FLASHBACK

This is the fourth time we have flown the more westerly migration route. The first was in 2008. That year we arrived in Russellville, Alabama on December 12th and the weather held the cranes and planes in place for five days with no let up in sight before we conceded. On December 18th we broke the migration to allow the majority of the team to go home for the holidays.

The second year on this route was a repeat. We arrived on December 17th and held on hoping for flyable weather until the 21st before releasing the crew to allow them time to get home for Christmas with family. In 2010 we had great weather when we departed Hardin County, Tennessee, and as a result we were able to overfly our Franklin County stop.

Now, as I spend my third Christmas here, I can’t help but flashback to something than happened in 2009. At the conclusion of that year’s migration each member of the team was asked to write a piece describing what was for them, the journey’s most ‘memorable moment’. Last night, as I lay in bed listening to a chorus of spine-tingling coyote howls, my mind replayed my most memorable moment of the 2009 migration. Below is what I wrote back then…

2009 Most Memorable Moment
On a migration of 89 days of which just 25 were ‘fly days’, one might rightly reason there were days and more days that – shall we say – were less than exciting. While because of their inevitability, ‘down days’ are borne with some measure of equanimity, when the weather hits us with a lengthy stretch of going-nowhere-days, anxiety and frustration mount.

Such was the case when for the third consecutive year we faced the reality of the migration running over into the New Year. Although once or twice in the past, finishing in time to get home in time for Christmas was a bit of a squeaker, that timing was the rule until the Marathon Migration of 2007.

On December 20th this past year, as we contemplated a forecast of at least a week of unfavourable flying weather, we knew a return to pre-Christmas finishes was not in the cards. So it was that the next day the crew began departing for their respective homes for the holidays with their families, with three of us (Robert Doyle, Geoff Tarbox and I) staying behind to hold down the fort.

What I didn’t know at the time was that staying behind to keep the CraneCam operational would put me in line for a most unexpected experience – and memorable moment.

The weatherman produced day after day of cold, wet, windy, mind-numbing, misery-inducing weather. It wasn’t too many days before I would groan at the mere thought of the four times a day ritual of layering up, sticking my feet in icy, rubber boots, and, laptop in tow, trudging through the mud down to the camera trailer where I’d sit, nose dripping, toes freezing, my mouse manipulating fingers gradually stiffening from the cold, and question my sanity at having volunteered. Until…..one trip to the CraneCam changed it all.

That morning when tucking the truck out of view behind a forested hill, my peripheral vision caught a blur of movement. As started my trek down the hill to the camera, I peered through the early morning half light to see what it was that had caught my eye. Holeee! Coyotes! Headed toward the pen!

They had seen me too, and for long moments, heads lowered and ears perked, they stood stock-still staring me down. Frozen in place I gaped open-mouthed while my brain raced. “Oh my gawd! Oh my gawd! What do I do? What do I do?” Then my brain said, “Go get back in the truck, stupid.” Never knew my short, fat legs could move so fast.

Secure in the cab, with one eye I watched the coyotes circle and sniff the air, while with the other I cast about for potential weaponry should they look like they were intent on having a Whooper breakfast. It was quickly apparent however, that short of running over and beaning them with my laptop, the truck itself was my only weapon – and exposing the birds to it was a no-no. “Okay,” I thought, “So now what?”

Long before I figured it out the coyotes trotted off in the other direction, casting what I thought was looks of disdain over their shoulders. In the aftermath of the heart palpitating encounter, I of course remembered the hot wires around the pen, and half marveled, half chuckled at the protective ‘mother instinct’ the threat to the chicks had aroused.

While day in and day out I treasured and had toiled for those chicks, they had become, if only for a few minutes, as much mine to personally protect as they ever would. That feeling of possessiveness went beyond the norm. They weren’t WCEP’s chicks. They weren’t even ours, as in OM’s chicks. They were MY chicks. Scant seconds later I rightly returned their ownership to all the world, but not before I indulged myself fully in that emotional, adrenaline pumping memorable moment.

Indeed, those gorgeous youngsters not only belong to the world, but by the time you are reading this they will be out on their own in it. And the world better be careful – – woe betide the human that messes with my, ..er, our cranes. I think I could be the mother from hell.

TAKING GOOD CARE

Saunders Comprehensive Veterinary Dictionary defines Animal Welfare as, “the avoidance of abuse and exploitation of animals by humans by maintaining appropriate standards of accommodation, feeding and general care, the prevention and treatment of disease, and the assurance of freedom from harassment, and unnecessary discomfort and pain.”

Anytime we have or bring animals into captivity, whether we through birth/hatch or capture, we are obligated to protect those animals’ welfare. I believe there are no two ways about it. By controlling the its actions and choices, we must assume full responsibility for that animal.

In the case of the Whooping Cranes in the Eastern Migratory Population, WCEP and its partners assume full responsibility for their well being the minute we are in possession of a fertile egg. From a welfare standpoint, there are pages upon pages of protocols for everything involved in raising these birds.

Every step of the way attention is given to the most minute detail. These include everything from weight management to regular exercise sessions, both swimming and walking to ensure proper development. The U.S.G.S. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland is well known for success at producing healthy Whooping crane chicks.

But the attention to the young cranes’ welfare doesn’t end there. We continue to safeguard them throughout the entire time they are in our care. They are given de-worming medications according to a schedule provided by International Crane Foundation veterinarians. They have constant access to clean drinking water, are provided with a specially formulated diet, and follow a specific exercise schedule.

Sometimes weather will prevent training with the ultralights for several days in a row. When this happens, and assuming appropriate conditions, on the third day of no activity we let the cranes out of the pen to give them time to run around, stretch their wings, and forage. Additionally, we provide enrichment toys (pumpkins and corn) to keep the cohort entertained and curious. While we are responsible for them, the ultimate goal is to ensure they live a healthy, stress-free, disease-free, and harassment-free life.

Based on Saunders’ definition I believe we do everything we possibly can to ensure the cohorts’ welfare. Determining exactly what is appropriate for an animal’s welfare can be a difficult assignment, and yes, we do manipulate the young birds, but it is in order to achieve a broader goal.

We are in control of directing and caring for the cranes until they have reached a point they can be released into the wild. The very fact that so many young cranes have been successfully released into the wild for so many years with so few incidents, lends credence to the efficacy of the entire process.

MORNING PEN CHECK

The rain that was expected to begin falling overnight held off until shortly after 6:00 this morning. It quickly made up for the delayed start however, with giant, pelting raindrops and flashes of lightning. It wasn’t long before every depression was filled to overflowing.

The Class of 2011 received their preventative meds yesterday, delivered via grape treats. On his return from this morning’s pen check, boots squelching and soaked through – Caleb flashed a smile and gave a thumbs up. He said all the cranes were doing just fine despite the heavy downpour.

HOLIDAY HIATUS

The already strong south winds worked up a head of steam last evening and the motion of our motorhomes went from rock ‘n roll to pitch and heave. Then, the sky opened up. Like a little drummer boy on a sugar overload, the rain played a resounding rat-a-tat-tat on the roof of our ‘tin cans’ all night long. As a result, this morning there’s a little stream flowing between us and the access to the ‘facilities’.

With what we’ve been presented with this morning, and what appears to be ahead of us, at least in the foreseeable future, we have decided that effective today we will take a Holiday Hiatus to allow the majority of the team an opportunity to get home in time to spend Christmas with their family and friends.

Four team members will remain behind to look after the Class of 2011 and keep the ‘campfires’ burning.

MIGRATION DAY 73 – DOWN DAY 9

We have a stiff breeze out of the south giving us a balmy temperature in the 50’s today. At altitude the wind is from the same direction and considerably stronger. The crew is fast running through all the little jobs, fixes, and miscellaneous tasks that are always cropping up and wanting some attention.

We’ve taken full advantage of the down days – taking on fresh water, dumping grey and black water tanks, re-filling onboard propane and propane tanks, catching up on ‘housekeeping’, laundry, correspondence, etc, etc.

PREDICTING

If you’ve been watching the national weather, you will have seen the giant system we are under. It’s big, and it’s not pretty, delivering windy conditions and very soon if it lives up to what the weatherman is promising, also lots and lots of rain.

In a message posted to our GuestBook today, Susan Van Den Bosch from Twin Lakes, WI expressed her appreciation to our migration property owners and stopover hosts. We have often said, but cannot say it often enough, without the kindness and generosity of these wonderful people there could be no ultralight-led migration as we know it. It is great that Susan and so many others are as grateful for and as understanding of the magnitude of these folks’ contributions as we are. Reproduced below is Susan’s GuestBook entry….

“Every year I am amazed by the families and communities along the migration route. At a particularly busy time of year they open their homes and families up to the OM team and birds for an unknown period of time on sometimes very short notice. While the families remain anonymous to those of us following on the net, I would like to say thanks and God Bless our migration hosts/communities for their support and dedication to the OM team and our precious chicks.

I have witnessed migration flyovers twice in recent years and have been welcomed into the communities near the flyover. The OM team makes an impression wherever they go and leave a lasting memory for all.”

MIGRATION DAY 72 – DOWN DAY 8

We have strong winds aloft this morning. Indicative of their direction is the rising temperature. In contrast to the previous overnight temperature in the mid-twenties, last evening it was in the 40’s and forecast to rise to a high of near 60 degrees before the day is out.

During this and previous stops here in Russellville we’ve made some great friends. Among those are Harry and Belle, Dick and Joanna, Johnny and Brenda, Hudean and Janice, and Janet and Coy. This shout out is in tribute to the ladies mentioned here. They have been treating us to wonderful, homemade fare every day since we arrived, and we can all attest to their fine cooking and baking skills. What a warm, generous, and thoughtful group of people! We know how fortunate we are, and we are honored to have their friendship and grateful for their support.

PREDICTING

The good news is our equipment issue has been resolved. The bad news is the weather tomorrow will certainly keep us on the ground. The prediction is for SSE surface winds and 20-30mph SSW winds aloft.

We will be watching the forecasts – both short and long range even closer than usual. If it appears we will not have a reasonable opportunity to fly in the next day or so, rather than pressing on, we will consider breaking to allow the crew to go home and to spend the holidays with their family and friends.

TRAILER TALES

Guest Author:  Walter Sturgeon

Several years ago I was hauling the Nomad, predecessor to our Sierra travel trailer, with the white crew cab truck. All together the rig was more than 50 feet long with the turning radius of a train. While pulling it into a camp site over a rather narrow culvert I got the left side wheels too close to the edge. It had been raining, the soft ground gave way, and the trailer slid into a rather deep drainage ditch along a public road.

The trailer was hard aground on the frame on the left side with the wheels dangling in the air and sticking out into the road. Fortunately, we always carry lots of wooden blocks and planks that we normally use to level and chock the trailer wheels. It took all of those, plus the combined efforts of the OM crew, as well as a couple of local farmers with very big jacks and a standby tractor to extricate the Nomad. This was reported in the Field Journal on December 15, 2006.

Two days later, December 17, Bev Paulan our field supervisor on that migration was pulling the equipment trailer through a road construction area on I-75 near the Georgia/Florida border when trailer problems reared their ugly head once again. The road was scored for resurfacing and it was down to two lanes. Hauling the trailers over this surface was much like pulling them over 10 miles of rumble strips.

I was following behind Bev, driving the white truck pulling the Nomad. All of a sudden there was this excited voice on the walkie-talkie saying, “I’ve got a flat. Pulling over.” Luckily, because of the construction, there was a closed lane and also a breakdown lane protected from active traffic by a long line of orange barrels. We were able to get both our vehicles and their respective trailers well off the road.

I pulled off quite a distance ahead of her, grabbed the jack and handle out of the equipment box in the back of the white truck, and started to walk back. Bev on the roadside surveying situation. Much to our surprise both wheels on the duel axles on the right side were gone, rim and all, and the trailer was resting on the brake drums.

The rough road had created such a vibration that the lugs sheared off. Evidently, the first wheel had come off some time before, and because of the roughness of the road, neither of us noticed it. Unfortunately, no one thought to take a picture so my verbal description of the situation we found ourselves in will have to do.

To make an already long story shorter, I continued on to fetch some help, while Bev stayed with the rig enjoying the sunny warm day and caught up on some long neglected reading. One interesting side note to this story was that a supporter named Mark stopped to see if Bev was okay and offered her his gun for protection.
It wasn’t too long before I returned with Richard and Brooke, and after a trip to an auto parts store and a roadside repair, we were back rolling down the road again.

You well might ask why I am resurrecting these old stories. Well, this year at our Carroll County, TN stop where we camp at the local airport, there are some awesome drainage contours poured into the concrete parking area. Our own American Idol candidate, Caleb Fairbax, who is not just a pretty face but a skilled trailer-puller, managed to better both Bev’s and my trailer incidents.

Caleb managed single-handedly to get ALL four wheels of our equipment trailer off the ground at once. The picture of this feat is for your amazement and entertainment. When we got done shaking our heads, we all certainly had a good laugh at Caleb’s expense.

Fortunately, because it was originally designed for hauling cars the trailer has a strong frame under it. At the height of the problem on this migration day, it ended up looking like a well decorated covered bridge.

Most of the crew remembered our experience with the Nomad and we had it back on all four wheels in no time using jacks, blocking, and planks.

Caleb will probably be immortalized since none of our equipment has more than four wheels. Leave it to some young whipper-snapper to best us old veterans.

The common theme to all these incidents was that no permanent damage was done to any of the equipment. Considering the number of miles we log, the country roads we travel, the tight places we often have to pull them into, and the constant rotation of drivers, we have a minimum of difficulties and incidents.
mobile phone spy

MIGRATION DAY 70 – DOWN DAY 6

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

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

MIGRATION DAY 69 – DOWN DAY 5

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

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

Joe leading four cranes

 

Richard leading five cranes

PREDICTING

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

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

MIGRATION DAY 68 – DOWN DAY 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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