Day 109 – Test Trike

Winds on the surface and aloft are from the southeast. On the surface, they’re light at 4 mph and aloft a bit stronger.

With only a 23 mile flight to get the cranes from Leon County to the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, the pilots feel it’s worth putting the trikes up to check conditions firsthand.

IF they find it too breezy to risk a flight, the cranes will not be released and we’ll have to wait for another flyable morning. This decision, however, cannot possibly be made until they are airborne.

If you’d like to take the chance to come out to the public viewing area, the Arrival Flyover event and viewing site is at the San Marcos de Apalache Park in the town of St. Marks. South of where Hwy 363 (Woodville Hwy) intersects Coastal Hwy 98, 363 becomes Port Leon Drive. Follow Port Leon Drive to the end, turn right onto Riverside Drive/Old Fort Road and watch for the Arrival Signs on your left. You will be directed to parking. Google Map

Please keep in mind there is nothing at all we can do about the weather :-(


The most up to date forecast for tomorrow (Sunday) is calling for light headwinds.

Despite this, we only have a 23 mile flight from Leon County to our final destination at St. Marks NWR so we’re going to attempt a flight.

If you’d like to be on hand to welcome the arrival of the class of 2015 Whooping cranes, please head to the town of St. Marks and follow the signs (or traffic) to the viewing area.

Plan to be on site by 8:15 am Eastern time and don’t forget your camera and a supply of tissues in case I run out.

Please keep in mind the weather could change and we may have to postpone the arrival… sorry.

Dedicated Lead Pilot Report

Date: January 30, 2016 Migration Day: 108
Dist. Traveled: 35 miles
Total Dist. 1052 miles
Location: Leon County, FLORIDA!


On a late August afternoon in 1997, he walked into the shop on Purple Hill. He was clean-cut, with a slightly scruffy beard and a mile wide smile. Geordie Lishman and I were working on a large commission for his father, Bill Lishman – a large 20-foot-high now-extinct Toltan bear dog. When Dan walked into the shop, his enthusiasm for what we were doing was contagious, the compliments and his interest keen. With his off-hand remarks and wry humor, we became instant friends!

He was there to work on an ultralight-led experiment with Sandhill cranes. A precursor to what would become the Whooping crane migrations. On that fall migration, his sense of adventure was immediately apparent – he was always ready to go for a hike, fishing and had a friendly interest in the locals wherever we went.

On one stop, in a place called Trout Run, Dan and I decided to go for a hike at dusk. The mountains rose high around the valley we were in as darkness fell. We wandered across a pasture when suddenly a loud neighing and dark shadow came running at us and we near jumped out of our skin. It’s only a horse I told Dan, but he was not reassured as the horse approached us aggressively. Fortunately, I heeded his example and was over the fence right behind Dan as the clearly offended, large and angry horse ran up to us. This would be the first of many adventures with horses and many other creatures, things, and people we would have.

That first year in Wisconsin, I would only participate in the migration beginning mid-October. Dan had his two best friends, Jim and Mike, drive him out to Wisconsin for yet another adventure. We all arrived the same day and made our way to the nearest bar for 75 cent beers (wow)! There, Dan formally introduced us, saying, “be nice, Richard will become a good friend.” That was Dan, always witty, charming and funny.

Dan passed away suddenly this past August, leaving a large hole in everyone’s lives that knew him.

Today, I had the opportunity to lead Whooping cranes for the very last time. As the birds glided along off my left wing, I began to think of a lot of things that have happened over the 25 years I have been involved in bird migration.

Mostly, I thought of Dan and began to feel his presence. It was like he was in the back seat of the trike with me, flying along with me and six cranes for my final Whooping crane flight… Cheering me on, saying this is so cool, I can’t believe I’m doing this!

I can’t believe he’s gone and I dedicate this last flight to him.


Dan Sprague, the best friend a man could ever have.

Thank you for the good times. I love you buddy

Day 108 – FLORIDA!

This morning’s lead pilot, Richard van Heuvelen will have his report ready later today.

In the meantime ALL six Whooping cranes flew with him this morning to Leon County, Florida. (Yes! even #2-15 made the flight!)

We’ll take a look at tomorrow’s forecast a bit later on once it’s updated but earlier, Sunday’s weather appeared to be showing a light headwind. As long as it doesn’t increase with the next weather update, we’ll very likely be attempting to guide the young cranes to their winter home at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Wakulla County, FL.

If you’d like to make plans to come out and welcome this final cohort of young cranes and their aircraft guides, the Arrival Flyover event and viewing site is at the San Marcos de Apalache Park in the town of St. Marks. South of where Hwy 363 (Woodville Hwy) intersects Coastal Hwy 98, 363 becomes Port Leon Drive. Follow Port Leon Drive to the end, turn right onto Riverside Drive/Old Fort Road and watch for the Arrival Signs on your left. You will be directed to parking. Google Map

Tune in later this evening for a PREDICTING UPDATE.

Enjoy a couple of images captured by Cindy Hayes in Decatur County, GA this morning…

Photo: Cindy Hayes

The entire Class of 2015 departing Decatur County, GA with pilot Richard van Heuvelen. Photo: Cindy Hayes

Photo: Cindy Hayes

Photo: Cindy Hayes

Day 108 – Let’s GO!

Conditions are still favorable for a flight out of Georgia this morning. Everyone will be getting into position shortly for a sunrise launch.

If you can make it to the flyover, you should plan on being there at 7:40 am ET. The viewing site is outside town of Climax, GA on Bell Dixon Road, just east of Fewell Road intersection. Google Map


Looking at the current forecasts for tomorrow morning, it appears we may just be able to squeeze in a flight to Leon County, Florida.

If you’re in the area and would like to head to the flyover location the viewing site is outside town of Climax, GA on Bell Dixon Road, just east of Fewell Road intersection.

You should plan to be on site for 7:40 am eastern. Don’t forget your camera!

Driving Miss Crazy

As most of you are aware by now, #2-15 was being boxed before the last couple of flights and then joined me in the Jamboree RV for the ride to the next stop. We’ve developed quite a nice friendship riding together and it’s gotten to the point where we can complete each other’s sentences.

The only thing we differ on is the definition of acceptable room temperature. She likes it very cold and I, like some, like it hot. She convinced me that we’d be in Florida soon and I’d have plenty of hot, so for now, it’s only fair to have it cold. So we ride along with the A/C cranked on high and she’s happy as a clam.

#2 and I have had some serious telepathic discussions about the problems she’s had flying with the rest of the cohort and the trike. She (telepathically) explained that they’re just too slow and #1 keeps getting in her way. I (telepathically) tried to point out that migration is a team sport and that there’s no “I” in team but, like most super athletes, she has an ego that won’t quit. I also suggested that she at least pretend to be coach-able. I may have pushed our relationship too far with that comment because she simply harumph’d and didn’t (telepathically) talk to me for the rest of that drive. I was a little miffed at the silent treatment and almost turned the heat on because my feet were freezing!

That’s my fantasy. The real story is that she rides along without a peep (or a gronk). And it’s also true that my feet were freezing.


In some ways I am almost glad this migration has taken so long. If it had ended in December like most of them, we would not have the opportunity for one last flight with our beloved birds.

As I pass the milestones of my life, I try to take a moment to capture a mental image that I can take with me. Memories are the best souvenirs. I need to savor one more flight to set that picture in my mind and place it next to the image of my daughter on her first day of school and the look in my wife’s eyes when we were married.

It’s been 23 years since I first shared calm air with a flock of birds. I have looked over my shoulder at four different species as they look back at me for guidance. I have been allowed to share their social structure and been granted access to their culture. The only way to get closer to being a bird would be to grow feathers. It has been an honor and a life-changing ride and surely my most rewarding and punishing experience.

There is an unexplainable camaraderie that leaders of birds share with their charges at a thousand feet. It is beyond my talents to describe and past the ability of even the best cameras to capture — and maybe even beyond the capacity of words.

My older brother recently retired after a long career as a bush pilot. He once told me that two bad things can happen to a pilot and one of them eventually will. You can walk out to an aircraft and know it’s your last flight. Or you can walk out to an aircraft not knowing it’s your last flight.

I would rather know this is my last flight with birds than let it pass unnoticed sometime last month.

I suspect that last flight will be filled with radio silence, each of us lost in our own thoughts creating that lifelong mental image.

I just hope I can see through the tears.

Thank You OM!

Guest Author – Doug (the tume) Pellerin

I’m writing this still in disbelief of what happened to OM and the ultralight program after all these years of hard work and dedication.

I would like to thank Joe Duff for giving me the fantastic opportunity to work with endangered whooping cranes. It’s something that I will never forget. I must also thank the rest of the team, Heather, Brooke, Richard, Tom, Colleen, Geoff, Jeff and Jo-Anne. Without their hard work and the dedication of other organizations there wouldn’t be any whooping cranes on the landscape like what we see today.

The last five years working with the whooping crane as a costumed crane handler has been an amazing experience. Especially seeing the young colts arrive at the White River Marsh each year and watching them grow into beautiful adults. One of my favorite things besides being in the pen with the birds was watching the trikes come out of the sky every morning and landing on the runway. For some reason I always enjoyed that part of the training.

It was also interesting as the trike would come down, you could always hear the young birds in the pen getting so excited in the anticipation of a flight. I will miss seeing the morning sun and the people who came out to the blind to witness the flight training. I always enjoyed meeting with and talking to other people and sharing my experience. I would like to thank each and every person who did come to the blind. Thank you for your encouragement and support of Operation Migration.

I will continue to do my best to help whoopers anyway I can in the future.

Thanks again and WHOOP! WHOOP!

DSC_6115 DSC_6160 DSCN0237 DSCN1247

Day 102 – Lead Pilot Report – The Last Waltz

“Well, we’ve just enjoyed having you here so much, we can’t wait to see you next year,’’ the elderly lady said as I pumped the gas into her car from a tank beside her barn.  Just beyond, out in her pasture, our birds were roosting in their pen for the ninth night.  The evening wind blew cold and harsh but they were safe… just as I had been, with my camper tucked in her the barn, the one she and her late husband had built so long ago, and plugged into her electricity on the farm she and her son kept alive despite the economic realities and uncertainties all farmers face.  “Have to go to the bank today,” her son told me the day before, wearing a brave but resigned smile. “Crop yields were good this year but those prices were just too low.”

And that’s when I heard myself reply, “There’s not going to be a next year, ma’am. This is it.  They gave us the word this morning.”  There.  I said it.  And saying it somehow made it true.  We had known for months now it was coming and the cloud of its reality had hung heavily over us the entire migration. But denial is a wonderful friend. Karl Marx said religion is the opiate of the people. He was wrong. It is denial, which has been described as hope spelled backwards. Whatever, the words had a surprisingly bitter taste. “Well, I’m sorry to hear that,” the lady replied, ”but I just know you’ve had such wonderful experiences and they’ll be more waiting for you down the road.  That’s the way life is.”

The war may be over, but there are still battles we must fight as the next morning we readied our ultralights for the next leg of migration. Richard and I dressed against the low temperatures. It would be Richard’s first flight of the migration because of his sculpture commission in Canada delay and after almost thirty years of working on these bird projects, this would likely be his last. Joe would sit this one out, riding instead, in the tracking van with Jeff.  The past week had been especially brutal for Joe.

A small crowd of supporters began to form in the Georgia predawn as the two big crop dusting airplanes seemed to look on in silence at the edge of the airfield.

Two documentary film makers, heavy cameras at the ready, arrived to capture the effort. They had just finished a fantastic documentary on the tall pine forests of the southeast U.S. and the critical part this played in the country becoming what it is today. Their plan was to film our project for an entire year and we recognized them right away as two people who really cared.

Our trikes were safely housed in the hanger of a local crop duster who, in the last 10 days of our stay here, had become our friend. Crop dusting is the most difficult and demanding flying there is. Yanking and banking a heavily loaded airplane a few feet off the ground in the hot Georgia sun from sun up to sun down, day after day is nothing short of Herculian. Few of us ponder the thought, in our day-to-day lives, that without them and the farmers whose fields they toil above, we wouldn’t eat. Yet our societies heroes are sports figures messing about with balls of various geometries and Wall Street Wonders who grow rich producing absolutely nothing. Go figure!

Soon Richard and I are in the air, which greets us with lumpity bumpy, lift and drop suggestions of a difficult flight ahead. Still, we feel the pressure to go and it overcomes our foreboding. Colleen and Heather swing open the pen gates and the birds burst skyward for the first time in ten days. “Let the Rodeo begin!” the fates announced, and it did.  One step foreward and two back… the dance of our seemingly obligatory rodeo… as the birds got dutifully on the wing only to break off and head back toward the pen as the sweat began to soak through my layers of “Skywear”.  They didn’t seem to appreciate the choppy air or my encouraging words, “Hey girls… rough air is better than no air at all!”


To further enhance the adventure, these birds just don’t like to climb.  Like every person and every snowflake, every bird is different, each with its own form and personality. But every year’s class of birds is also different.  Some refuse to fly over major highways.  Some stick to the trike like Velcro and climb like scalded dogs. And some, like these little guys, just don’t like to climb. So climbing out of the trashy lower altitudes and over obstructions is a challenge. Then when you get them just high enough to escape the threats, they drop back down and down you have to go to begin the fight all over again.  Of course, sometimes you can’t really blame them.  I mean, following an ultralight in a trashy sky is like following a drunk, drugged, coffeed out, texting driver down the highway. And for the pilot, all you can hear are the words of the old pilot’s adage ,”It is better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air than in the air wishing you were on the ground.”  And, of course, the hands of the clock always seem to barely move at such times. Then there is that new hurdle.  Somewhere way back in the recesses of your mind, you now know the war is already over, which adds to the challenge.

Like a frustrated school teacher who must teach to the slowest student, we must fly to the slowest bird… in this case, #11-15.  But his sometime lack of energy is understandable since because it’s not easy being the only male surrounded by 5 females.  I asked him one time how things were going and he replied, “Does the name Custer mean anything to you?”  Most of us guys, if we’re lucky and attached, wake up in the morning to only one “Honey Do List”.  He wakes up to five.  It’s a wonder the poor little fellow has the energy to walk let alone fly!   During the flight, he continues to drop and I drop everyone down to pick him up until it becomes clear that once again I must let him go and be picked up by the chase pilot… in this case Richard. Soon, Richard has skillfully picked him up from just off the deck and led him to a safe recovery point; in this case a landing strip where he is quicly boxed up by Joe and Jeff and loaded into the van for the trip to the pen.  Meanwhile, we press on the last 7 miles to the destination.

“Can you fly the birds over my mother-in-law’s house?” the kind and generous farmer who worked so hard to level and groom a landing strip for us between his pecan trees asked the week before.  “She’s 92 years old and it would mean a lot to her to see the birds.”  “I’ll sure try.” I replied.  And so we did, and landed more happily than usual at the strip he had so kindly prepared. The pen awaited, already set up the week before.

Any relief or fatigued satisfaction I might have felt was displaced with the magical sight of the birds standing so close to the trike they were actually rubbing against it, looking at me with an intensity I had never seen before.  Their collective gaze was so direct and connecting that I thought at first my helmet might have fallen off and they could finally see… after all these flights,  after all these years, who I really was.  I just sat in the magic of the moment, trying to savor it, to understand it, to cherish it.  It would likely be my last lead. And though there were two more flights to go, I recognized that this was the end of a very long chapter in my life.  I couldn’t help but get the feeling that somehow the birds knew it too. Then, the spell was broken by the words of the Robert Frost poem. “We have promises to keep. And miles to go before we sleep.”

But, as in Robert Frost’s poem, “We had promises to keep. And many miles to go before we sleep.” Soon, the birds followed me into the pen, the hot wire was run around it and Joe and Jeff arrived with the two boxed birds, #11-15 and #2-15 who was boxed prior to takeoff because of her propensity to lead the others back to the pen after takeoff. The two reunited with their friends as Joe and Jeff got back on the road and I got back into the air for the short hop over to a nearby landing strip.
There are milestones in every life when one can easily become lost in an overwhelming tsunami of reflection. Reflections are therefore best consumed over time in small bites if there is to be any hope of achieving true clarity and meaning. What is clear is that the birds possess the incredible power to connect and those connections form the foundation of all that we have experienced and achieved. Perhaps it all boils down to the words of the poet Robert Browning when he wrote:

“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp… or what’s a heaven for.”
Time will tell.