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.

I WONDER…

There’s a traditional church hymn with a verse that goes, “I once was lost but now I’m found,” but sometimes you have to wonder if being found is all that it’s cracked up to be. I mean, are the members of the recently discovered “Lost Tribe” in the Amazon really that pleased at being “found” by the members of the tribe of “Civilized White Men” – when the fact is they never considered themselves lost in the first place? Being lost…like everything else, is all relative.

So I wonder how our little #1-11 felt last week when he looked up from where he stood alone in a field south of here and saw the Wisconsin DNR plane circling above as Bev homed in on the beep-beeps of his transmitter. Did he break into a celebratory touchdown victory dance with such flagrant exuberance that the nearest referee threw a flag costing WCEP a 15 yard penalty? Or, did instead a thought balloon suddenly rise above his head containing the words “Oh crap?”

As some of you know, #1 had not been seen since he and his classmates heard the final call of migration and took to the air on that magical morning back in April, spiraling higher and higher above Wheeler Refuge until they disappeared into the deep blue of the Alabama sky. All were later present and accounted for in Wisconsin …even #2-11 returned from her trip to Florida and was regularly observed….but not him. Where did he go?

Then followed the usual string of possible sightings; one in Alabama at a refuge a few dozen miles from Wheeler which scrambled the refuge biologist for an unsuccessful verification effort. And then some others in areas along the migration route until #1 sightings rivaled those of UFO’s in number, prompting the suggestion that he was really hanging out in Area 51 in the Nevada desert where the government keeps all those gate crashing aliens from outer space (the ones from inner space are too small to see without a microscope) unfortunate enough to have taken that galactic shortcut that brought them to our ‘not so blue anymore’ planet.

I felt confident, however, that he would turn up alive because after all, he was my favorite bird. Oops! Did I really say that? I’m not supposed to have a favorite bird. That wouldn’t be scientific! So much for my chances for a Nobel Prize, or an advanced degree in something I probably couldn’t pronounce let alone spell. But even the aliens have their favorite humans.

Truth is, each year produces for me a favorite bird and last year it was #1. Why #1? Lots of reasons, many of which lie within the boundaries of the subconscious rather than the conscious and can best be explained only by the words, “ just because.” Bev shared my little secret, and so she called shortly after the discovery, which caused the nearest camp referee (those darn guys are everywhere!) to throw the flag so hard it left a bruise on my arm when it hit me.

And so one morning last week as I looked out into the morning darkness while the rain pounded hard on the roof of the camper, I wondered what the little fellow was up to. What he’s thinking? What the day and the week and the month hold for him? And, where has he been all this time? What a story he has to tell. What an Update!

Perhaps one day technology will enable us to communicate such things. Or perhaps it will be just the opposite and we’ll evolve as human beings enough to discover within ourselves a portal through which to converse with the natural world and learn its secrets…and his. Maybe only then will we really know for sure which column we fall under, the “Lost” or the “Found.” Until that day, we can only wait…and wonder.

PLEA AGREEMENT IN INDIANA WHOOPING CRANE SHOOTING

Jason McCarter of Wheatland, IN, who shot and killed Whooping crane #27-08 in early January of 2012, filed an Agreement to Plead Guilty for violating the Migratory Bird Act by Taking or Killing of a Migratory Bird, thus avoiding a criminal trial.

The plea agreement includes 3 years probation during which period he may not hunt, possess or use of a firearm or alcohol. In addition to “an unprecedented number” of community service hours to be served at the Goose Pond Fish and Wildlife area he also must pay a $5,000 fine to the International Crane Foundation.

Taught its migratory path by Operation Migration’s ultralight aircraft in the fall of 2008, the three year-old male Whooping crane was part of a nesting pair. (Mate was female 8-09.) According to the case report filed with the prosecutor, the Whooping crane had been spotlighted at night and shot and killed with a high-powered rifle in Knox County.

Read #27-08’s complete bio on Journey North’s excellent website. The bio documents his life from hatch to his summer flight training; his ultralight-led migration with OM’s pilots, and his life as a wild bird.

#27-08 was the third confirmed shooting death of a Whooping crane in Indiana. The first shooting mortality occurred in late 2009 when the first female in the reintroduced Eastern Migratory Population to successfully hatch and raise a wild chick in the U.S. in more than a century was killed. Crane #17-02 was 7 years old when she was shot.

In December 2011, male Whooping crane number 6-05 was found shot to death in Jackson County, In. His carcass was found by a photographer near the Muscatatuck River basin about 40 miles north of Louisville, Kentucky.

Read the online article re McCarter’s Plea Agreement here.

EASTERN MIGRATORY POPULATION UPDATE

WCEP Tracker, Eva Szyszkoski’s latest report covering the period July 1 to August 6 notes that the maximum size of the Eastern Migratory Population is 105, consisting of 52 males, 51 females, and two chicks whose gender is unknown. In this report, * = female; NFT = non-functional transmitter; DAR – Direct Autumn Release

Eva estimated that the distribution at the end of the report period or last record of the Whooping cranes was:
Wisconsin -98 (including the two surviving wild-hatched chicks)
Michigan – 2
Long Term Missing – 2; (#27-07*NFT was last reported in Kosciusko, IN March 13, 2011. #13-08*was last detected in Juneau County, WI April 6, 2011.)

On July 6th the carcass of female #9-11 was found in Polk County, WI, the remains of W5-12, the wild-hatched chick of parents 13-02 & 18-02 was found on the Necedah NWR July 24th. Both remains were sent to the USGS National Wildlife Health Center in Madison for necropsy.

All but one of the seventeen 2011 hatch year Whooping Cranes were located in Wisconsin with distribution reported as:
Marquette County – 3
Dane County – 2
Dodge County – 7
Adams County – 2
Columbia County 2
The only 2011 crane unaccounted for is DAR#13-11

Thanks go to pilots Beverly Paulan (Wisconsin DNR) and Mike Frakes (Windway Aviation) for aerial tracking support.

FROM A TO B NOT ALWAYS A STRAIGHT LINE

Whether it’s a boat, an airplane, or a truck, in general terms the bigger it is the less precise the controls. You don’t steer a semi the way you do a sports car. More accurately, you herd it, making small adjustments and waiting for the results.

Teaching birds to migrate is a similar experience. It’s less of a science and more of a hit and miss situation. When it doesn’t work exactly as planned, you make a correction, cross your fingers and then judge the results. Rather than travelling in a perfectly straight line from when the chicks hatch to when they follow us into the air, we bounce from side to side, generally following the correct path but never perfectly.

One of the definitions of an animal is that it will consistently respond in exactly the same manner to a specific stimulus. That’s why you can depend on birds to migrate in the fall or nest in the spring. Mostly we don’t know what triggers that behavior, but the response is always the same.

It’s the “don’t know” part that is the problem for us. We judge the effectiveness of our training protocol by the results, but we really don’t know what lessons we are teaching. If things go wrong, we have a list of corrections that we can apply that have worked in the past, but it is more like herding than steering. We guess at the problem, apply a “fix”, and judge the results. But apart from that, it’s all speculation.

Number 11 is a classic example. She is our youngest bird, but only nine days behind the oldest. She is not the smallest of her flock mates nor is she the least aggressive. Her behavior was normal for awhile, but then something happened and she began refusing to come out of the pen for training. While the others rushed to the door when they heard the aircraft approach, she would head to the back of the wet pen.

One morning Geoff and Doug tried repeatedly to coax her out while the others ran up and down the runway. The next day we tried training her by herself, thinking maybe she didn’t like to be with the others. She did follow the trike, but when it stopped at the end she kept going, prompting a half hour search in the tall grass.

We also checked to see if she was gate-shy. The dominance of the birds is based in part on space; If you crowd me, I will poke you so keep your distance. That works until we try to funnel them all through a narrow gate at the same time. Some birds react negatively to that confinement and develop a fear of the front door. Number 11 however walked back and forth through the gate nonchalantly when we tested her.

One morning Brooke was in the pen while I trained the birds. After a short delay he managed to get her out. I watched her closely as we began to taxi to the runway’s west end. She walked close to the aircraft, so it wasn’t the wing over her head bothering her. And, she was within pecking distance from the rest of the flock so it wasn’t a space issue. She flew the length of the runway with the aircraft and this time stayed with it when we stopped at the end so it wasn’t a lack of attentiveness.

Brooke trained the birds the next day and Richard after that. Number 11 got over whatever it was that was bothering her. She now comes out of the pen with the others and eagerly flies behind the trike. It is not an issue because we only have six birds and it is easy to spot a problem and spend the time fixing it, but we would all like to know what threw her off. She obviously got the wrong message from whatever lesson we were teaching. We are heading in the right direction but it is certainly not a straight line.

‘TAXI’ TRAINING NO MORE – NOW IT’S FLIGHT TRAINING

Saturday was one of those kind of dark mornings with clouds looming overhead head in menacing formations. Once aloft, I found that the air was slightly bumpy, but flyable. As Brooke wanted to test fly his trike after doing maintenance the day before. I was the pilot on tap for training that day. I’m sure he just wanted to fly.

All of the young cranes came out of the pen almost simultaneously and we were off and airborne in a flash. They all followed as the trike did a steep turn off the end of the runway. Then, two of the chicks turned back and landed on the end of the run way, but the rest the group attempted to follow the trike.

Numbrs 10, 5,and 6 landed with the trike on the runway at the far south end, while #4 and #11 flew in from the other end. One, two, three, four, five – five birds. Where was #7? As I gazed around, he circled in from behind the trike and landed under the right wing. Ah, perfect.

After a brief rest and some well deserved treats handed out under the wing, I took off for a second flight. Yes, we can now call them ‘flights’.

I circled around beyond the north end of the runway with five chicks following. While the trike landed down at the south end, the chicks landed at different points along the runway. But they flew up to the trike just as it rolled to a stop next to # 5 who had just stood there for the entire flight.

Oh-oh. Still only five birds. Glancing up I saw that #10 was still airborne, but with no activity in the air she too soon landed next to the trike. Fumbling around excitedly I managed to dispense treats to these reward-worthy birds.

Trying to stay calm, I again slowly taxied down the runway, waiting for that moment – for all of the chicks to turn around and want to fly. Suddenly #5 flapped it’s wings and then all of the birds sprung into action. Pushing the trike to full throttle we were once again off into the sky. Another steep turn off the north end they all followed. Although some took a short cut to land back with the trike, three chicks circled momentarily before landing next to the aircraft. Again, as the chicks crowded around the trike, a very excited pilot gave out treats.

Once more into the air – this time taking it little farther out and with the chicks getting some altitude. As the trike came around a couple of the chicks landed on the runway so I couldn’t touch down. Instead, I circled around for another try, but the chicks, anticipating where the trike might land, were once again in jeopardy. So around I went again with at least three chicks trying to follow, and #10 almost on the wing. As the trike circled around yet again, all the chicks landed except #10 who continued to try and catch the wing. Upon my attempts to land the other five chicks would fly from one end of the field to the other preventing me from putting down. After a couple more attempts #10 and I were able to find enough space to land.

What a great morning! The chicks all gathered around for treats and rested while #10 regained her breath after her long flight. Slowly, the chicks were let back into the pen where they could continue a well deserved rest.

On the way back to the hangar a crazy looking cloud with different wind pattern loomed overhead. Bracing myself for the turbulence to come – and come it did – I continued on, fighting to keep the aircraft straight and level. Then as the aircraft passed through the burst of outflow I encountered calmer air.

Suddenly Brooke came on the radio asking my whereabouts. He had also encountered the same outflow and aborted his landing through the trees and landed instead in a big field to the east of the airstrip to wait out this burst of air. I continued on in the now calmer air, landed at the airstrip and radioed back to Brooke that conditions were good again. Soon both trikes were safely back in the hangar and both pilots humbly went back to camp for yet another day of study for our private pilot certificates.

MILEMAKER SPONSORS NEEDED

APPLY WITHIN!  As with every year for the past decade, the young Whooping crane chicks in the Class of 2012 will be relying on you to help fund the biggest adventure of their young lives – their first-ever migration this fall behind out small aircraft. And they will NEED YOUR HELP!

Won’t you become a MileMaker sponsor today? A one mile sponsorship is $200; a half mile is $100; and a quarter mile is $50. Remember too, that being a 2012 MileMaker sponsor might also net you a sensational Thank You Gift!

All MileMaker sponsors are eligible to be drawn for a Thank You Gift of a two-week stay at Mot Mot Manor in fabulous Costa Rica! Mot Mot Manor is located on the Nicoyan Peninsula in the beautiful gated community of Roma del Mar. The closest airport is Liberia, Costa Rica (~2.5 hour drive). A total of $2000.00 will be provided to cover airfare and car rental for your Costa Rican getaway!

MileMaker Sponsors’ names will be entered in the Thank You Gift Draw as follows: 1 entry per quarter mile | 2 entries per half mile | 4 entries per one mile sponsorship.

View a photo gallery featuring images taken at Mot Mot Manor and surrounding area.

Become a MileMaker today… and help the Class of 2012 young Whooping cranes reach their winter home in Florida this coming fall.