By: St. Marks NWR Volunteer
Early morning ground fog wafted through the trees as 50 crane pen volunteers and staff from St. Marks NWR, Wakulla High School, and the FSU Environmental Service Program arrived on the Refuge and registered with Teresa Darragh and her Photo Club crew.
Our youngest volunteer suited up to demonstrate the crane-handler costume while crew leaders recruited volunteers for the 12 major tasks of the day. Photo: Nick Baldwin
Refuge Manager Terry Peacock welcomed the 2015 Whooping Crane Pen crew with a rousing introduction to the project. She reviewed its history, recalling the surprise phone call in 2008 when FWS endangered species specialist Billy Brooks asked if St. Marks NWR would participate in the historic project to restore a migratory flock of Whooping Cranes to eastern North America. Of course she said yes! The pen-site was selected after appropriate habitat was field-checked by FWS and WCEP biologists, and pen construction began in October 2008. Refuge staff guided a wide array of volunteers through months of labor, applying lessons learned from the pen constructed at Chassahowitzka NWR in 2001. The St. Marks “Whooper Hilton” was completed by January, 2009 when the Class of 2008 arrived.
Volunteers and staff of St. Marks NWR. Photo: Nick Baldwin
Terry emphasized how important it was that this day, like every autumn since 2008, volunteers and Refuge staff would make a major contribution to restoring migratory Whooping Cranes in North America by their work on the pen and facilities.
She then helped sort us into work crews, and everyone loaded into Refuge vehicles to drive to the trail head. There, we shouldered work tools and backpacks for the 1/2-mile trek through wet coastal woods to the wooden observation blind at the edge of the salt marsh.
Photo: Nick Baldwin
Trixie Smith (Fire Crew) led the charge to clear vegetation inside and out around the base of the 3-acre open pen to protect the structure from a future prescribed fire, and to make it easier for our repair team to spot defects in the fence.
Clearing vegetation around the perimeter fencing. Photo: Nick Baldwin
Trixie also directed a band of cheerful weed-whackers who removed vegetation from the smaller top-netted pen where the the Class of 2015 whoopers will spend their first days on St. Marks Refuge.
Ranger Craig Kittendorf and daughter Sarah led a crew to check all the zip ties in that pen’s top net and plastic fencing Once their work was done, they joined our larger fence repair crew.
The cheerful weed-whackers! Photo: Nick Baldwin
Our feisty fence-repair team set to checking all the zip ties on the fence, support posts, and bull paneling of the 3-acre pen. Ultraviolet-resistant black zip-ties are formulated to resist sunlight and are best for outdoor use. But even these ties become brittle and must be removed and replaced periodically. It took over 2 hours just to remove most of the damaged ties, before the process of replacement and other repairs could began.
Replacing ties can be tricky. The one guiding principle we shared with the team is that “this fence is the last line of defense for these 6 young Whooping Cranes – – one percent of all that remain in the world – – and we’ve got to do it right.” Nothing larger than the diameter of a skinny arm should be able to get between the layers of posts, metal paneling, and attached plastic fencing. It was very gratifying to observe the diligence and care practiced by the thoughtful, dexterous and ingenious zip-tie applicators of our team.
The zip-tie gang. Photo: Nick Baldwin
Meanwhile, Chris Weber guided his muscle team to gather oyster shells and gravel to fill in mucky ruts on the trails we had just traveled. This helps prevent further erosion and makes travel between the entrance and pen safer and less like a mud-bogging competition for crane caretakers and vehicles.
Ranger Scott Davis led his intrepid crew from Florida State University in the muddiest job of the day, raking and piling oyster shells up onto an area of the marsh pool where the young whoopers roost at night. Volunteer Louie Castillo discovered one of the whoopers’ new neighbors on the marsh, a Gulf Salt Marsh Snake, Nerodia clarkii clarkii, which he shared to educate other volunteers before releasing it away from all the activity.
These four found themselves doing the muddiest job of the day. Photo: St. Marks Volunteer
Travis Pollard (Fire Crew) and helpers replaced wood flooring below the feeders to tight specifications, leaving no cracks where crane toes could get caught; and checked and repaired other wooden structures in the pen and loose steps on the blind.
Electrical specialist Ed checked the many components of the electrified wire system that deters predators, finding many insulator posts that needed replacement.
Refuge Manager Terry Peacock led a mop-up crew searching for foreign materials that the young cranes might find (plastic, metal, wood, broken zip ties, etc.) and she inspected and coordinated the other crews’ work. Two of her youngest helpers, Lyndsie Parks and Adam Stokley, very helpfully reported gaping holes in the bottom of some of the plastic fencing, and they helped by flagging areas that would require patching later.
Back at the observation blind, while one group thoroughly swept, cleaned and bleached the floor to remove mouse and insect residue accumulated over summer, others removed and loaded old supplies and trash onto the utility vehicle. Volunteers emptied the water tanks at the blind, scrubbed the bubblers that supply fresh water to the whoopers, and replaced fresh water in the tanks.
Tom Darragh tirelessly drove the Refuge all-terrain vehicle back and forth ferrying heavy items, work supplies, and water to the blind, and hauling many loads of trash, gear, and tired volunteers back to Refuge trucks as noon passed, stomachs rumbled, and temperatures reached the upper 80s.
Finally, there were just 5 of us patching fencing on the marsh, when volunteer George “Bert” Burton said the last truck was leaving and joked that we’d be locked in if we didn’t hurry out. We quickly zip-tied the last patches in place, gathered up our materials, and splashed up the mucky trail to the blind. With so much completed for the day, our steps were light as we left the marsh to the white ibis, killdeer, periwinkles, snakes, and crabs.
The end of a long workday! Photo: St. Marks Volunteer
For those who have worked on the pen and managed habitat at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge since 2008, it is heartening to think that 42 Whooping Cranes have spent their first winter at the St. Marks NWR winter release-acclimation pen. Of those, over half still survive. The St. Marks NWR crane pen team of 2015 hopes this year’s efforts will help the Class of 2015 fulfill the dream of wild Whooping Cranes thriving in the eastern flyway. Come meet us for the arrival flyover at St. Marks!
We cannot thank the volunteers and staff at the St. Marks NWR enough for their tireless efforts to ensure the Class of 2015 Whooping cranes have a safe wintering site for their first winter season. Photo: St. Marks Volunteer