CRYSTAL-BALLING THE NUMBERS

There are five breeding centers for Whooping cranes around North America. The largest is the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, followed by the International Crane Foundation in Wisconsin. There is also the Calgary Zoo in Alberta, Canada, the San Antonio Zoo in Texas, and the Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species in New Orleans, known to us as ACRES.

Each year around this time the Flock Managers of these facilities get very busy as the breeding season begins. They use natural pair bonding as well as artificial insemination to ensure proper genetic coupling.

There were only three breeding females in the flock back in the 1940’s when only 15 Whooping cranes were left in the world. That bottleneck limited the amount of genetic material available. In order to keep track of that tenuous lineage, each pairing and hatch is recorded in the Whooping Crane Stud Book.

Within the captive flock there are birds that breed well and produce many eggs each season. There is a great advantage to prolific parents, but it does not take long before their offspring begin to dominate the population. The more birds produced by one pair and released into the wild, the greater chance of sibling pairing.

This time of year the Flock Managers and the Co-Chair of the Whooping Crane Recovery Team conference on a call each Monday afternoon. That is when the crystal ball comes out and Flock Managers try to predict how many eggs their charges will produce.

This year, based on those predictions, the Recovery Team expects the five breeding centers to produce approximately 56 fertile eggs. There is also a possibility of collecting another ten eggs from nests at Necedah for a total of 66 eggs.

On average, about 75 percent of the eggs produced in captivity are fertile, and 75 percent of those actually result in chicks ready to be sent out for release. So, if all the guesswork is accurate, and nothing untoward happens, there should be 37 birds available this season.

37 may seem like a lot of chicks, but there are a number of uses for them. The non-migratory population in Louisiana is beginning its third season and the Recovery Team has assigned that reintroduction a minimum of eighteen chicks for 2012. A minimum of twelve have been allocated to the ultralight-led program, and a minimum of six allocated to the Direct Autumn Release (DAR) method.

For several years a Parent Reared study has been proposed by WCEP. By this method chicks would be raised at Patuxent, but rather than collecting the eggs for incubation, they would be raised by their parents. They would be moved to Wisconsin in the fall and released like DAR birds with older Whooping cranes. That project has been allocated four birds this year.

In addition to all of this, there are genetic hold backs. If any birds with more uncommon lineage are produced from parents that are not as prolific as others, they will be held back to ensure those blood lines are protected in the captive population.

If you have been doing the math along the way, you will realize those numbers add up to 40 chicks, not including potential holdbacks. That is three more than the expected total production, so you can see that the egg allocation calls are critical to everyone.

Cross your fingers for a good breeding season.

AND THE WINNER IS….

We were thrilled to be able to offer last year’s MileMaker sponsors the chance to have their name drawn for a very unique Thank You Gift. OM pilot and metal sculptor, Richard van Heuvelen, created and donated a one-of-a-kind sculpture of a Whooping crane chick. Richard’s artwork has sold for thousands of dollars so we knew there would be much excitement and anticipation about this special gift.

All 2011 MileMaker sponsors’ names were entered in the Thank You Gift draw – some several times as they sponsored multiple times. Every quarter mile sponsor was allotted one entry; each half mile sponsor received two entries, and each full mile sponsor four entries. Whew! That was one BIG pile of entry slips for the draw.

Now it is time to announce the MileMaker sponsor’s name that was drawn. This little chick is going to call Illinois home. Next week, this unique and adorable little Whooping crane chick will be winging its way to Laura Rowan in Berkeley, IL.

Congratulations Laura! And our thanks go to you for your support, and to the hundreds and hundreds of other 2011 MileMaker sponsors whose generosity made the 2011 campaign a rousing success.

DON’T FORGET…This year’s MileMaker campaign also offers sponsors the chance to receive a sensational Thank You Gift.

Wouldn’t you love a week’s holiday in fabulous Costa Rica?!?!? Read all about 2012 MileMaker HERE and then click the links to read the details and see photos of where YOU could be spending your next vacation.

AN ORDINARY HUMAN…

Each morning and afternoon and the times in between I walk down the Refuge’s Atkeson Trail to a vantage point where I can usually see the chicks and begin my all too familiar count to nine.

It is a wonderful way to start the day because the trail begins with a boardwalk that weaves through a bald cypress swamp constructed in 1938 by young men of the Civilian Conservation Corp under the direction of then assistance Refuge biologist Tom Atkeson.

Entering the trail is like walking into a cathedral; the trees standing like benevolent sentinels, dark and shadowy against the soft light, diffused as if through stained glass, reaching for heaven above and through liquid refection into infinity below while gently converting the visitor into parishioner while stilling the mind with a whisper of peaceful harmony and reverence. The traveler is instantly blessed with the gift of place.

But who is this man who created such a place? The answer, I was to learn, is the stuff of legend. “Ask Teresa” Bill, the Refuge biologist, told me referring to Teresa Adams, Head Ranger here at Wheeler. “She used to work for Tom back in the 80’s”. Next morning, Teresa kindly took the time to relate some of her “Tom Stories”, having worked for Tom on the Refuge right out of college. She also gave me an Audubon Magazine article about Tom dated September, 1987 from which the following information is derived.

Tom Atkeson came to the newly created Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge as a young junior biologist in l938. The Roosevelt Administration had just designated the middle third of the Wheeler Reservoir as a waterfowl refuge to compensate for the extraordinary loss of waterfowl nationwide at the time. It was the first refuge to be overlaid on a hydroelectric project and as such was an experiment in compatibility.

Tom’s first job was to walk every foot of the new refuge and map all 158 miles of it on both sides of the Tennessee River. He was also tasked with developing a plan for the restoration of this badly degraded land and develop it into good habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife. With the help of the CCC’s, Tom began the restoration.

Then World War II broke out and into the Army Tom went. One day, while on a training exercise, the anti tank mine he was burying exploded, tearing away his hands, the lower half of his face, shattering his leg and blinding him. Two years in an Army hospital followed; years of terrible pain and ever deepening despair.

Tom recounted this terrible time and the event that changed his life in a 1987 interview for Audubon Magazine. “My father was visiting me one day in the hospital and he prefaced everything he said to me by calling me “Captian”. Finally I said, Hell’s bells! You never referred to me by my rank before! Why start now? To which his father answered, “I didn’t mean your rank, son. I was thinking of that poem we used to say: “Invictus.” You remember it.” Then they both began to cry as they recited it together as they had so many times before:

“Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole
I thank whatever gods there be
For my unconquerable soul
It matters not how strait the gate
How charged with punishment the scroll:
I am the master of my fate,
I am the Captain of my soul.”

“Those eloquent lines of William Ernest Henley’s transformed me.” Tom said. “ It pulled me back from falling into a dark hole. From that moment I had my perspective back. I knew with complete conviction that if I tried my utmost and did not let any temporary failure dishearten or stop me, I could go on and do something. It might not be exactly what I had planned, but something.”

With the help of Ira N. Gabrielson, then director of the National Wildlife Refuge System for the Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service who had met and remembered Tom from years before, Tom convinced the powers that be that he knew every inch of the Wheeler Refuge and that he could make a significant contribution to its development if given the opportunity.

He was hired with the condition that he employ a sighted person as his assistant at his own expense. And so the legend began. He went on to become Refuge Manager in 1962 and remained so until his retirement in the late 1980’s when he was in his mid seventies.

Under his direction the Refuge brought back the otter, the turkey, the white tail deer as well as creating habitat that became the wintering ground for tens of thousands of waterfowl. Today, over 300 species of birds may be seen on the Refuge; easily over 100 in a single day, and there is now an abundance of small mammal species as well as recreational and educational opportunities for the general public.

Tom received many commendations, awards and citations over the years but the one he liked the least was being named federal handicapped worker of the year despite going to the White House and meeting President Reagan. “I despise that word “handicapped” Tom said. “If I do a good job I don’t mind getting credit for it, but I don’t want to be a successful cripple!”

The Audubon article about Tom ended beautifully with the following -“Kipling said it to Atkeson’s satisfaction in his Barrack-Room Ballad about Tommy Atkins:

“I ain’t no thin red hero,
I ain’t no blackguard too,
But an ordinary human
Most remarkably like you.”

AN ORDINARY HUMAN…

Each morning and afternoon and the times in between I walk down the Refuge’s Atkeson Trail to a vantage point where I can usually see the chicks and begin my all too familiar count to nine.

It is a wonderful way to start the day because the trail begins with a boardwalk that weaves through a bald cypress swamp constructed in 1938 by young men of the Civilian Conservation Corp under the direction of then assistance Refuge biologist Tom Atkeson.

Entering the trail is like walking into a cathedral; the trees standing like benevolent sentinels, dark and shadowy against the soft light, diffused as if through stained glass, reaching for heaven above and through liquid refection into infinity below while gently converting the visitor into parishioner while stilling the mind with a whisper of peaceful harmony and reverence. The traveler is instantly blessed with the gift of place.

But who is this man who created such a place? The answer, I was to learn, is the stuff of legend. “Ask Teresa” Bill, the Refuge biologist, told me referring to Teresa Adams, Head Ranger here at Wheeler. “She used to work for Tom back in the 80’s”. Next morning, Teresa kindly took the time to relate some of her “Tom Stories”, having worked for Tom on the Refuge right out of college. She also gave me an Audubon Magazine article about Tom dated September, 1987 from which the following information is derived.

Tom Atkeson came to the newly created Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge as a young junior biologist in l938. The Roosevelt Administration had just designated the middle third of the Wheeler Reservoir as a waterfowl refuge to compensate for the extraordinary loss of waterfowl nationwide at the time. It was the first refuge to be overlaid on a hydroelectric project and as such was an experiment in compatibility.

Tom’s first job was to walk every foot of the new refuge and map all 158 miles of it on both sides of the Tennessee River. He was also tasked with developing a plan for the restoration of this badly degraded land and develop it into good habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife. With the help of the CCC’s, Tom began the restoration.

Then World War II broke out and into the Army Tom went. One day, while on a training exercise, the anti tank mine he was burying exploded, tearing away his hands, the lower half of his face, shattering his leg and blinding him. Two years in an Army hospital followed; years of terrible pain and ever deepening despair.

Tom recounted this terrible time and the event that changed his life in a 1987 interview for Audubon Magazine. “My father was visiting me one day in the hospital and he prefaced everything he said to me by calling me “Captian”. Finally I said, Hell’s bells! You never referred to me by my rank before! Why start now? To which his father answered, “I didn’t mean your rank, son. I was thinking of that poem we used to say: “Invictus.” You remember it.” Then they both began to cry as they recited it together as they had so many times before:

“Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole
I thank whatever gods there be
For my unconquerable soul
It matters not how strait the gate
How charged with punishment the scroll:
I am the master of my fate,
I am the Captain of my soul.”

“Those eloquent lines of William Ernest Henley’s transformed me.” Tom said. “ It pulled me back from falling into a dark hole. From that moment I had my perspective back. I knew with complete conviction that if I tried my utmost and did not let any temporary failure dishearten or stop me, I could go on and do something. It might not be exactly what I had planned, but something.”

With the help of Ira N. Gabrielson, then director of the National Wildlife Refuge System for the Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service who had met and remembered Tom from years before, Tom convinced the powers that be that he knew every inch of the Wheeler Refuge and that he could make a significant contribution to its development if given the opportunity.

He was hired with the condition that he employ a sighted person as his assistant at his own expense. And so the legend began. He went on to become Refuge Manager in 1962 and remained so until his retirement in the late 1980’s when he was in his mid seventies.

Under his direction the Refuge brought back the otter, the turkey, the white tail deer as well as creating habitat that became the wintering ground for tens of thousands of waterfowl. Today, over 300 species of birds may be seen on the Refuge; easily over 100 in a single day, and there is now an abundance of small mammal species as well as recreational and educational opportunities for the general public.

Tom received many commendations, awards and citations over the years but the one he liked the least was being named federal handicapped worker of the year despite going to the White House and meeting President Reagan. “I despise that word “handicapped” Tom said. “If I do a good job I don’t mind getting credit for it, but I don’t want to be a successful cripple!”

The Audubon article about Tom ended beautifully with the following -“Kipling said it to Atkeson’s satisfaction in his Barrack-Room Ballad about Tommy Atkins:

“I ain’t no thin red hero,
I ain’t no blackguard too,
But an ordinary human
Most remarkably like you.”

EASTERN MIGRATORY POPULATION NESTING UPDATE

As a result of an aerial survey conducted April 2nd by WI DNR pilot Bev Paulan, we have more news about nesting activity in the Eastern Migratory Population (EMP).

Bev noted that none of the pairs sighted last week, “were near the nest they had.” She spotted pair 38-08 & 3-07 walking along a tree line not far from their nest. Confirmed is a nest belonging to 28-08 & 5-10 with 28-08 seen standing on it.

Also with nests are 12-02 & 19-04 with 19-04 seen on the nest, and at another location, 33-07 & 5-09 were observed swapping places on their nest. (Photos compliments of Bev Paulan)

In her report Bev said, “Several birds were northwest of Volk Field, namely: 11-09 & 15-09, 38-09 & 34-09, 7-09, 4-08, 27-10 and 10-09. I physically saw seven birds but heard  eight [via radio receiver] and I am guessing that 17-03, 26-07, and 17-07 were nearby. 2-11 is still at her previous marsh location with her entourage of Sandhills.”

NESTING OFFICIALLY UNDERWAY!

On the aerial survey conducted March 26th by Wisconsin DNR pilot, Bev Paulan, the Eastern Migratory Population’s first nesting pair of the 2012 season was found and photographed. (Aerial photo taken by Bev.)

Incubation has started for this pair consisting of 3-07 and DAR38-08* on their nest located on the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge. More pairs have been observed building nests, but no other actual nesting activity has been confirmed.

FAA GRANTS EXEMPTION

Late Friday afternoon an email message chimed into my Inbox and changed everything. The FAA issued a rule-making decision granting an exemption allowing Operation Migration to fly.

A process like this can take as long as three months or better, and even then, granting an exemption only happens when the agency feels the petitioner has satisfied two primary criteria.

One of those requirements is that it must have benefit to the American people. We answered that question by first talking about the birds and how WCEP now has a population of Whooping cranes migrating in the eastern flyway where none existed for over one hundred years. Then we outlined the education opportunities that provides, like the millions of students reached by Journey North, and the unprecedented media coverage from around the world.

You, our supporters and the public, also answered that question by adding your names to petitions, writing to political representatives, and providing your support when we most needed it. We will be forever grateful.

The second criterion is safety and it was not as easy to satisfy. The only aviation license that allows a pilot to be paid for flying is a commercial rating. After a person has earned that certificate, they can add endorsements, like approval to fly multi engine aircraft or float planes. Unfortunately there is no endorsement for the weight-shift aircraft we currently fly.

Currently our pilots hold Light Sport Aircraft certificates and the FAA has required us to upgrade to Private licenses. That means we will have to log some hours of dual time flying with an instructor before undergoing both a written and a flight test. Recognizing that will take time, the FAA has allowed us until the beginning of this year’s migration to comply.

They have also required that our pilots have at least 250 hours of time in a trike. That is the minimum time needed to qualify for a commercial license, but an easy one for us to meet because we all have more than a thousand hours logged and some of us are almost up to 3000.

Of course the other safety factor is the aircraft itself. There are two classes of aircraft within the Light Sport category. The type we have are called Experimental, and are owner maintained, which means we can do all the work that is needed to keep them flying. The other class is called Special, and those aircraft are used for flight instruction – one of the only types of commercial flying allowed in Sport Light Aircraft. This class of aircraft must be maintained by an FAA licensed mechanic and there must be accurate records kept of the work that is done. The FAA has required that we switch over to Special Light Sport Aircraft (S-LSA).

Most of the S-LSAs available are designed to withstand the rigors of pilot flight training and are heavy. That means they fly faster than ours, and in fact, too fast to lead birds. We will have to work with a manufacturer to re-design an aircraft to be lighter and fly slower yet still fit into the Special category. Acknowledging that will not be a simple task, the FAA has given us until 2014 to comply. In the meantime we will have our current aircraft inspected every 100 hours to ensure they are airworthy.

As you can imagine this exemption brings great relief. Sunday is the beginning of April and the deadline our WCEP partners gave us to obtain a favorable ruling in order to be allocated birds for a 2012 ultralight-led migration.

We are very grateful to everyone for all the support we received, and to the FAA for understanding how important this project is to conservation of Whooping cranes – and to the thousands of people who follow it.

It is easy to be critical of a large government agency, but the FAA is in charge of ensuring safety in something inherently dangerous. That is a serious responsibility. To us, they were professional, cooperative, diligent, and yet understanding. We want to thank the FAA and all the people responsible for this decision and for their contribution, not only to safety but to conservation.

2012 PAIRS LINE UP

Again we have to thank Wisconsin DNR pilot, Bev Paulan – this time for the list of 31 pairs in the Eastern Migratory Population.

As you look at the numbers below, keep in mind that some pairs consist of one or more very young cranes so to expect much in the way of fertile eggs much less chicks would not be very realistic. At the same time, there are a good number of mature pairs, including some that are experienced nesters, so… As Bev said yesterday, “fingers crossed”. (* = female, NFT = non functional transmitter)

Here’s the line-up – listed by age of the female:

HATCH YEAR PAIR NUMBERS
2002 13-02 & 18-02*
2003 03-04 & 09-03*
  11-03NFT & 12-03
  09-05 & 13-03*NFT
2004 05-05NFT & 15-04*NFT
  12-02 & 19-04*
2005 01-04 & 08-05*
  08-04NFT & 19-05*
2006 10-03 & W1-06*
2007 16-02 & 16-07*NFT
  10-09 & 17-07*NFT
  12-05 & 22-07*
  04-08 & 26-07*NFT
  07-07 & 39-07*
  02-04 & 46-07*NFT
2008 14-08 & 24-08*
  03-07NFT & 38-08*
2009 16-04 & 04-09*
  33-07 & 05-09*
  17-03NFT & 07-09*
  11-02NFT & 08-09*
  01-01 & 14-09*
  11-09 & 15-09*
  27-06 & 26-09*
  41-09 & 32-09*
  38-09 & 34-09*
  06-09 & 35-09*
  18-03 & 36-09*
  24-09 & 42-09*
2010 28-08 & 5-10*
1-10 & 6-10*

 

You might want to keep this list so that once nesting is in full swing and eggs are ‘on the ground’ you can keep score.

EASTERN MIGRATORY POPULATION NEWS

This news just in from Bev Paulan, Wisconsin DNR pilot who completed a Whooping crane survey flight on Monday.

Bev told us, “During my crane survey flight yesterday, I found this lonely bird hanging out with a bunch of Sandhills. No working transmitter, no leg bands and some brown feathers. The general consensus is that I found the little runaway, 2-11. She was in a marsh in Adams County where last year we had a pair nest.”

Also found on the aerial survey was 38-08 who was sitting on a nest. She said that 9-05 & 13-03 were almost finished building their nest and that 27-07 & 12-05 looked to be just starting nest construction.

Altogether Bev located 31 pairs, of which at least three consist of a crane from the 2010 hatch year and a few more from the 2009 generation. Bev said, “I am not holding out a lot of hope for those young birds to nest successfully, but even so, practice makes perfect.”

She witnessed was a short vignette as she surveyed the Mead Wildlife Area. The mate of female 5-10 was chasing off Sandhills, an exercise that produced “quite an aerial dogfight” before the Sandhill disengaged and flew off into the woods.

Thanks for the news and the photo Bev!

FLORIDA NON-MIGRATORY POPULATION

Marty Folk, with Avian Research for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission provides the latest news on the Florida non-migratory population of Whooping cranes.

So far they have had one chick hatch from one nest (now about 11 days old) and have another nest that is currently active.

Marty said, “We have five other pairs in the population, but low water levels may prevent them from nesting. Drought conditions, which have plagued Florida for about the last 13 years, continue. This year we are wrapping up our study of nesting in both Whooping cranes and Florida Sandhill cranes, collecting considerable data on all aspects of nesting, but with a focus on behavior of the birds during incubation. It is an exciting study and we are making some interesting discoveries.”

For the first time, a data logger was successfully introduced to a Whooping crane nest. The device allows remote monitoring and avoids the negative effects of repeated nest checks. The pre-programmed instrument is used to detect such things as temperature change, giving researchers an indication of when the parent is on/off the nest. Such valuable information collected by Florida’s researchers can be used to inform the scientists and biologists involved in other Whooping crane projects through analysis of the data collected throughout the nesting cycle.

POWERLINE STRIKES

Birds and power lines do not work well together. Especially when power lines are situated adjacent wetlands.

An aerial power line inspection team is installing bird diverters along a transmission line just north of Billings, Montana in order to prevent the deaths of thousands of birds.

The line crosses a 3,000-acre wetland, which attracts as many as 100,000 waterfowl and shore birds. The birds have trouble seeing two of the wires on the line that are used to divert lightning strikes.

Haverfield Aviation has been hired to install FireFly I fixed bird diverters, which are plastic reflectors with blocks of orange, green and phosphorescent material that glows in the dark. The reflectors are attached to a spring-loaded device that clamps onto the transmission line and are spaced about 60 feet apart, allowing the birds to better see the power line and avoid flying into it.

The power line was installed in the late 1970s, around the time that birds started to die off from the bacterial disease botulism and from striking the line. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials picked up 65,000 dead birds from 55 species during that time.

Agency officials theorized that the botulism outbreak may have been caused by birds hitting the lines, falling into the water and dying. The dead birds provided the botulism bacteria with a protein source that let it flourish. Maggots that fed on the dead birds and were eaten by live birds helped spread the outbreak. (Read More)

State officials noted that bird deaths are climbing once again, leading the department to work with NorthWestern Energy, which owns the line.

To see a video clip of workers installing the diverters, visit this link.

EMP UPDATE

Eva Szyszkoski, ICF/WCEP Tracking Field Manager provided the following report for WCEP partners this week:

Maximum size of the eastern migratory population at the end of the report period was 107 cranes (54 males and 53 females). Estimated distribution at the end of the report period or last record included 70 whooping cranes in Wisconsin, 4 in Indiana, 9 in Alabama, 4 in Tennessee, 4 in Florida, 14 at unknown locations, and 2 long term missing.

2011 Cohort: Of the eight 2011 Direct Autumn Release juveniles, two (#15-11 and #18-11) are in Marquette County, Wisconsin, two (#17-11 and #20-11) remain at the Hiwassee WR in Tennessee, one (#14-11) is in LaPorte/St. Joseph Counties, Indiana, one (#19-11) was last reported in Fayette County, Illinois, on 9 February, one (#16-11) was last reported in Jackson County, Indiana, on 8 March but has left the area, and one (#13-11) was last detected on autumn migration in northern Illinois on 29 November.

The juvenile (#2-11) that broke off from the ultralight led migration on 21 October was last confirmed at the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge in Tennessee on 16 February.

The nine remaining juveniles in the ultralight cohort remain at the Wheeler NWR in Alabama.

SAME SONG – DIFFERENT RHYTHM

Yes, the chicks are still here, but the pre-migration shuffle has begun. It started three days ago when the rhythm of things began to change ever so slightly. It’s almost imperceptible at first, something felt more than seen, like aging or a familiar song played in a different key, but you just know there’s something…. different. Then as the days pass, it builds, gains momentum, grows louder until one morning it happens; the connection with this place is severed and the chicks burst skyward in a raucous spiral until both altitude and direction are achieved and migration begins. Until then, we wait.

The question, “When are those birds going to leave?” has been replaced with “What are you going to do if they don’t leave?” To which I reply “Well, never in the last ten years have they not left.” The rough date range has been the 21st of March to the 14th of April if I remember correctly, and keep in mind there are still adults in Florida that haven’t begun migration yet. (Adult birds, that is). But yes, it is a little nerve racking.

Funny how worries reverse themselves on you – I mean, every morning for months you wake up worrying that that the chicks might not be there when you go out to check and now you wake up worrying that they will. But of course, worrying does give life purpose. As the Bard said, “I worry, therefore I am.”

“So what are you going to do if they don’t go?”

That’s easy…. and can be answered with three letters. “UPS!” – Stay tuned… Film at 11.

WOOD BUFFALO/ARANSAS FLOCK UPDATE

It appears that we may never know if the Aransas – Wood Buffalo population of whooping cranes reached the hoped for 300 birds during 2011– 2012. The weather has been a large factor. First, an unknown number of Whooping cranes did not arrive at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Then some traveled around in Texas counties near Aransas Refuge while others spent the winter in Kansas and Nebraska. And weather had a crippling effect on attempts to count the whoopers that did winter on Aransas Refuge.

According to Aransas personnel, “High winds and low cloud cover impeded the census flights scheduled during late February, allowing for only two of the three scheduled census flights. Those flights were conducted on February 25 and 26, 2012. Preliminary data analyses indicated the population of cranes within the surveyed area was 196. Although lower than the previous 245 estimate, the difference is not statistically significant and most likely the result of limited flying time. Also, this number does not reflect whooping cranes outside the survey area, including those that have dispersed.

Radio-marked birds and sightings of whooping cranes from the flyway indicate the birds have begun their northern migration back to Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories of Canada where they nest exclusively. Some biologists believe that this earlier than usual northern migration is also due to the unseasonal warm weather. Depending on the weather, biologists hope to conduct another census flight before the end of the month.

Refuge officials also issued an update on the status of whooping cranes that died during the past several months. A report from the first whooper carcass (recovered Dec. 7, 2011) was issued from the National Wildlife Health Center (NWHC) and it indicates the bird had a systemic blood infection. This type of systemic infection has been known to cause death. The refuge is still waiting on the final report from the second carcass (recovered January 18, 2012). A third carcass of a radio-collared bird was recovered (Feb. 29, 2012) and sent to the NWHC in Madison, WI for necropsy.

Some good weather news relating to the whoopers is that, as of March 14, the monthly precipitation totals for Aransas National Wildlife Refuge are .85 inches and salinity levels in San Antonio Bay are recorded as 19.7 parts per thousand. With salinity levels below 20 parts per thousand, conditions in the marsh are normalizing and food production for the birds improving. Even so, the refuge has still not returned to pre-drought conditions and biologists remain concerned.

Since the last Aransas Refuge update, the refuge conducted an additional prescribed burn, raising the winter’s total to 12,310 acres of habitat. The refuge’s fire program hopes to conduct a final burn in the next few weeks on Matagorda Island but the changing weather makes it uncertain. Despite one burn remaining, all of the burns planned in areas whooping cranes would likely use have been completed and were successful.

Joining the Whooping Crane Conservation Association is easy and your membership directly benefits Whooping cranes. With your $10 membership, you will also receive the WCCA newsletter.

PLEASE VOICE YOUR SUPPORT

When we first started flying back in the 1980’s, the aircraft we flew were known as ultralights. Back then they were completely different from anything else in the air. As the name indicates, they were built to be super light, in the 200 to 400 pound range and were generally powered by go-cart or even chainsaw engines. Occasionally referred to as ‘flying lawn chairs’ or ‘lawn darts’ by conventional pilots, they were low and slow and so different from traditional airplanes that no one took them seriously. They fit into an unregulated category called ‘ultralight’ and as long as we stayed out of controlled airspace and didn’t cause any problems, we were pretty much on our own.

As safety and technology improved, ultralights became more popular among recreational pilots. They were cheaper to buy than Pipers and Cessna’s and could be maintained by the owners rather than by expensive, FAA approved mechanics.

Eventually an entire industry emerged that produced innovative flying machines of all sorts. Trikes evolved first in Europe, where flying conventional aircraft was more expensive so hang gliding became popular. A trike is really an appendage to hold the pilot and the engine suspended from a beefed up hang glider wing.

After thirty or so years of development, the use of space age materials and very innovative design improvements, modern ultralights are state of the art machines. They are safe, reliable, fast and a fraction of the cost of a conventional aircraft. Ultralights have circumnavigated the globe and flown on every continent including Antarctica.

The increase in their popularity meant that ultralights could not continue to be unregulated and in 2008 the FAA developed a new category called Light Sport Aircraft. This designation was widened to include enclosed aircraft with two seats and speeds up to 120 knots.

The problem for us is that the Light Sport category was designed for recreation only. Pilots are not allowed to fly them for hire, nor can the aircraft be used for the furtherance of a business. Unfortunately there is no category for us. Our aircraft are too heavy to qualify for the new definition of ultralights and they are not certified so they do not fit in with aircraft like Cessna’s. The same is true for our pilot certificates. Only a commercial license would allow us to fly for hire but there is no endorsement in that category that would allow a commercial pilot to fly a weight-shift controlled aircraft like our trikes.

We are working closely with the FAA to find a permanent solution that will allow us to continue with this project. To that end, yesterday an exemption was posted and is now available for public comment. If you are in support of our efforts to safeguard the Whooping crane and continue the flights we began in 2001, we urge you to lend your voice and encourage the FAA to grant this most recent request as quickly as they did in early January.

You can find the exemption document (.pdf) and submit your comments at this link – Thank you, once again for your support!