It’s like the man said, “You don’t know how deep the puddle is until you step in it.” And every day on migration, we step into another puddle. First we dip in our toe, then our foot, and before long we find ourselves completely submerged discussing marine biology with Jacques Cousteau.

But the key to a successful migration is momentum. It is the magic carpet which carries us over the daily challenges and takes the sting out of daily disappointments. It gives our endeavor its rhythm and flow and stride. It is robust yet delicate and fragile. It is hard won and yet easily lost, and once lost, so difficult to regain.

We arrived here in Alabama in December with momentum. Since then, time and inactivity have striped us of it, and each new flying opportunity is a struggle to get it back.

In our case, our momentum is based on one thing….the birds’ willingness to follow the aircraft. Simple as that. But their desire to follow diminishes as the days become weeks and no migration legs are flown. The spaced repetition we employed to impose our blueprint upon their natural one has faded, and so our work must begin again. That’s just the way it is and this morning was no exception.

But writing an update describing the experience so soon after taking the plunge is a little like asking a post delivery mother to write an essay on childbirth while the doctor is still counting her baby’s fingers and toes, or Abbot asking Costello who’s on first. So here goes another try at that puddle.

Finally!!! Did I say Finally???? Finally, we had a real, honest to goodness fly day…something we have been dreaming about for what seems forever…which, as everybody knows, is a long, long time. The air on the way to the bird pen was sweetly smooth except for the hint of turbulence caused by our own anticipation. Would the birds follow? That was the nagging question, because as I said, the key a successful migration is beautifully, maddenly, unbelievably simple: the birds just have to follow the aircraft. Would they follow today? The last two tries did not go well, gaining only about 9 miles of migration.

Geoff pulled open the pen door as I swooped in for an aerial pickup, and six birds lifted skyward though one left late and remained low. Two birds remained in the pen and refused to join the effort, so the seven and I headed off . At first the birds formed up well, and aside from the usual coaxing maneuvers, things looked promising, though #12 began her routine of catching up then dropping down.

After a while, #7 began her routine of breaking off and heading back to the pen taking another bird with her. I turned back to round them up, but after several such exercises I left them for Joe. Richard, meanwhile, dropped down and picked up #12 and headed for Walker County.

All went well until #5 got the urge to turn back, and back we went to recover him. He’d get back on the wing for a while then again turn back, losing altitude then climbing back up and regaining his position on the wing. Losing sight of him in this rough terrain was not an option.

Then another bird began to break back with him each time, and it was time for me to remove him from the equation. I found a private airstrip and radioed Caleb and Hudean to meet me there. The plan was to land, crate #5, and take off again for the next stopover site with #1, #3 and #4.

However, it was later decided to set up a pen at the grassy airstrip and hold the birds there for the night. Richard dropped off his bird to join the others. While the pen was being erected I hid the birds in a nearby field where they enjoyed a couple of hours of grubbing, ant hill sieges, and exploring, while I, dressed in my cold weather flying gear, sweated away a few of the too many pounds I have gained on migration. Then Joe arrived and we led the birds to the pen where Caleb awaited. By early afternoon they were joined by #7, #9 and #10.

We gained little in mileage but have hopefully have made a positive gain in our effort to recover some momentum. Now we wait for another good flying day and another opportunity to sound that puddle. Now, where did I put that wet suit!


The storm that went through last night was as ferocious as promised and then some. The residual effects wind-wise linger this morning the result being we will spend another day here on the ground.

From what we can ascertain, southern Alabama is still under a tornado watch, so we will be following the weather forecasts and radar closely today in order to weigh our chances of flying tomorrow.


It sure would be nice, just once, to be able to write up a Predicting entry that says, “We’re flying tomorrow – no doubt.”

That will likely never happen, but at this point I’d even be happy to settle for second best, i.e. “Tomorrow looks like it could be a good fly day.” Even that is not the case for Monday, the prediction for which due to a high Wind Advisory, will echo too many ‘going no where’ predictions that have come before.

The Wind Advisory calling for 20 to 30mph winds with gusts to 35-45mph covers all of north Alabama. There will be 40 to 50mph WSW winds at altitude. We rate our chances of flying a migration leg Monday morning as zip to none.


A large, trailing and strong storm system moving across the northwest corner of Alabama is giving us very high wind conditions and by 5am, delivered a thunderstorm with lightning and heavy rain. The flash flood and tornado watch for Franklin County and many other counties in Alabama and southwestern Tennessee that was originally scheduled to be lifted at 5am has been extended until noon.

Weather conditions at the pensite to the south of camp are less severe. Brooke is camped nearby and advises that an early check of the pen and the Class of 2011 revealed all is well.

This posting is apropos of yesterday’s Field Journal entry remarking on there being so many Whooping cranes still in Indiana in mid January.

Yesterday, an article that appeared in the about a similar occurrence with Sandhill cranes in Nebraska landed in my inbox. It seems about 1,000 Sandhills have chosen to winter along the Platte River instead of their usual habitat hundreds of miles to the south.

Addressing this unusual behavior, ornithologist Paul Johnsgard, was quoted as saying, “I’ve been there 50 years and I’ve never seen it.” Rowe Sanctuary Manager, Kent Skaggs said, “That’s something that doesn’t occur. Plenty of open water and leftover corn in harvested fields has kept the cranes here along with the mild weather.”

Click here to read the entire article.


To belabor some clichés, We are in the ‘lull’ after the storm, but we’re not out of the woods yet. The National Weather Service has issued a Wind Advisory for our area for tomorrow evening through to 6am on Monday. The advisory is calling for sustained winds of 20 – 30mph with gusts approaching 40mph.

As for the conditions between now and then, that is, tomorrow morning, the foul system that moved in overnight bringing with it 40 to 50mph winds at altitude continues to linger over us.

As the weather forecasts stand at the moment, it is likely to be at least Tuesday before the cranes and planes can be in the air again.


South and west-southwest winds on the surface and aloft respectively along with imminent rain will keep the cranes and planes on the ground for another day at the new ‘short-stop’ in Franklin County.

Here is a summary of the most recent data received from the WCEP Tracking team.

As of January 16th, the maximum size of the Eastern Migratory Population was 103 Whooping cranes; 53 males, 50 females. The estimated distribution of the population at the end of the report period or last record is:


39 Indiana
2 Illinois
5 Georgia
7 Alabama
2 S. Carolina
 2 N. Carolina
6 Tennessee
1 Missouri
13 Florida
18 Unknown
6 Long-term missing


On reviewing this report it struck me as unusual that as of mid January only 13 Whooping cranes had reached Florida. Curiosity getting the better of me, I asked Caleb to do some research. He checked back through the years of our Field Journal entries to find the tracking reports of previous years that were closest to the mid January date so we could compare. Below is the result.


Year/Date IN IL KY TN NC SC AL MO GA FL LA Unknown Missing
2011 – 16-Jan 39 2 0 6 2 2 7 1 5 13 18 6
2010 – 12-Jan 10 0 0 20 0 4 8 0 3 23 0 10 7
2009 – 27-Jan 2 0 0 15 0 4 7 0 4 31 0 6 2
2008 – 2-Feb 2 0 0 18 0 4 2 0 2 23 0 3 5
2007 – 23-Jan 4 0 0 4 0 3 2 0 0 46 1 3 0
2006 – 15-Jan 0 0 0 7 0 1 0 0 0 34 0 2 0
2005 – 12-Jan 0 1 2 1 3 4 0 0 0 23 0 1 0

As you can see, never has there been so many birds still so far north at this time of year, leading of course to there never being so few in Florida by this time. 39 Whoopers still in Indiana? …and we thought our progress was slow!

Later migration departures? Ample fresh water/food sources? Warmer winter? Evolving to more northerly wintering habitats with climate changes? Can a definitive answer even be extrapolated?


With thunderstorms in the forecast for tomorrow as well as 40-50mph WSW winds aloft, it’s a good bet the cranes and planes will not be in the air in the morning.

Brooke Pennypacker snapped this photo of the costume leading the Class of 2011 to the newly erected travel pen at the new Franklin County short-stop.

Joe had walked them some distance away to a spot behind some trees so they’d have no exposure to the vehicles or the crew while the pen trailer was unloaded and the panels put together.


This morning was a good illustration of why we say we never know for sure whether or not we’ll be able to fly any given morning. We can check the weather sites over and over, and postulate all we want, but in the end, until a trike is in the air at flight time, we can never be sure.

Case in point. We were excited to see the weather sites this morning calling for a significant improvement over what they were reporting yesterday afternoon. In fact, the conditions they were calling for had us believing it would be a fly day.

As usual the team got ready and well before sunrise, the ground crew and the tracking van were on the road to get in position.

All three trikes pushed out of the hangar and Joe and Richard took off first. We watched as immediately after launching they bounced and bobbled in rough air. It was scant minutes – so fast in fact that Brooke hadn’t as yet even gotten into the air –  before they announced that they couldn’t get any speed up and unanimously called it a Down Day.

Contrary to what was reported, 0 – 3 WSW surface winds, Richard measured the winds at close to 10mph out of the southeast. Aloft, instead of finding what was supposed to be ~5mph westerly wind, the trikes encountered SE 30mph winds. While Richard said the air smoothed out at 1500 feet, his speed over the ground was down to 11mph.

This photo, taken by Brooke Pennypacker, shows the Class of 2011 in their mobile pen at our new Franklin County ‘short-stop’.


Where to start? First of all – for those of you who had trouble accessing our site this morning, our server went down overnight. Thankfully it’s now back in business.

With the weather sites showing our cold temperature was delivered compliments of a 9mph north wind, and that altitude it was also blowing out of the north at 15 to 20 mph, it was going to be a ‘test trike’ morning.

Richard van Heuvelan launched to test the conditions and radioed back saying, “I think its doable.” The scramble to get in position was on.

Launch was at 7:39 and lead pilot Richard got off with eight of the nine birds following. One crane, #10, hung back at the pen. It wasn’t long before the ‘crane rodeo’ began. After much back and fro-ing and circling Richard finally got the birds turned and headed off to the south – with what we thought was six cranes. Then we watched as Joe and Brooke each picked up one wayward bird, and they too turned southward and we watched them disappear into the distance.

Meanwhile, up ahead, Richard was having a time of it. He had one crane (at least) that kept breaking and he had to keep circling to get it back on the wing. Brooke was fighting to keep his bird with him when some of Richard’s birds broke and headed back… which Brooke then tried to scoop up. At the same time, Joe was managing to get his bird a little further along the way, and eventually put down with that bird at the same location Richard and Brooke landed to hold their cranes on the last flight attempt.

We cleared the potential use of that site with the property owner at that time, and we’re now referring to it as the “Franklin County short-stop”. With Joe on the ground with his one, Richard make a low pass with his remaining three and Joe called them down. I think the four at the short-stop site (where we will set up our second travel pen) are numbers 3, 4, 6 and 12.

And now, another ‘meanwhile back at the airport/pen’, Brooke returned with his small flock and Richard followed shortly thereafter to help him and Geoff return four cranes to the pen. That just left one still ‘free ranging’ Whooper and Richard went back aloft to direct Brooke and Geoff driving the white van to its location. I think – ‘think’ being the key word here, the cranes now back in the Franklin County pen are numbers 1, 7, 9, and either number 5 or number 10. It is either #5 or #10 that the crew is currently tracking in a nearby field.

That’s the story as it stands. Tune back in later in the day for, as Paul Harvey would say is…”..the rest of the story,” and perhaps a number of corrections.


Two days ago we finally got going again. On that day we had to land unannounced in a field on top of a hill. While there, I noticed it could be a good site for the cranes. I happened to be opposite Brooke on the other side of a ravine and had to walk one bird out of the brush and back to where he waited with four other cranes. Or so I thought.

Just as we, that is, me and #1 arrived over in the same field as Brooke and his four birds, off trike and birds went into the air. That was all #1 needed to see and away he went too. By the time I clamored back to my trike and got airborne, Brooke was landing too, but in another pasture as the four birds had landed next to a pond and #1 had landed near the river.

Thus began a long day of crating birds and getting them back to the pen. Caleb and I then drove back to apologize for trespassing. While making our apologies, we also became acquainted with the land owners of the site where we first landed, and they indicated they were very willing to let us use their property in the future.

Now for today. It began very well with seven birds on my wing, one with Joe, and one with Brooke. We were well on course for our next destination when some or all of my birds would turn back only to be rounded up again and again.

This happened repeatedly, and soon we were losing ground instead of gaining. At some point, now almost back at our departure point, four of the seven broke off and headed for the pen, but me and the other three continued on without them.

The wind starting kicking up as we progressed southward, and it became clear that our reaching the next stopover location was not likely to happen. That led to the decision to land the birds in our new found friends’ field. Joe, who was well ahead with his bird, landed there first. When I finally arrived with my three, one landed, then another, however #4 refused to go down and it took a dozen circuits before she could be convinced to land.

I wanted to stay airborne so I could fly back and help Brooke who was trying to find and help the remaining four birds in the cohort back to the pen. By the time I arrived, #5 had landed in a nearby field nearby, another had landed with Brooke, and the other three had to be rounded up and brought back to the pen.

Once the four ‘returnees’ were in the pen, Geoff and Brooke jumped in the white van to go and pick up #5 and I flew over head to guide them to him. Once they reached #5’s location, I returned to the airport and landed. But on hearing that #5 had again taken off, I got back into the air only to find that he had landed next to the pen. With him returned to the pen, I finally was able to return my trike to the hangar.

We all waited for Joe to fly back and Gerald and Caleb to drive back from the new Franklin County ‘short-stop’. Before leaving there, they had set up our second travel pen, and walked today’s four flying cranes, numbers 3, 4, 6, and 12 into their newest residence. Numbers 1, 5, 7, 9, and 10 have gone to join their classmates, but their trip is being made by road.

Another long day, but the upside is that we’ll have fresh start from a new location.


We’ll have 3 to 4mph WNW surface winds tomorrow – which is good, but we’ll cross our fingers that the predicted 15mph westerly winds swing around just a few degrees to the north before morning. That would conceivably give us some flying weather and a chance at actually completing the Franklin to Walker County leg.

Not guessing at what tomorrow will bring – we’re crossing our fingers instead.


It started with plink-a-plink but soon turned to plunk-a-plunk. Then came a building crescendo of whooshes; seemingly the giant never needed to inhale. Then, as he took big breaths in and let them out, the motorhome began to pitch like a sailboat at sea in a good size swell.

The rain storm that wanted to be a thunderstorm when it grew up got its wish. No need to scour the weather websites for clues this morning.

Got to run. Have to check the bow lines and throw out an extra anchor.


Odds for a flight tomorrow are not great. Without some overnight change we’ll be looking at 3mph SW winds on the surface at our departure point shifting to SSW winds blowing 11mph as we move southward. Although aloft the wind direction will be NNW, it appears that we’d encounter a velocity increase at altitude as well; up from 15 to 20 to 20 to 30mph.

So, are we going to fly a migration leg in the morning? If I had to bet my last nickel on it…. I wouldn’t.