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.


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.


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!


News from the North: Necedah National Wildlife Refuge reports that they have now confirmed 7 pairs of whooping cranes on the refuge as well as 4 individual cranes. One pair has been visible on Rynearson Pool #1 from the observation tower and visitor center.

The International Crane Foundation reported yesterday that on Tuesday evening they received a roost PTT location for Direct Autumn Release (DAR) Whooping Crane #15-11 near ICF headquarters in Sauk County, Wisconsin! #15-11 wintered at the Wheeler NWR in Alabama with fellow DAR juvenile #18-11 and two-year-old ultralight-led male #19-09. Eva Szyszkoski, ICF/WCEP Tracking Field Manager, headed out yesterday to check the location. She was able to detect both DAR birds (#15 and #18) north of the roost location before the battery in her receiver died! From what she heard, she believes they were likely in flight and the weather yesterday was nice for flying! While she was not able to confirm whether #19-09 was still with the two DAR juveniles or not, she assumed he was.

And now news from the south: During a brief chat with Brooke yesterday, he reported that all 9 juvenile cranes are doing well and going about their daily business of foraging and roosting and don’t appear to be getting ready to go anywhere anytime soon.

And even further south – in Leon County, Florida, Lou Kellenberger tells us that the two now-adult Whooping cranes (#’s 11 & 15-09*) are still at their selected winter habitat just north of St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge where they spent their first winter. Lou shared the following images with us so that we could share them with you.


Sometimes it seems like every season has its very own, very special question. “What do you want for Christmas?”, or “Who do you think is going to win the Super Bowl?” or “File your taxes yet?” For me, up until lately, people have been coming up, poking me in the stomach and asking, “And… when is the baby due!” Turns out I’m one of the few creatures in nature that actually gains weight DURING migration instead of gaining it FOR migration. Who needs to see their feet anyway! But seasons change and the question now is the all too familiar, ”When are the birds going to leave?”

Now back in my school days, knowing the question before the test gave me time to prepare the correct answer. We called it Cheating! But there’s no Cheat Sheet to save me here, no Cliff Notes to lean on. Just cold, hard uncertainty…the kind that forces you to raise your arms and shrug so many times throughout the day that your shoulders ache at night. The response is clearly disappointing and unsatisfying to the inquisitor; not at all the answer they were looking for. This, despite the fact that in the literary scheme of things, a simple “I don’t know” lies somewhere between a poem and a prayer. But it’s OK. We’re all used to asking questions to which there are no answers. It fact, it surpasses baseball as the national pastime.

Of course, the question does tempt one to try to fill the void of uncertainty with a little humor and reach for a laugh with answers like, “Wait here while I go ask them.” Or “Next Tuesday morning at exactly 9:36 sharp.” Secure in the knowledge that sometimes a laugh or even just a smile is better than no laugh or smile at all…and much more fun than “I wish I knew.” But not always. After all, we live in a world that demands certainty, worships it in fact, regardless of all its inherent uncertainties, and although we are loath to admit it, certainty is the foundation upon which we construct our lives. This, despite the fact that the last words heard from the Captain of the Titanic were, “Oh Lord, forgive us for our certainties!” He knew, as do we, of its exquisite intoxication; that it’s the cheapest drug there is… if you don’t count the consequences. Sadly, my own grasp of the stuff has faded with age. But like the Zen Master said to the grasshopper, “Hey man, sometimes ya just gotta believe.”

“No… seriously! When are those birds going to leave?” Well, some folks were sure our chicks would leave with the other whoopers (not). Others were positive they would leave with the sandhills (not not); forgetting, maybe, that comparing our chicks to either is like expecting an apple to roll like an orange.( I mean, how many times have you sat next to a fruit basket and heard an apple say to a grapefruit, “Let’s roll!” ) Still others believe without a shadow of a doubt the chicks will do what the chicks in past years have done at St. Marks and Chass and leave after the whoopers and sandhills, sometime between the end of the third week in March and the end of the second week in April, possibly ratcheting this up a bit allowing for the unusually early spring.

But if we can be certain of anything, it is that Mother Nature is the consummate magician with an infinitely deep bag of tricks with which to dazzle and surprise and fill our lives with unending wonder. Perhaps rather than spending our time trying to figure out just how she does the trick, we should just kick back, put our feet up and enjoy the performance.

“But…when ARE those birds going to leave?”

“Only the Shadow knows…”


If you are not in the habit of visiting Journey North’s excellent website, (updated regularly by OM Board of Directors alumni, Jane Duden) then this is the perfect time of year to adopt the practice.

When we checked the Journey North site yesterday we learned that two unidentified cranes from the Eastern Migratory Population (EMP) had completed their Spring migration back to Wisconsin by February 28th. And it appears that others in the EMP likely aren’t too far behind. The pair consisting of 1-04 and 8-05 along with Wild1-10 were in Douglas County, IL as February drew to a close. At the same time, the North Carolina wintering pair of 28-08 and 5-10 had made it as far north as Bartholomew County, IN.

Already back on their summering grounds?!? Completing their northward journey in February gives a whole new meaning to ‘spring‘ migration. Between all the short-stopping by the EMP on their journey south and the evidence of early departures for their return trip, this is undoubtedly going to be a year for the record books.


As of March 1st, Aransas NWR officials were still waiting for the final report of the necropsy on the second chick carcass they sent to Madison, Wisconsin’s National Wildlife Health Center. Weather was a challenge as they conducted the February aerial surveys, but the census numbers from those flights should be available soon.

As of the end of February, almost 4 inches of rainfall helped to reduced salinity levels in the bays at Aransas; good news for wintering Whooping cranes. In an effort to alleviate the low sources of food for Whoopers, the refuge conducted more prescribed burns with a total of almost 11,000 of the planned 14,000 acres now being burned.

It seems the refuge continues to get questions regarding providing supplemental food for Whooping cranes. In response, the refuge posted this statement…

“At this time, the refuge is concerned about the negative impacts of supplemental feeding. Previous efforts to supplemental feed were not considered successful as only a small portion of the birds actually fed on the shelled corn.

Whooping cranes are territorial and do not naturally gather together to feed. Encouraging them to do so changes their natural behavior; it also creates greater opportunities to transmit diseases, parasites, and makes them more vulnerable to predators.

Furthermore, when left out in warm and moist environments, like coastal marsh areas, corn can grow Aspergillis molds. Aflatoxins, which are produced by the molds, can be lethal to Whooping cranes and other wildlife. Where Whooping cranes may be present, landowners should be aware of the risks that aflatoxins pose. If corn is being used for feeding other wildlife in areas where whooping cranes may be present, we highly recommend purchasing aflatoxin-free corn.”

Read the full summary of the Aransas Refuge report on the website of the Whooping Crane Conservation Association(WCCA).


Guest Author: Bev Paulan

Migration. It is a topic that has been studied and written about extensively. Then studied and written about some more. It is why we are here, and why we do what we do. We teach a migration route to young Whooping cranes in the hope that they learn the route and in turn will teach it to their offspring. It works. Chicks that have hatched and fledged in the wild have been taught the route by their parents. Success any way you define it.

The question I have is: what makes a bird migrate? I mean, what is the trigger that goes off in their head like a starting gun at the beginning of a race. I know the science behind migration: the seasonal movement of an animal driven by a search for food and breeding grounds. (I just finished reading an excellent book on migration, On the Wing by Scott Wiedensaul. He delves into the whys and wherefores of bird migration in an easy to digest way.) But I want to know why today of all the days in a season, does a flock of Sandhill cranes leap into the air with much calling and climb to join the thermals, heading to unknown northern latitudes.

After early morning chick check today, and over a late breakfast, Brooke said he wanted to head back over to the refuge. I asked why, and he stated that due to the clear skies and quickly warming temps, he thought the Sandhills might leave today and he wanted to catch the departure. Slowly, over the course of the last month, they have been leaving on their northward trek. From a peak of 11,000 Sandhills a little over 4 weeks ago, to a total of 250 at last week’s count, they have been heading skyward, joining the thermals that will ease their way home.

We arrived at the parking area at 9:30 on the dot, and as we walked out to the blind, we heard the distinctive flight call of the Sandhills. It is different from their normal conversational call and if you have heard it before coming from high above, it is not easily forgotten. Encumbered by my camera, I told Brooke to run ahead to the blind so he could see the birds go.

I caught up just in time to see the birds climbing high in search of the lift they need. They continued circling and soon found the thermal. With no more flapping, they turned north and drifted out of site with their calls still trailing behind.

Why this day? What combination of weather and instinct and desire for home pulled them skyward? I don’t know if there is a definitive answer to that question. I do know that it is a mystery that greatly appeals to me. The timelessness of it, the rhythm of it, the continuity from one generation to the next, are all part of the appeal. The sight of a flock, all calling, all flapping, then soaring off in a V formation, moves me in a way that is hard to explain. As I watch this flock, just like every flock of cranes I have been fortunate enough to see every year for over 30 years, I wish them god-speed and safe journey, knowing all the hazards that can be encountered along the route.

Coming back from my reverie, I look back across the field, now empty of gray bodies and see nine mostly white Whooping cranes, nonchalantly probing the earth, seemingly not caring that they are now alone on the refuge. They wait, as do we, for their personal starting gun to go off, signaling their journey north, and their place in the rhythm of migration.



At last word from Brooke Pennypacker who is monitoring the nine young birds in the Class of 2011 at Alabama’s Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, they have yet to show any signs of leaving. Brooke told us the weather forecast for the next few days does not look particularly favorable for migration, so it is not likely they will be heading north in the next few days at least.

There have been public reports of sightings of Whooping cranes in Illinois. While credible, they have yet to be confirmed. As we reported the other day, the DAR cranes wintering at Wheeler NWR have already departed, and Brooke believes that 19-09 has as well. He has been scouting the refuge with his radio receiver in an attempt to pick up the signals of the two Whooping Crane pairs that were also wintering at remoter location, but so far, no success. That could mean either that they just haven’t been located as yet, or that they too have left for the north.

With this year’s early northward movement by many avian species it would not be a surprise to have many of the cranes in both the western and eastern population also launch their return well in advance of their ‘usual’ timing for spring migration.

The International Whooping Crane Recovery Team, composed of 50% US and 50% Canadian representatives, gathered this past weekend in Rockport, Texas for their winter meeting. Invited to attend and present were representatives from the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP), Chair, Peter Fasbender of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and OM’s CEO and Project Leader, Joe Duff.


“So long, It’s been good to know ya,” is the song the classic American folk group, the Weavers, used to end every concert with. And I could hear Pete Seager and Company singing away in the background when about 9:30 yesterday morning a flock of about 60 Sandhills took flight and the DAR’s with them. They spiraled up into the cloudless blue above, and headed north to begin their migration.

They, of course, were vocalizing their own accompaniment, more raucous than melodic. But hey,… whatever works. Soon they were reduced to beeps on the radio receiver until those too faded into silence. There’s always something hauntingly sad yet joyous about such an occasion.

The wonder of it all might be best celebrated with a toast to all the great people and all their great efforts that made this moment a reality. But still, you’re left with the feeling you had when you put your child on the school bus for the first time. It’s a jungle out there, and a hell of a long way to Wisconsin. And I wish I’d gotten to know them better…the DAR’s, I mean. Sure 19-09 was a familiar ultralight alumni. But those other two DAR chicks. They were just so darn cute! Meanwhile, our nine little characters looked up briefly in half interest, then went about their foraging. Perhaps they were dining on “It’s all about ME” grubs.

Not that the day started out that way. What I mean is, things started out pretty mellow. At 6:05 am the twelve Whoopers flew in together from Dinsmore Slough. No Sandhills, no ducks, no geese. Just white! You could almost hear them singing “We are the World” as they moved as one across the field, probing and grubbing as they went.

Then at 7:30 the Sandhills arrived. First a dozen, then maybe 20, followed by more in dribs and drabs until they numbered about 60, loosely coalescing into three distinct groups. That’s when the DAR’s traded the novelty of new friendship for the security of old and mingled with the Sandhills. Meanwhile the nine UL chicks simply wandered through the maze of grey, out the other side and off to the far side of the field.

All this was punctuated by the arrival of three playful bucks (as in deer), two sporting wall worthy racks as they sparred for a quick round or two in the midst of the Sandhills. One could not escape the urge to blame the complete incongruity of the scene on Monty Python. Soon the bucks ran off to answer their hormonal call of the wild, leaving the Sandhills to listen for their call of migration above the ever present din of nearby traffic, and the occasional lonesome train whistle, the kind that lives in at least every third country and western song.

But Mother Nature can out shout even the loudest of man produced ear worms, and when she calls, nature listens and the curtain rises on the symphony that is migration.

It was lonely for a while. The chicks continued their probing explorations in their favorite places with complete innocence and trust. Perhaps too much of both. What will life be like now without the presence of these other spirits, without their vigilance, their wisdom, their experience? Though the ties were loose and seemingly non-binding, did there exist by their presence a karma of protection? Has the threat level just ratcheted up? Have the challenges and threats just grown exponentially?

I sat in the bush watching the chicks a few hundred yards away, haunted by all this when seemingly out of nowhere a small flock of Sandhills appeared from high above. They parachuted down to where the chicks foraged in complete innocence. Then a larger flock appeared, then another, until there were over 100 Sandhills standing shoulder to shoulder with the still unimpressed chicks.

The mountain was again coming to Mohammed and perhaps bringing with it that special something that makes things turn out okay. And as the sun dropped like a lead sinker into a pool of dirty water, they all flew off to the slough to roost together.

It was dark when I got out of the van to unlock the visitors center gate, and as my hands wrestled with the lock, something ran out onto the driveway 10 yards in front of me, stared at me momentarily, then ran across into the bushes. A bobcat!.


“Rhett, Rhett, …Rhett! If you go, where shall I go? What shall I do?” to which Rhett Butler replies to Scarlet O’Hara “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” And so, that wonderful piece of dialogue in the final scene of “Gone With the Wind” became forever the unofficial definition of the condition we call “indifference”.

And it is indifference that so far best describes the interaction our chicks have had with both the Sandhills and the DAR’s. (the title I use to describe the group of two DAR birds and 19-09). It’s neither like nor dislike, happy nor sad. They just don’t seem to care.

The Sandhills and DARs will usually fly over to the chicks in the morning, surrounding them in large numbers with playful enthusiasm, but the chicks usually barely acknowledge their presence and continue to forage, more often than not eventually wandering away as if in need of their alone time, while the Sandhills follow after them. It is definitely a case of the mountain going to Mohammed instead of Mohammed going to the mountain. And it is the same for the DAR’s.

Now 19-09 believes himself to be “Big Man on Campus” and struts his stuff accordingly, as if wearing a college letter sweater from Migration U., where you earn a letter for completing a migration. You know the type. But this attitude elicits no response from the chicks. After all, they earned their letters for being stuck in a pen for almost 6 weeks without developing any parasite problems and leaving the pen far stronger fliers than when they went in thus proving the naysayers wrong once again. An amazingly resilient group of chicks, these.

But there have been exceptions to this theme of indifference. One night two weeks ago, #7 flew out with the Sandhills to roost, and on another night, #5 did the same. Then this week, for three straight nights all the chicks flew out to the slough with the last remaining flock of Sandhills and roosted. But the following two nights they remained here to roost alone at their usual spot. So they are not completely indifferent and they do show signs of caring.

Perhaps they know just how important it is to care, and they are not like the Youtube Honey badger who just doesn’t give a #@#%$. (If you need a real laugh…and who doesn’t, google the Youtube Honey badger and see first hand what it means not to care).

Maybe they know that caring morphs into not caring and back again just as day turns into night, and that without all this ebb and flow of caring, not caring, where would we be? No yard sales, no divorce courts! Life would simply not be worth living! And sure, not caring can be a valuable survival tool, but it can also be a disability worthy of a handicap parking sticker. What we do and don’t care about, after all, is one of the biggest pieces of the puzzle that is each of us. Surely the chicks are well aware of all of this. Hanging around for many millions of years has got to teach you something!

Last night, hidden behind the blind, as the last of the day’s light faded into shadow and I mentally put the finishing touches to this update, I heard the Sandhill’s preflight cacophony begin to erupt from across the field. Soon what was left of the horizon filled with the large remaining flock of grey, embedded with 12 white Whoopers heading off for the night’s roost at the slough.

I guess some nights you just care more than others.


We are always appreciative when folks send us links to web articles related to wildlife conservation, particularly those focused on cranes, but also those about migratory birds. One such link came to us recently from Ontario resident and OM office volunteer George McCubbin.

Authored by Joel Boyce, the article is entitled, “Migratory Birds Struggle to Adapt to New Climate.” The article reports on the results of a Swedish survey.

Quoting… The 20 years of data collected on migratory birds…”suggests that European species have been adapting to warmer temperatures, but not enough. Set temperatures are approximately 250km (155 miles) more to the north than at the beginning of this period. What this means is that since average temperatures for a particular time of year are warmer throughout the continent, migratory routes should also adjust. Specifically, each species should be shortening its trips south during the winter, and spending their summers farther north than previously.”

The article goes on to say, “But what the Swedish group has discovered is that, although bird species have been moving northwards, they haven’t been adjusting their routes as quickly as the climate itself has been changing. In fact, they’ve only adjusted their wintering and summering spots by half the distance they should have in order to maintain the same living temperatures. The danger is that the health of the birds will be badly affected if they don’t learn to move to a better temperature range for their physical needs.”

Also notable are the ripple effects related to food sources and other factors. All very interesting given the short-stopping of their fall migration’s exhibited by the Wood Buffalo-Aransas and Eastern Migratory Populations this past season. What will also be interesting to see is whether or not the cranes will conclude their return migration at their usual summering grounds, or begin to seek more northerly habitats.

Click here to read the full article.


In the words of Wheeler refuge volunteer Nancy, “The cranes are going to do what they want to do, and when they want to.” And so they do. We never know exactly where they will be and what they will be doing.

For the most part they are spending the day in the field across the pond from the viewing tower. But refuge staff has seen them far and wide in areas we don’t have access to. Yesterday morning I observed the birds foraging alone in a field, only to fly across the field and join a pair of Sandhill cranes. After mingling with the Sandys, they meandered away and remained in the field for a couple of hours.

Last night, when we arrived at our viewing spot, the two DAR chicks and 19-09 were in their same field with the usual contingent of Sandhills. Our chicks were not seen, but were heard on the telemetry, so we walked over to another field and, sure enough, there they were foraging alone. After observing them for a time from our hidden spots in the trees, they took off and flew over to join the ever-growing flock of cranes.

By the time we walked back to our blind, we could catch occasional glimpses of white through the sea of gray. It was impossible to count just how many white birds were there, and when one Whooping crane flew off, Brooke quickly grabbed the telemetry gear and identified it as the male DAR chick. On our walk back to the blind, we missed 19-09 flying off with the female DAR chick.

After watching and listening for a very short while, several groups of Sandhills took to the air and headed back to their unseen roost site. On every previous evening but one, our chicks have stayed put and have waited to roost until after sun has set. On this evening, we could clearly see the Whoopers preparing to fly. Could it be that Brooke would get his wish of an earlier roosting time?

Instead of their usual nonchalant grubbing, they stood alert, looking towards their departing smaller cousins. Soon, they assumed the preflight posture, leaning ever farther forward, until their necks were almost horizontal. With one powerful downbeat, they began to lift off and joined up with the throng, heading to roost. We soon lost sight of them as they disappeared behind the trees, and for the first time since the release, we walked out while the sun was still touching horizon.


The news from Brooke Pennypacker, who is monitoring the Class of 2011 at the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama, is there has been a behavior change. Up until this past Sunday, the young cranes have been going to roost on their own in the evening. They continue to frequent the same spot during the day as the two Direct Autumn Release (DAR) cranes and a group of Sandhill cranes, but as evening approached, the three groups would depart and go their own way.

Brooke said the Sandhills generally begin heading for their evening roost site around 4:00-4:30pm; the DAR birds for theirs about an hour later. Then, around six-ish, the nine cranes in the Class of 2011 fly off to their favored roosting location. Monday that changed.

Beginning that evening, the Class of 2011 joined the Sandhills at their roosting spot, but in Brooke’s estimation, not until too much time had elapsed. You see, while the nine young birds altered their roost location, they didn’t alter their timing. They are still waiting until six o’clock or after before they make that move.

Brooke says this habit makes him nervous, and that he wishes they’d pick up on the roosting timing of their Sandhill cousins. He said, “I’d worry a whole lot less if they would get safely settled in a roost site earlier, because once dusk begins to fall, predators come out to hunt for their dinner. As it is, it’s getting pretty dark by the time they decide to call it a night.”

Isn’t that just like teenagers? When they will learn? Let’s hope they pick up on that survival skill lesson soon.

Eastern Migratory Population Update

In a report received yesterday from WCEP Tracking Team, the maximum size of the Eastern Migratory Population (EMP) as of February 19th is estimated at 107 consisting of 54 males and 53 females. At almost exactly the same time last year the population size was 106, a growth of just one despite the release of an additional 18 Whooping cranes this past season.

Accounting for this minimal growth in the population are mortalities due to shootings, attrition, and that WCEP has removed  four more Whooping cranes from the population that are now consider dead as they have been missing for more than a year. The four Whooping cranes no longer included in the population total are 16-03, 14-05, 13-07 and 13-09.

Also estimated in the latest tracking report is the population’s distribution as of February 19th, 2012 (or last record). The unusual distribution prompted us to check our past records. The chart below shows a comparison of the flock’s current locations versus their locations at approximately the same time in 2010. (Note 2011 location summary not readily available but may be added later.)

2012 LOCATED IN 2010
40 Indiana 8
  5 Illinois 0
  4 Georgia 3
16 Alabama 8
  2 South Carolina 4
  2 North Carolina 0
  5 Tennessee 8-9
  6 Kentucky 10
11 Florida 50
14 Location unknown 5-6
 2 Long term missing 7