THE SENSATIONAL SIX

Both the Give a WHOOP! and MileMaker campaign are chugging along thanks to many of you. BUT…there is still lots and lots and lots of room for WHOOPs! and MileMaker sponsorships.

We hope that the rapidly approaching migration departure time will prompt the folks who haven’t already done so, to WHOOP! or to become a ½, ½ or mile sponsor. Or, better yet – BOTH!

Below is a fabulous photo of 10-12 that was captured during a recent flight training session at the White River Marsh State Wildlife Area. WHOOPs and MileMaker sponsorships are key to getting the 2012 cohort (the Sensational Six) to their wintering grounds in Florida. Won’t you help?

Whooping Crane #10-12 in flight

#10-12 in flight over the White River Marsh SWA in Green Lake County, WI on August 31st

SEE YOU AT CRANEFEST?

The volunteers who have worked so hard to make the Whooping Crane Festival something special hope to see flocks and flocks of Craniacs in Berlin, WI on Saturday, September 22nd.
From the Berlin Rotary Club’s Pancake Breakfast to the exhibits, Education Corner, and OM’s Market place, there’s bound to be something for everyone. And don’t miss the Wisconsin DNR’s bird banding display. Snag yourself a bargain by bidding on one (or more) of the terrific items offered in the Silent Auction. Thanks to the Rotary Club’s Brat and Burger cookout and Mako Pellerin’s delicious homemade egg rolls an offer no one will go hungry.

Rest your feet and take in the afternoon presentations.

12:30 – 1:15pm Raptor Rehabilitation by Pat Fisher
Pat’s rehab work is conducted through the organization “The Feather” located in New London, WI and deals primarily with raptors, waterfowl, cranes, and songbirds. The programs ‘Fisher’ offers are “up close and personal” as she educates with birds ‘on the glove.’ The birds make learning a personal experience and are the best way to present wildlife education.

1:30 – 2:15pm Aerial Wildlife Surveys by Beverly Paulan
Former Field Supervisor for OM and now a pilot for Wisconsin DNR pilot, Bev describes her work flying transects over Wisconsin doing wildlife surveys of Wolves and Whooping cranes.

2:30 – 3:15pm The Archibald Adventures by Dr. George Archibald
Co-Founder, International Crane Foundation, and world renown crane expert, Dr. Archibald will share the story of his most recent crane adventure – in Mongolia!

3:30 – 4:30pm Flying with Birds – Saving a Species by Joe Duff
Operation Migration co-founder and senior pilot, Joe Duff has undoubtedly accumulated more hours in flight alongside more species of birds than any other human. With spectacular images as a backdrop, Joe will lead the audience through the story of this amazing project in a way that captivates the imagination as it raises endangered species awareness. Joe’s material, humor, and enthusiasm, more than do justice to the one-of-a-kind project which has been hailed as, “The wildlife equivalent of putting a man on the moon.”

There’s lots to do and see in the area so why not make it a weekend outing?!? Check out these ‘extra curricular’ activities.

 

BUILDING UP TO MIGRATION

September 11th is the anniversary of the date that poor Caleb and 1-11 re-enacted Hansel and Gretel through the back country of the White River Marsh State Wildlife Area. (Who played Hansel and who played Gretel is a matter of personal opinion.) This year it was too windy for the trike to get up in the air, so there was no worry about history repeating itself.

Monday however, was more productive. All the birds took the sky and stayed up with the trike for a good fifteen to twenty minutes. When the trike landed all of them were open mouth breathing pretty heavily in the heavy air. Around this age they should, ideally be flying for longer periods without getting tired – or at least, that’s the hope. We don’t want them panting like they just ran the marathon.

But with that said, they may not be as tired as they let on. 4-12 sometimes starts open-mouth breathing five minutes into the flight. But despite this, he obediently keeps flying (maybe in hope he’ll lock onto the wing). Perhaps it’s a similar story with the other birds.

On the other hand, we couldn’t start training until almost eight o’clock thanks to some pretty have fog, so by the time it lifted the air was warming up and the humidity was pretty high. Those conditions tend to sap some strength out of our birds once they’re in air. But whatever the problem is, it doesn’t seem that the birds have come down with something. Brooke, Richard, and I have each listened to the birds on several occasions and heard no rasps, wheezes or persistent coughs. If they had ‘asper’, we’d hear them struggling to breathe.

I think back to 28-09 who had such a bad case of asper, that we could hear him wheezing before we even got in the pen. Sadly, that bird had to be euthanized. Similarly, with gapeworm, they’d be panting and breathing heavy even when they’re just hanging around on the ground. Their mouths would always be agape (hence the name GAPEworm). But since that isn’t the case, the birds must be either out of shape – which isn’t likely since even for the fall season we’re still flying fairly often – or the weather was starting to get to them. A reasonable assumption; after all, it’s been a while since we’ve had picture perfect training weather. Of late it’s always either been slightly breezy, warm, humid, or foggy in the morning.

But on the other hand, we won’t always be flying in picture perfect weather on migration. On fly days we always take what we can get since beggars can’t be choosers. This is especially true if we’ve been down in a stop for two weeks, and mildly breezey/humid weather might be the best forecast we can expect for several sometime. If the birds are willing to try with us, even through less than optimum weather, the battle is already half-won. They’ve got the will. They got the talent. All they need is the staying power.

EASTERN MIGRATORY POPULATION UPDATE

In a report spanning August 7 to September 5, WCEP tracker Eva Szyszkoski advised that two cranes, 11-02 and 8-09, had been captured in August to have their transmitters replaced. Also captured for banding was W8-12. (Legend: NFT – non functional transmitter; * = female; D = Direct Autumn Release)

Estimated distribution of Whooping cranes at the end of the report period was:
Wisconsin – 97 (includes the 2 surviving 2012 wild-hatched chicks)
Michigan – 2
No recent report – 2
Long Term Missing – 3:

  • 27-07*NFT last reported in Kosciusko County, IN on March 13, 2011
  • 13-08 last reported in Juneau County, WI on April 6, 2011
  • 13-11D last reported migrating over NE IL on November 29, 2011

FALL BEAUTY ENHANCES FLIGHT TRAINING

Fall colors are beginning to contrast with the dry green of the forest, and the purple haze of shrubs against the yellow green marsh below stand out as wisps of fog glide past below the trike.

Wings flapping slowly the chicks climb with the trike – all six in a neat row off the left wing. Two of the birds, numbers 4 and 5, are open mouth breathing but have no trouble keeping up, so we continued on, flying north of the White River Marsh State Wildlife Area.

At three hundred feet above the ground we are getting a good view. Wisps of fog shadowing farmyards, the morning dew glistening off metal barn roofs and silos punching the sky are a reminder of days gone by.

Our six now almost white birds glide through the cool morning air behind the trike wing. They are doing well. The odd chick would come down below the wing, have a glance at the trike and oddly cloaked pilot, then go back up and rejoin the flock on the wing.

At one point, three of them went over to the right wing, occasionally looking over at the pilot as if to say “Is this all you got – where are we going?” Despite #4 and 5 still open mouth breathing they didn’t seem to be tired or in distress, so we continued on to the west in a wide slow arc. Then it was off to the south, swooping past pastures with black cattle peering up seemingly undisturbed by this odd spectacle of machine and nature flying in formation above them.

The close cropped pasture gave way to brown-green hay fields, then came yellowing bean and corn fields interspersed with lines and patches of ever changing forest. It’s amazing what one can see with peripheral vision, for I was mostly watching the progress of the young eager chicks.

At times they would try to get in front of the trike. This made it difficult to keep ahead of the lead birds while not leaving #4 and 5 behind. After forty minutes of flying we began a long and slow descent back to the training area. Purple willow, red dogwood, yellow golden rod, mixed with the graying poplar shrubs and crimson sumacs glided by below as we landed on the runway.

As I sat there on the ground with the birds basking in the morning sun under the wing, the beauty of the morning was not lost on me. The whole experience makes it all worth while. (photo by Doug Pellerin)

Richard van Heuvelen leads the young cranes on a training flight over White River Marsh

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.