MUSINGS OF THE COACH

Flying back to the airfield after a morning’s training flight is a little like a high school football coach riding the bus back home after a Saturday away game – Only without the team. You sit, often more than a little spent, playing back in your mind’s eye every moment of the flight as the ground rolls out from beneath, almost unnoticed.

Meanwhile, the ebb and flow of the inner conversation plays on in the background growing ever louder like some post game press conference, eventually blocking out even the roar of the engine.

REPORTER: So how’d it go, Coach? No really! Cut the crap! What do you really think?

THE COACH: Well, the team did a good job out there this morning and the kids played their hearts out. That’s the kind of effort that makes the coaching staff proud. Their fundamentals were strong – good takeoff, nice climb out, outstanding focus at altitude while giving 100% on every flap. That’s what we like to see at this point in the season.

REPORTER: What about #5 dropping out early and sitting out the rest of the game on the bench. Is there anything to the rumors that he’s been violating curfew, texting young Sandhill cheerleaders, and staying out late partying at the local pond? And is it true that his sister, #7, is trying to talk him into going into rehab?

THE COACH: Rehab, Shmeehab! Now you listen here. I don’t like the way this conversation is going. Another question like that and this press conference is over! #5 is big and dominant and just the kind of player we need up front to anchor our line. Once he figures out the wing, learns a little finesse, and shakes this dumb habit of his of dropping down below the trike part way through the flight into the area of the field where it’s all work and no play and tires himself out so fast that his butt starts dragging so badly he has to fly back to the bench for a breather, he’ll be fine. He didn’t exactly major in Rocket Science in college now did he! Got a D in Basket Weaving if I remember correctly.

Just remember #10. Remember the eye thing, when all you guys were saying she’ll never make it cause she had that watery thing going on in her right eye and would never be able to catch a frog on that side? Now look at her. She flies like a home-struck angel and surfs the wing like it was her own personal surf board. Try watching one of those “Gidget” movies sometime and you’ll get the picture. And as for drugs? Don’t even go there my friend. There is absolutely no doping or steroid use going on. Sure, a little gape worm mojo every couple of weeks, a shot of minencin in the crane chow for good luck, and a couple of needle pricks for West Nile and Eastern Equine Encephalitis at the beginning of the season, but that’s it. If any of you guys want to subject the flock to surprise urine tests, bring it on… and you can take a poop sample while you’re at it…on the house.

REPORTER: Are you satisfied with #6’s progress? I mean, after all that trouble at Patuxent and all?

THE COACH: Glad you asked. #6 is this season’s turnaround player. Sure, there were times she was mean and refused to socialize with the other birds at Patuxent, but that was then and this is now. And buddy, now’s the only thing showing on my radar screen. She gets better every day and this morning she blew right past the rest of the players off the right wing to take the lead, then looked over at me as if to say, “Gimme what ya got!” Now that’s character and the kind of grit we’re looking for, especially in the fourth quarter.

And how about our not so little anymore #11. There’s a story for ya. She came into training camp an undersized little runt afraid of her own shadow and now look at her. It’s like she got bit by a hummingbird then injected with a lawn dart! She bobs and weaves all over the sky and now has the size to make her presence felt. You want to talk about attitude? She’s got it in spades!

REPORTER: But aren’t you a little concerned about her occasional wheeze in the pen and all that opened mouth breathing her big brother, #4 has been doing in the air?

THE COACH: What? You never had a sniffle? Trust me, pal, we’re on top of the situation. And if you would happen to take the time to notice, #4 has been flying really well lately, opened mouthed breathing and all. So if you want to do any of your bug friends a big favor, warn them not to go up flying anywhere near his opened mouth, at least not until they pay you back any money they might owe you. The bottom line is he’s really got some serious heart and in the end, that’s what separates the cranes from the herons.

Hey. You guys know the drill. As the season progresses and the morning temperatures cool and the air dries out to the point where your favorite coach is no longer sweating his deodorant into submission while wearing only a T Shirt under his costume up there, #4’s breathing should improve big time. Just remember, we’re a young team with no veterans back from last year, and our coaching staff is so old that the only thing we have to look forward to is senility. But don’t you sweat it ‘cause it’s like we say, “When the going gets tough, the tough get migrating.” We’ll be ready for the Big One come the end of the month – don’t you worry your little laptops about that.

Now fellas, I see the airfield just ahead, so if you’ll all excuse me, I’ve got to bring this press conference to a close so I can land this darn trike.

POST INTERVIEW NOTE
Minutes later, the trike landed and securely hangared, I was driving back to camp when I noticed an old man standing alone in the back of the conference room. He held up something in his hand, gave me a quick wave with it, then placed it carefully on the table before disappearing through the door.

Curious, I walked over to find a game program upon which he had written something. Holding it closer, I read his words he’d printed in big block letters, “THEY MAY BE NUMBERS 4,5,6,7 10 AND 11 IN THIS PROGRAM, BUT THEY’LL ALWAYS BE NUMBER ONE IN THE HEARTS OF THE FANS. GO WHOOPERS!”

Editor’s note… if you enjoyed this press interview with OM pilot Brooke Pennypacker AKA ‘The Coach,’ tell the world by Giving a WHOOP!, and if, like the old man in his story, the Class of 2012 is #1 in your heart – help them out by sponsoring a 1/4/ 1/2 or mile of their soon to launch fall migration.

AUCTION ACTION

CraneFest 2012 is fast approaching (September 22nd in Berlin, WI). Click for details.

One of the cool activities folks will enjoy again this year is a Silent Auction. BUT…just because you’re unable to attend the CraneFest in person doesn’t mean you can’t join in the fun. You can participate in the Silent Auction online via Facebook!

Beginning today you can place bids on a number of the great items that have been donated to help raise funds to support the Class of 2012 Whooping cranes!

In-person bidding will take place at Cranefest, BUT online bidding closes at noon Central time on September 20th, so be sure and place your highest bid for the item(s) you are interested in.

Winning bidders will be notified as soon as possible following the conclusion of the event. Note: Minimum bid amounts are designed to cover postage and packaging costs. Items will be shipped to winning online bidders by USPS.

Not a member of FaceBook? Click here to view the online auction items. Facebook members please sign in to your FB account and then visit this link to view items and place your bid(s).

C’mon – join in the excitement of the chase for a bargain and place your bids. Below are just a few of the terrific items up for grabs.

silent auction preview

Now’s your chance to bid on some great items to support Whooping Cranes!

GETTING AIRTIME

We hope everyone enjoyed the last long weekend of the season. The arrival of September often also means the arrival of fewer favorable flight training days, so its great that the 2012 cohort is already flying so well. Although White River Marsh had been on the receiving end of some windy weather recently, Friday was a good training day. In the photo below taken by Tom Schultz, Brooke puts two of the young cranes through their paces.

UPSIDE – DOWNSIDE

Sadly, fly days for the chicks have been coming far and few between. Most of the time it’s been too windy to even think about putting a trike up. And on even the days we have flown, the air’s been mighty trashy, making it hard for the birds to get into formation.

Recently I’ve only seen the birds line up on the trike two or three times, and the bumpy air we keep experiencing doesn’t help. Add to that the fact that it’s been getting hotter again, and as a result, the birds get tired sooner – especially #4-12. Every time the poor fella lands on the runway he’s always open mouth breathing. The good news is he’s not rasping or coughing, so it’s just that he’s tired.

However, no matter how quickly he gets tired, there’s no questioning his loyalty to the trike. Even if he gets tired and lands on the runway, it’s not uncommon to see him take off and try to catch the trike as it passes by. He usually doesn’t have any luck, but the fact that he tries is unquestionably a positive sign.

The same could be said for other five chicks, too. This Tuesday when Joe took the birds up for a spin, they all went up with him (though #4-12 got a late start). Unfortunately the weather started to turn a little as it got trashier and warmer. It got to be too much for #4-12 and he turned back. Not wanting him to land out the in the marsh, Joe turned around and chased after him, doing a solid fifty miles per hour at least. Luckily, he caught the bird before he could think of touching down, but that’s not the funny part. The funny part is the other five birds were right behind him and latched on just as he made his landing. If that’s not loyalty to the trike, I don’t know what is.

On the downside we haven’t gotten in a lot of flying lately due to the weather, but on upside, a cohort couldn’t get much better than this one.

NEW ‘JEWELRY’
The Chicklets got their new jewelry (leg bands) recently, and in Geoff’s photos below you can see they are curiously checking them out.

The costumed handler dispenses grapes

#5-12 checks out his new radio transmitter

 

NEWS OF TWO WHOOPING CRANE MORTALITIES

Wood Buffalo-Aransas Population
An investigation is underway to find if a Whooping crane in Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories died because of an injury it received while being tagged for research. Read the story here.

Eastern Migratory Population
The second mortality to report occurred on the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge. Davin Lopez, co-chair of WCEP’s Communications and Outreach Team, notified partners that female Whooping crane 46-07 had been found dead on August 28th.

Now deceased 46-07 and her surviving mate, 2-04, nested and hatched a chick this past spring. Their hatchling, W7-12, survived for several weeks but was no longer alive by early July. The previous season they also hatched a chick; W4-11. Unfortunately it too was short-lived. Its remains were found on July 1, 2011.

MEET THE LATEST COMEBACK CHAMP AWARD RECIPIENT

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources yesterday announced  the recipient of the October ComeBack Champ Award as science education writer, Jane Duden, and the educational website, Journey North.

The Wisconsin endangered resources law turned 40 this year. Through this law, the Wisconsin DNR and their partners have returned many species to the state and have conserved scores of others. The Comeback Champ Award is designed to recognize some of these species and the key partners and organizations that have played critical roles in their conservation. Each month of this year one such important partner and species was selected to be recognized.

In recognizing Jane and Journey North for their tireless efforts in support of WCEP and its mission to return a migratory flock of whooping cranes to eastern North America, the announcement letter stated, “Your outreach and education efforts on behalf of this program have helped educate countless children and adults about this important recovery effort. While much still needs to be done to ensure the success of this program, your assistance since the beginning has brought these efforts front and center to people everywhere.”

The award will be presented on October 24th in Madison, WI.

A former member of the Board of Directors of Operation Migration, Jane has authored 31 children’s nonfiction books, including Whoop Dreams: the Historic Migration (chronicling the inaugural journey south of the ultralight-led Whooping Crane Class of 2001).

Jane has worked in educational publishing for more than 30 years and has covered Whooping Cranes with creative lessons and daily migration updates for the award-winning Journey North website since 1999. Through Jane and Journey North’s efforts, young and old alike have enjoyed a “front-row seat” for the reintroduction of the Eastern flock.

The OM Team sends its hearty congratulations to Jane Duden and Elizabeth Howard at Journey North, and sincere appreciation to the Annenberg Foundation for their support of this outstanding website. Jane’s thoughtful stewardship combined with Journey North’s delivery of the Whooping cranes’ story into classrooms and across the continent have made the website the primary education tool for the generation into whose hands we must one day ‘pass the torch’.

CRANE HABITAT IN TEXAS

The April BIRDING COMMUNITY E-BULLETIN wrote about Whooping Cranes in Texas, their status and the challenges that they face. In the August issue, it followed up with news of more habitat for the Whooping cranes that winter in Texas.

Excerpt: “The Blackjack Peninsula of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge is an Important Bird Area (IBA) and serves as the core wintering ground for the only naturally migrating and breeding population of Whooping Crane in the world.

Last winter, some of the cranes moved outside their traditional wintering areas, beyond Aransas NWR. The ongoing drought only exacerbated the situation, with both fresh water and blue crabs – a favorite Whooping Crane delicacy – at a premium. Fortunately, for the past number of months there have been some positive developments that begin to address this situation.

These efforts aim to increase the amount of secure habitat and related buffer zone for these significant crane wintering grounds, especially since the carrying capacity of the habitat for the cranes is in question. A recent study by Texas A&M and The Crane Trust suggested that the goal of reaching 1,000 cranes on the Texas Coast by 2035 may hit a proverbial brick wall at 700 birds unless some serious measures are taken.

A number of partnerships involving the Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries Program, the Texas Parks and Wildlife, The Nature Conservancy, the Whooping Crane Conservation Association, (WCCA) the USFWS, and others have recently secured multiple fee-title and easement properties near the refuge. These include all or parts of Falcon Point Ranch, Big Tree Ranch, areas near Holiday Beach, and several other parcels.

Lorne Scott of the Whooping Crane Conservation Association said that the wintering habitat is more confined and threatened than the Canadian breeding grounds, and added, “The wintering habitat is so scarce and so unavailable, anything that does come up and has potential, we try to secure it.” Click for more details.

You can access an archive of past E-bulletins on the website of the National Wildlife Refuge Association.

THE TIMING OF A TAKE-OFF

It seems like months since I last flew with the birds, but part of that misconception is the change that has taken place in the few weeks I was away. Our birds are larger now, and although they still have the fawn color of youth, they’re beginning to acquire that adult arrogance that is inherited along with the title of sovereign of the wetlands.

Whooping cranes are the tallest birds in the avian community; in fact they are arguably the tallest creature out there … except maybe us. Their stark white feathers, like the red robes of royalty, stand in contrast to everything around them. As they get older they acquire a strut that conveys a message that they are no ordinary bird. They are still innocent and insecure, but you can see it coming. So much of their communication is conveyed by body posture and it is surprising how much of it is shared by humans.

I spent all last week attending meetings, so Saturday was my first flight with the birds since they were able to fly past the end of the runway. I underestimated their enthusiasm and waited too long at the gate. The trike needs more speed than they do go get airborne, so if they get out in front, you risk running into them if you take off too close behind. So I had to wait until some of them made a circuit or two before we could reform and try it again. It was cool on the surface, but less than a hundred feet up it was ten degrees warmer.

I headed out over the marsh as slow as I could, hoping they would form on the wing. Instead, they stayed low and had to flap fly the entire time. They were still excited by the game of follow-the-leader and didn’t seem to mind the extra work, but it wasn’t long before the warm air and extra effort took its toll and they began to pant. I circled back, but two birds were standing in the center of the runway blocking any attempt to land.

Eventually I found a spot and landed with the rest of the flock. We waited for them to catch their breath and tried it again. Although still eager to follow, it was clear that the first flight used up most of their resources. I ended it after six more minutes and landed back at the pen.

It wasn’t the best training day because I messed up the takeoff, but there was no harm done. They had some exercise and I got to see them fly.

Message from the OM Team…
Don’t forget to Give a WHOOP! This year’s Give a WHOOP! campaign is segmented into three milestone events.
Milestone 1 – 2012 chick hatches
Milestone 2 – Summer flight Training
Milestone 3 – Release on the wintering grounds

At the conclusion of each milestone, the name of one supporter who WHOOP’d! during that period is drawn to receive a Thank You Gift. The recipient of Milestone 1 Thank You Gift was Claire Deland of Georgia. The next draw will be at the conclusion of Summer flight training. Details

Be sure to WHOOP! often – from now and until the draw is made on March 31, 2013 and your name could be drawn to receive a fabulous pair of Ranger 8 x 42 binoculars from Eagle Optics. Every WHOOP! made throughout the entire campaign equals one entry!

WC RECOVERY COORDINATOR APPOINTED

The appointment of Dr. Wade Harrell as the new Whooping Crane Recovery Coordinator was recently announced. The position became vacant on the retirement of Tom Stehn. Dr. Harrell will be based in Texas although he will be part of USFWS Region 2’s Recovery staff located in Albuquerque.

Harrell is a native Texan and spent his formative years exploring and fishing the marshes and beaches of the Gulf Coast and hunting in the thornscrub region of South Texas, experiences which led to his interest in wildlife conservation.

Quoting the announcement….”Wade received a B.S. in Wildlife and Rangeland Science from Texas A&M Kingsville in 1998. He earned both his M.S. and PhD from Oklahoma State University in Rangeland Ecology. His graduate research involved the importance of ecological disturbance, particularly fire, in maintaining wildlife communities in grassland and shrubland ecosystems of the Great Plains.

Wade has served in his current position with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service as the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program coordinator for the Austin Ecological Services office since 2009, leading a team of biologists in restoring and maintaining diverse wildlife habitats, from Desert grasslands in the Trans Pecos of Texas important for wintering migratory birds, springs and creeks important for rare and listed aquatic species, forest and shrublands ecosystems on the Edwards Plateau of Central Texas that are key for the survival of the endangered Golden cheeked warbler and Black capped vireo, sub-surface karst & cave environments that host a number of listed endemic species and pine-oak forests in east-central Texas that provide habitat for the endangered Houston Toad.

Prior to coming to work for the Service, Wade was employed by The Nature Conservancy of Texas, serving as the Coastal Prairies Project Director for 6 years. During his time with TNC, Wade provided science support and direction for the Gulf Coast Prairies and Marshes ecoregion, led diverse stakeholder groups in the development of landscape scale conservation plans, initiated and directed the successful Attwater’s prairie chicken reintroduction program on private lands, assisted private landowners with grassland habitat management and managed land acquisition and conservation easement programs along the Texas Gulf Coast.”

PUDDLES?

It’s like Christopher Columbus said to Jacques Cousteau, “You never really know how deep the puddle is until you step in it.” Every morning’s training flight is another opportunity to sound the depth of a new puddle and give the fates yet another shot at shoving us into the deep end of the pool.

It’s just the nature of the crane project, where the difference between a good day and a very bad one can be a single misstep back onto a chick’s foot. Or, like this past Tuesday morning, failing to accurately read the fatigue level of our best flyer, #10, and watching helplessly as she suddenly and unexpectedly dropped out of the formation and landed in the marsh while the others followed happily and landed unfazed on the runway after a 40 minute flight.

But then, responding to such challenges is why we get paid the “Big Money,” why we are really “X Game Action Figure Want-to-Be’s,” closet adrenalin junkies. So, after the chicks were safely in the pen, Geoff, Doug and I began “Operation Retrieve #10.”

I got airborne while Geoff started a death march out through the less than hospitable bush towards #10’s last observed LZ . Doug took up station at the end of the runway, his vocalizer volume set on “get your little butt back here NOW” level. But trying to locate a cinnamon chick in a cinnamon sea of tall cattails is a job better suited for Superman’s x-ray vision, or for someone wearing a “Where’s Waldo” t-shirt, and certainly not for a guy who once watched most of a 3-D movie without ever knowing he was supposed to turn on the glasses.

As the minutes ticked away so did my fuel, so it was back to the runway where Doug was waiting with the gas jugs for the well pump that puts the ‘wet’ in the wet pen. Once refueled, it was back over the marsh. Having spent my youth staring at Rorschach charts in the hope of finding the secret of how to be popular with girls, I soon recognized a thought balloon floating up from the cattails that said, “I’ve landed and I can’t get up!” under which #10 waited patiently for his rescue.
A subsequent low, zooming pass, coaxed her a few feet into the air and behind the trike for a short flight toward the nearest dirt road offering the best access for rescue. Meanwhile, Geoff and Doug diverted their efforts to getting themselves to the van as quickly as possible and were soon on the road headed for the rendezvous.

Unfortunately, #10 tired again and plopped down once more into the marsh. I circled overhead in frustration, giving her a breather for the next short flight that would put her in the safety zone. “Round Two,” I yelled down as I rang the bell and zoomed low over her head, sucking her up just enough to follow me through a narrow channel between two rows of trees and into a clearing just past the end of the dirt road. I then climbed a bit, and saw Geoff and Doug in the tracking van rolling up the road. Soon they were costumed up and making their way to #10.

Upon seeing Geoff, she boogied away from him toward the trees. Now that’s gratitude for you! But bad manners are always a reflection of one’s elders, and I must say, the Costumed People have never been known for their savoir faire, so what could we expect?

Anyway, realizing the noise of the trike was part of the problem, I waved goodbye and turned for the hanger where I quickly put the trike away and headed back to the rescue point , arriving just as Geoff and Doug were carrying out the bird box containing #10. Back in the pen, #10 emerged from the crate apparently none the worse for wear and soon joined her buds in the wet pen feasting on treats from the Costumed People and preening up a storm.

We were immersed in the feeling of profound relief at how good she looked and how well she had come through her ordeal. Suddenly, intruding on this very moment of deep emotion, came from above the familiar calls of some very old friends I had not seen since they left Alabama in April.

I stared skyward in rapt disbelief and awe as four of our chicks from last year circled over the pen like alumni returning to their alma mater to pay their respects to their former teachers. Soon, Geoff, Doug and I were standing on the runway, futilely attempting to coax our cameras into capturing the magic of the moment.

Round and round they soared above us, staring down on us while thinking who knows what. Had they flown from their last known location on Horicon Marsh to observe the morning’s drama and did it bring back memories of last year’s similar incident with #1? I peeked in through the pen door and saw our chicks all in frozen stance, staring up, also mesmerized at the sight of our special visitors.

Then, as if they felt their homage had been paid, the four thermaled up and away, their circles appearing smaller and smaller until they once again became part of the blue.

Meanwhile, the three costumes headed for the parking lot filled with the satisfaction of a battle well fought , yet knowing that tomorrow morning we will stand once again at the edge of another puddle. But at least we had the rest of the afternoon to figure out how to get a life jacket to fit under each of our costumes.

“TOO COOL FOR WORDS!” SAYS OM CREW

The crew had some excitement at White River Marsh yesterday. The distinctive sound of Whooping cranes calling drew them out of the pen, and the CraneCam captured the scene of three costumes staring intently up into the sky. Sure enough, if you focused fast enough and hard enough you could see the indistinct shape of four birds as they passed almost directly over the pen.

Volunteer crane handler, Doug Pellerin was quick on the draw – with his camera that is – and managed to fire off a few frames before the cranes disappeared from view.

It appears the Whoopers were part of the 2011 ultralight-led cohort, seven of which were last reported on August 20th near Lake Pudkaway about 11 miles as the crane flies from the pensite. The seven cranes at that location were numbers 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 10, and 11. Which of them were the ones overflying the pen is anyone’s guess, but because they’ve been such a tight group, the bet is they were 3, 4, 5, and 6.

As for the rest of the 2011 yearlings, #9 is deceased, #2 is in Adams County, and #1 was found in Columbia County by Wisconsin DNR pilot, Bev Paulan while conducting an aerial survey in that area in early August.

It is #4 in that group that carries a PTT. It will be interesting to see where his signal is recorded next.

It appears the costumes weren’t the only ones excited by the Whooper calls. Scroll down to the last photo to see 7-12 turning an eye to the sky.

SINGING THE PRAISES OF 2012 COHORT

Location: White River Marsh SWA, Green Lake Co., WI

Well, yesterday morning’s flight was a bust. We were saddled with fog that didn’t burn off until eight-thirty. And by then, the winds weren’t cooperating with us anymore. Sadly, we are getting to the time of year where the weather stops playing ball with us. But if you think we haven’t been making progress, think again.

These past couple flights, we’ve been able to get all six birds up in the air for up to thirty, maybe forty minutes. By now, Richard and Brooke have flown them all around the refuge, over Country Road D, even over towards camp! According to Richard, these birds have seen more of the refuge than the 2011 birds ever did.

To put things into further perspective, they can fly long enough to reach not just the first stop on migration, but the SECOND stop as well. They don’t get tired (well, not for a half hour, anyway). They don’t peel off or hang back. Or if they do, they’re easy to collect. These birds are making all the right moves. And these birds get better each time they take off with the trike.

Why is this flock succeeding where the 2011 flock failed? For one, it’s a smaller flock. With fewer personalities to sort out amongst the trike it’s easier for them to fall in place. And what’s more, they’re all very close in age. The age gap between the youngest and the oldest bird is only about eight days which means they fledged at almost the same time.

This isn’t to say we think smaller flocks are the way of the future for Operation Migration. But what it does suggest is that smaller cohorts with birds closer in age is a good way to go. On the other hand, we’ve had successful cohorts of eight or nine before. We thought one or two birds wouldn’t ‘break the bank’ so last year’s cohort was larger than normal. But weather aside, our migration experience last year might have been sending us a different message.

Add to that, our runway last year was in rough shape. Literally. It was so rugged, the winged trikes couldn’t land on it without banging themselves to pieces. As a result we had no choice but to train with the wingless trike even when the birds were ready to train with a winged trike.

By the time we had an opportunity to smooth out the runway, the damage was done. They were already in the habit of stopping on the runway. And the ones who did fly were behind where they should’ve been. If we had more time, we might’ve been able to get these birds caught up to where they should’ve been at this time of year. But nobody was handing out extra time, so we had to make do with what we had.

By the time the 2011 flock left White River Marsh, I’d say their performance was as good as this year’s cohort’s was back in late July, early August, when they were learning to take off with the trike. And even then, that was on a good day. But this year, our runway is in good shape, and we were able to introduce the winged trike on schedule. We didn’t miss the window this time.

Unless something comes along and totally reprograms our birds, we’ll be unquestionably ready for our September 25th target migration departure date – assuming the weather cooperates, of course. And, assuming it does, we could be looking at a lot of skipped stops come migration time. With any luck, we’ll be keeping these birds in the air for up to an hour real soon (Brooke says we’ve had cohorts cruise for that long), which would start putting us towards Stop #3. But on the other hand, it’s not good to count your ‘skipped stopovers before they hatch’.

Keep watching the CraneCam – – and pray for a swift migration!

TRAINING FLIGHTS GETTING LONGER

The fog was dissipating quickly as the trike flew over the marsh Wednesday on the way to the pen. By the time I landed on the runway, it was clear that conditions were good, and training would be a ‘go’.

Geoff and Doug opened the pen doors, the chicks sprang out, and we were off. As we headed north away from the pen two birds lagged behind until, about a half mile away, the trike circled around enabling the two laggard birds to catch up. Then, continuing on to the north, one by one all of the birds assembled themselves in an orderly fashion off the left wing.

With all six benefiting from the wing vortices we began a slow climb and were able to get well above the trees to the west. Eventually we turned southwest, flew past an old junk yard and crossed County Road D where we saw a car had stopped to watch.

This took us to the southwest of the White River wilderness area at about two hundred feet AGL. It was then that one of the chicks began to fall back so I circled around again to let it catch up.

Breathing hard, #4 found the right wing and having that wing all to himself was able to get a rest. Soon another chick joined him on the right so I swung around to head back toward the pen with two of my right wing and four off my left. (Photo below was captured by Masako Pellerin)

After circling out and around the pensite we all landed together. Once on the ground the young chicks gathered around the trike for treats and some relaxation – well deserved after their fifteen minute flight! I think that today, these chicks saw more of White River Marsh than last year’s birds did over the whole season.

That sight even got me to Give a WHOOP!

SOARING WITH BIRDS

The ultralight method of reintroducing Whooping cranes began in the late 1980’s when Bill Lishman succeeded in imprinting a small flock of Canada geese that eventually followed him into the air. He used an aircraft called an Easy Riser that likely weighed about the same as he did. He also created, C’mon Geese, a short film called that won international acclaim. It was that videotaped, proof of concept that sparked the interest of the scientific community, and the idea of using light aircraft to teach migration was hatched. Since then there have been many changes but the concept is basically the same.

There are fifteen species of cranes from around the world; eleven of which are either threatened or endangered. The species with the lowest number is the Whooping crane. By some measure that would make it the most endangered, however, the population is growing, albeit slowly, and there are many efforts to safeguard it from extinction. There are more Siberian cranes than Whoopers, but their numbers are declining and they migrate over countries where conservation is not a top priority. The International Crane Foundation works closely with several countries to protect this species and you can check out their website for more information.

A number of years ago I was invited to attend a crane conference in Russia. Wildlife officials from several countries discussed topics from habitat conservation to reintroduction. Biologists from Russia were interested in our technique, and we brainstormed about how to teach a migration route to a bird that normally crosses the Ural Mountains and travels from the Arctic Circle to Iran or India.

One of the techniques they had attempted was to use a hang glider to lead the birds the way we use the ultralights. Angelo d’Arrigo, an Italian hang glider pilot with a long list of world records and a history of flying with an eagle, volunteered to attempt a migration in 2002. The theory was that a hang glider can fly more like cranes in the wild. As you know, cranes are soaring birds. They ride up on thermals, or rising columns of warm air. Then they glide in the direction they are going until they encounter the next thermal. Using this method they can fly for hundreds of miles on days when the sun is shining and creating warm rising air.

Angelo trained the birds for most of August and September that year, but the weather and water levels on the Ob River did not cooperate. Eventually the birds were moved on a boat to the stopovers where they were released to follow the hang glider on local flights. This method continued until the team reached the border of Kazakhstan. From there they were trucked to Iran and released with other cranes. Angelo worked hard to make it happen, but in the end, said that it would take a record breaking hang glider flight every day to cover the 2500 mile migration. Unfortunately he was killed in an air crash and was never able to try again.

A few people think the idea of using a hang glider to lead birds still has merit, but the pilots with the most experience don’t agree. When you lead birds in flight it is easy to feel you are one of them, but the truth is, we pale in comparison. Their wings were designed by the forces of evolution over millions of years, while ours are crude facsimiles. We fly in the calm air of early morning and our birds learn to steal lift from our wingtip wake. But when they first encounter a thermal, their ability to adapt is immediate.

There have been occasions when we have led the birds to four or five thousand feet. A bird exhausted from flapping that long, may drop out and begin to descend. If the sun is hot, they can reach a lower level where the thermals are beginning to work. They instantly take advantage of that free lift and have been known to wander all day looking for something familiar while we track them from below waiting for the sun to set and the thermals to stop carrying them.

There are trikes designed for soaring that have small engines, big wings and very low weights. You use the power to take off, but then shut down the engine and work the thermals to stay aloft. But even those purpose-built aircraft cannot match the soaring ability of a sixteen pound bird carried on seven foot wings. Rather than leading, we would be following — if we could keep up.

Once in 1997 we led a flock of Sandhill cranes from Ontario to Virginia. To avoid crossing Lake Ontario in November we led the birds around the eastern end of the Lake and southwest to Virginia. On the return trip the following spring, the birds travelled around the western end of the lake and made it back to within 30 miles of the starting point. Bill and I decided to try to lead them on the last leg home. The birds were accustomed to flying on thermals and soon broke from the aircraft and started to climb. We followed and retook the lead, but they would break every time they felt the free lift carrying them up. It took us two hours and twenty minutes to cover 28 miles and we were infringing on the controlled airspace of Toronto International Airport for a good part of the way.

It might have been easier in an aircraft designed to ride the thermals, but shutting off the engine would have added a level of complication and lack of control over the flock that would have made it impossible.

Then there is the question of weather. We must wait for those calm mornings, but a soaring trike could fly mid day or even all day if you only used the engine to take off. That would be true, but as an example, last year our problem was head winds. Even a soaring bird with their superior ability cannot glide into 30 mile per hour headwinds. Very few wild birds, of any variety, made it all the way to their normal wintering grounds last year. Instead they stayed farther north and made use of food that was usually covered in snow. In that case neither an ultralight nor a soaring trike could make much progress.
The other concern we have is controlled airspace. The FAA has designated six classes of airspace and only one of them is considered uncontrolled. A five mile perimeter exists around medium size airports where the airspace is controlled right to the ground. The next level extends out to ten miles and may start at 2000 ft and go up.

Around larger airports, those areas extend out 30 miles in what has been referred to as an upside down wedding cake. The narrow part is around the airport and it extends up and out as you get higher until they begin to overlap. The uncontrolled airspace exists below and between those cakes. You add to that, restricted areas, military operations areas, instrument rated flyways and National Wildlife Refuges, each with its own set of limitations. Eventually a sectional chart begins to look like coffee cup rings on a month old newspaper.

Our route is designed to fit under and around all of those restrictions. But soaring birds don’t need Air Traffic Control (ATC) clearance. They go where the thermals take them. An Air Traffic Controller monitoring a dozen Delta flights would not to be too happy with the pilot of a trike who is infringing on his space, especially if he kept circling back claiming the birds won’t follow him. Rather than losing one tired bird to thermals, we could lose them all for lack of authority to follow them.
If we had lots of money and extra birds it would be fun to see if we could thermal with them. But, based on their superior ability, restricted airspace, and the weather, the reality is that soaring trikes are just impractical.

USFWS CRITICIZED RE CRANE CENSUS, DRILLING AT ARANSAS NWR THREATENS WHOOPING CRANES

Two items of interest to Craniacs were recently posted online.

TAP Criticizes USFWS re Crane Census
The first, entitled “State of The Whooping Crane Flock 2011-2012” appeared on the website of the Whooping Crane Conservation Association (WCCA). The posting quotes an article published by The Aransas Project (TAP) disputing the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s claim regarding the size of the Wood Buffalo/Aransas population, and is critical of the new census method employed by USFWS since the retirement of Aransas Whooping Crane Coordinator, Tom Stehn. Read the article here.

Drilling at Aransas NWR Threatens Whooping Cranes
The second online item of interest is a blogspot authored by environmentalist/wildlife conservationist and former OM Board of Director, Laura Erickson. Laura’s August 3rd blog is about proposed drilling at the Aransas National Wildlife refuge, the wintering grounds of the only wild, naturally occurring flock of Whooping cranes.

She notes, “There is a very limited period for public comment – letters will be accepted by the US Department of the Interior through August 17. We can’t stop the drilling, but we can ask that all exploration be limited to areas away from where the cranes are, and we can also exert a bit of pressure on the publicly-held Hillcorp Energy Company to make them aware that people are watching them.”  Read the full posting here.