road 75 which is about 4.25 miles south of Russellville. That viewing opportunity may not turn out to be tomorrow, but it WILL be on a morning soon after…. we hope.