Class of 2013 Migration Progress Report

Four of the 2013 Whooping cranes were fitted with Platform Terminal Transmitters (PTT’s) during their post arrival healthcheck at the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in January. The four wearing the devices are nos. 1-13, 2-13, 8-13 (all females) and number 9-13.

Basically, the way information is gathered is each of the PTT units is programmed to send signals to a passing Argos satellite at periodic intervals. (If you’re interested in seeing where the satellite is currently click HERE)

The polar orbiting Argos satellite passes at an orbit of 850 km above the earth picks up the signals and store them on-board and relay them in real-time back to earth, where receiving stations relay data from satellites to processing centers.

Over 40 antennas located at all points of the globe collect the data from satellites. Data are either received in real-time by a regional antenna in the satellites’ path or stored on-board and relayed to the nearest global antennas.

There are two global Argos processing centers, one located just outside of Toulouse in Southwestern France, and the other near Washington, DC. Once the data arrive at a processing center, locations are automatically calculated and information made available to users/subscribers.

Based on information received since the young cranes left St. Marks on March 31st, we know they have traveled approximately 470 miles in just 3 days. We also know, by plotting their roost locations that they seem to be traveling parallel to the route our pilots led them along last fall.

As of yesterday, April 3rd, they had made it to northern Kentucky. Data received for all four transmitters means that at the very least, these four birds are still traveling together. Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing if the remaining four cranes are also with this group.

Here’s a Google Earth map grab showing our southward stopovers (red place markers) and the yellow pushpins are the roost locations used by the cranes wearing PTT devices on each day of their unassisted northward flight.

April3_distance They appear to be making GREAT progress! Why not Give A WHOOP! to celebrate?


Pura Vida!

Pura Vida is the Spanish phrase meaning ‘Pure Life” and it is the law of the land in beautiful Costa Rica. Why does this matter?

It matters because OM MileMaker supporter, Francoise Leonard of New Mexico is the recipient of the two week stay at Mot Mot Manor in the wonderful gated community of Roma del Mar!

Congratulations Francoise!

All MileMaker supporters had their names entered into a thank you prize draw, which was held on March 31st. In fact anyone that sponsored a mile, had 4 entries in the draw (for each mile), those that sponsored a half mile had 2 entries and 1/4 mile supporters had their names entered once.

Francoise will enjoy two weeks in the comfort of a private 3 bedroom/3 bath home overlooking the Nicoyan Peninsula. She can spend leisurely time in the in-ground pool, explore the many beaches and nature trails, and Howler monkeys will serenade her each morning with their raucous calls that echo through the neighborhood.

Coincidentally, the recipient of the 2012 Costa Rican trip is enjoying herself at Mot Mot Manor right now!

If you would like to have your name entered into the thank you prize draw for 2014 please help support the MileMaker 2014 campaign. The cost remains unchanged from last year, which means the cost of a mile is $200, a 1/2 mile is $100 and a 1/4 mile is $50. Your support helps to fund the southward migration this coming fall for the Class of 2014 Whooping cranes.

CLICK to become a MileMaker supporter today!

Some of the neighbors at Mot Mot Manor, include Howler monkeys, Mot Mot's (center) and the Violaceous Trogon

Some of the neighbors at Mot Mot Manor, include Howler monkeys, Mot Mot’s (center) and the Violaceous Trogon


And The Winner Is…

GAW_whtRuth Mitchell of Inverness, Florida is the proud owner of a pair of Ranger 8×42 binoculars from our friends at Eagle Optics!

Ruth’s name was entered, along with everyone else that WHOOP’d in our 2013 Give A WHOOP! campaign and yesterday afternoon, her name was selected by OM’s office administrator Christina Danilko.

Congratulations Ruth! Living in Florida, you have a lot of birds and butterflies to view using your new binoculars, which should arrive before the end of the week.

If YOU would like to have your name entered into the 2014 Give A WHOOP! thank you draw, just drop by the Give A WHOOP! page and make a $10 WHOOP! And as the Class of 2013 wings their way northward – this is the perfect time to celebrate and Give A WHOOP! in support of our efforts to build the Eastern Migratory Population.


USFWS Releases Water to Benefit Kearney, NB Cranes

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has started releasing into the Platte River water from its environmental account stored in Lake McConaughy primarily to benefit endangered whooping cranes during their migration stopover in central Nebraska.

The releases started Saturday and are expected to continue until May 10. They should increase Overton-to-Grand Island flows to about 1,700 cubic feet per second.

That is the minimum flow in a dry year that USFWS officials believe is necessary to provide and maintain adequate roosting and feeding habitat for whooping cranes on the Platte River. Such flows are not unusual at this time of year and are well-below flood levels.

All the environmental account water should be past Grand Island by around May 24.

Whooping cranes use the Central Flyway to migrate to Canada for the summer. It’s the same route used by hundreds of thousands of other migrating birds, including around 500,000 sandhill cranes. They all stop in the Central Platte Valley in March and April to feed in area fields and roost overnight in the river.

The environmental account was established in 1999 and is managed by the USFWS to benefit four federally listed threatened or endangered species — whooping cranes, least terns, piping plovers and pallid sturgeon.


Be sure to check out the Rowe Sanctuary Crane Camera!


Art vs. Science

My background is in the arts and throughout most I my life I had little to do with science. I spent almost thirty years as a commercial photographer, shooting pictures for companies like Ford, Honda and BMW. I created the images for those glossy brochures they hand out to prospective buyers.

That’s one of the many reasons I now work with Whooping cranes; so that in the end there will something left behind for my daughter and her generation, that is more important than a stack of outdated car catalogues.

I have now spent more than twenty years working with birds but I am not an expert. That is the difference between the arts and the sciences. The rules in art are meant to be broken. The more creatively you shatter them, the more your work is respected.

Science, on the other hand, is about discovering the rules that govern your field of research.  Those rules are unbreakable, which is likely why they are referred to as the laws of nature. Understanding those laws, let alone discovering new ones, is a lifelong endeavor and the more you understand the laws of nature, the better equipped you are to work within them.

In my thirty year photography career I broke a few of the rules of art and had a modicum of success.  But the laws of science require years of education and experience to comprehend even in general terms and I have not yet paid those dues. Any success Operation Migration has had is not based on academic credentials. Instead it is the result of innovative ideas and the willingness to tackle them. It is a combination of passion and stubbornness.

Misdirected passion however, can often be the quickest route to failure so a successful reintroduction like this, requires a balance between the science of knowing what to do, and the passion to get it done. There is a great deal of talent within WCEP on both sides of that equation.

In 2012 we began an 18 month long, Structured Decision Making process to develop a five year strategic plan. An SDM uses population modelling, algorithms and the experience of specialists to transparently examine difficult questions when many of the variables are unknown. In other words, a team of experts looked at every aspect of this project from costume rearing to nest abandonment. Each topic was discussed at length, evaluated, weighted and modelled. In the end it was determined that the best chance this population has of persisting is for WCEP to continue releasing birds into the Horicon and White River areas and to evaluate their breeding rate in that black fly free zone.

Both Horicon and White River have their pros and cons. Although Horicon has the largest wetland complex, much of it is covered with cattail that is inaccessible for Whooping cranes. It is also well used by the public which is why it was not selected when Necedah was picked as the primary location. White River is more isolated for nesting birds but the habitat best suited for Whooping cranes, is fragmented without large areas of open water. As neither of these areas is ideal, the WCEP Guidance Team agreed that we would continue to use both. That means that both the DAR and the UL technique will be used for the next five years, subject to annual reviews. In addition, we will continue to experiment with the Parent Reared technique.

The other question addressed by the SDM committee was to identify the best course of action for the birds that continue to use Necedah and the surrounding area.  A proposal to use nest management techniques was peer reviewed and approved by WCEP. All of the chicks that have been produced so far are the result of late nests that came to fruition after the black fly season was over. Starting this spring, biologists will monitor temperature-days to predict when the black flies will hatch. Just prior to that date, the eggs will be collected from half of the nesting pairs. The other half will be used as a control group however; it is likely that many of them will abandon their nests if the black flies come out in force. Those eggs will also be salvaged using the existing protocol of waiting a specific time period to ensure that they actually are abandoned.

The purpose of this study is to determine if there is a less invasive method of avoiding the black fly season, which normally coincides with the first Whooping crane nests. A multi-year experiment using BTi to reduce black fly numbers was conducted from 2010 to 2013. The best results were achieved in 2012 when roughly 90% of the offending insects were killed. That year, two chicks survived to fledge. The black flies made a full recovery after that year of suppression and in 2013 no Bti was used. As a result, one chick survived to fledge. Many stakeholders believe that an increase in population of only one bird does not justify the use of a control agent such as Bti.

Applying Bti is not a simple process. It requires state permits, public approval, access to private property and application at a very specific location just when the black flies are in the larval stage. Temperature days must be monitored along with water levels and flow rates of the rivers where the black flies hatch. These conditions change every year based on snow depths and melt rates. Each spring they must be tested so the bacteria can be introduced at the exact location up stream. To be effective, it must flow to the black fly nesting sites in the correct mixture and at the correct time, where it is ingested. The crystal formation of Bti cuts the gut of the larva to kill it.  Timing is critical.

The nest management experiments proposed by Necedah will attempt to adjust the birds to the existing habitat instead of adjusting the habitat to suit the cranes. Plus it will have no impact on the black flies, which are an important component of the wetland ecosystem, providing food for bats, dragonflies, frogs, trout, other waterborne insects, and birds such as hummingbirds, swallows and many warbler species that rely on the pesky insects to feed their young each spring.

Collecting eggs from half of the early nests will hopefully encourage more renesting. It will also salvage more of the eggs that would normally be lost. Those salvaged eggs will be incubated at ICF and Patuxent and be used to increase the number of chicks that are released using the DAR and UL methods. In fact, some may be used to augment the Louisiana project.

Although this spring will likely be late, the collection of eggs just before the black fly bloom will mean several eggs of the same age will be sent to the breeding centers. To handle that influx at Patuxent, they have asked for more help. In addition to Brooke and Geoff, we will provide another intern this year.

Caleb Fairfax will be joining us again this season but he is not finished with his current job in Alaska until mid May.

WCEP has asked OM to assist with monitoring of the birds that return to the White River/Horicon area so we will be opening our base camp early. Richard Van Heuvelen will be starting around April 1st to train and organize a team of volunteers. They will keep tabs on the cranes until mid-May when Caleb will take over.

Predicting the success of a breeding season is like trying to forecast the weather or maybe even picking lottery numbers. Unfortunately, until the season is underway, we will have no idea if we will be allocated 6 birds or 16. If we have more than 10 or 12, we will have to increase the size of our facilities at White River. Unfortunately that requires permits which take longer to write, submit and be approved, than it does to build the pens.

Wildlife Area manager, Jim Holzwart applied for the permits and we had another wet pen depression dug before the ground thawed. That way, no damage was done to the runway from the excavator or the trucks that hauled away the dirt. In the spring, the finish landscaping will be completed with a smaller machine and we will build another wet and dry pen if it is needed. If not, we can leave it fallow until next season.

Now all we need it for the ice to melt so the birds that have already returned to the White River area will have a safe place to roost at night.

A second scrape adjacent the White River Marsh pensite has been dug in case we need a second crane enclosure.

A second scrape adjacent the White River Marsh pensite has been dug in case we need a second crane enclosure.


Necedah National Wildlife Refuge Receives Funding

Necedah National Wildlife Refuge will receive $210,000.00 from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Cooperative Recovery Initiative, a highly competitive grant. This funding initiative is designed to support nearly 300 threatened and endangered species found in and around national wildlife refuges. Only four grants were awarded this year. Necedah’s grant will support three years of research to expand the limited understanding of multiple factors that influence nesting whooping cranes. Research under this grant will be conducted from this spring in 2014 through 2016. 

More specifically, this research will focus on when whooping cranes choose to nest. Whooping cranes present an interesting challenge to biologists because of these keys variables: whooping cranes have been introduced to an area, have learned to forage, select habitat, and migrate, yet they are still struggling in reproducing offspring.

There are a number of factors that play into why this could be happening. By selecting one aspect of nesting, with as many other factors as constant as possible, biologists will research and manipulate the timing of nesting to increase the potential for wild whooping cranes hatching wild chicks. “What intrigues us is that this technique will adjust cranes to the environment, not adjust the environment to the cranes,” explained Refuge Manager Doug Staller.

Biologists have recorded evidence that late spring nests produce a higher number of wild whooping crane chicks. The research is aimed at shifting when whooping cranes nest and will provide a better understanding of factors influencing whooping crane nesting success. After three years the intent is that the research will provide much needed information on the biological needs of this flock of whooping cranes. It will provide answers to help evaluate the financial costs of this reintroduction and will better inform future decisions and strategies for the survival of the whooping crane.

Research updates will be shared annually through print media, at the visitor center, as well as the refuge website and Facebook page. Biologists and staff of Necedah National Wildlife Refuge invite the public to view these magnificent birds, in the wild, from late March to early November each year.

View whooping cranes from the comfort of the visitor center, located two miles north of Hwy 21, just four miles west of Necedah. Hike the visitor center trails or drive along Goose and Sprague Pools to photograph these beautiful birds.

For more information about Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, visit:


Migration Spectacle on the Platte

In case you missed it… I’m beginning to wonder if the folks at NBC aren’t turning into full-fledged Craniacs, which is wonderful! In my opinion more networks should focus attention on good news stories – There’s too much doom and gloom in the average nightly newscast.

This past Saturday, NBC featured a segment about the annual migration of Sandhill cranes and Snow geese, which occurs on the Platte River in Nebraska each spring. It’s news coverage like this that will inspire people who are totally unaware of the goings on in our natural world. Especially, when those of us in the north are still mostly holed up inside due to a very cold winter season.

If you didn’t get to watch the segment, you can view it online.

While you’re at it, why not have another look at the Whooping crane story NBC ran on January 11th. And don’t forget to check out the Rowe Sanctuary Crane Camera to see the Platte River spectacle for yourself! 


Whooping Crane Sighting Etiquette

We’ve been receiving a good number of public sightings over the past couple of weeks as introduced Whooping cranes in the Eastern Migratory Population (EMP) advance northward and return to their summer habitats. If you happen to spot a Whooping crane please use this link to report your sighting.

We thought it a good time to remind everyone of the recommended guidelines should you be fortunate enough to encounter a Whooping crane.

  • To protect these two year old Whooping cranes we will not divulge the exact location of the sighting.
  • We ask that you please do not approach them closely, even in a vehicle, to avoid habituating the birds to human presence. Habituation is one of the greatest dangers that whooping cranes face because it puts them at greater risk from vehicle collisions, predation, and illegal shooting.
  • Please be respectful of the property of others and do not trespass.

The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership encourages birding listserv administrators and managers of social media page(s) to not release exact location information of Whooping cranes in the Eastern flyway. In an effort to protect these young and impressionable cranes, WCEP releases county level location information only.

American Birding Association Principles of Birding Ethics


Lone Ranger – Whooping Crane 4-12 Heads North

When I was a kid, one of the greatest things I liked about watching the Lone Ranger on Saturday mornings was the ending.  “Hi ho Silver, Away!” and off into the sunset he’d go, followed by his politically correct Indian side kick, Tonto. Then came the words, “Who was that masked man?” and the reply, “I don’t know, but he left a silver bullet, a pair of dirty long johns, a melted snow cone and my wallet is missing!” or words to that affect followed by the credits. My point is, when the show was over, you knew it.

When I first got into the crane business, I asked the numerous project crane experts, “How can you tell when a crane is getting ready to migrate?” to which the crane experts rolled their collective eyes and replied with the obvious irritation, “Easy.  You go out to the pen one day and he’ll be gone.”  Now why didn’t I think of that!

Turns out there are ways to tell, but they are often quite subtle and sometimes only recognizable when viewed through the prism of hindsight. Like last Friday morning when the birds burst out of the pen on their regular morning flight. My fingers immediately joined the count as the blotches of white danced in and out of the rising sunlight.  Eight… only eight!  Where… and who is number nine?  In this morning-pen-check- equation, nine equaled four, 4-12, that is, who was standing one legged preening at the edge of the south pen pond. Unusual, I thought. He’s usually at the end of the flight line. With cranes as with people, it’s often not so much what you see as what you don’t see that tells the story. Or at least it whispers a suggestion of something. Teasing out the meanings often makes a Rubik’x Cube seem like child’s play in comparison.

As the chicks landed back in the pen, I walked over to the little fellow and looked him over for any sign of a problem. He looked up at me as if to say, “It’s cool, dude” and tucked his head back into his wing to sleep. Even the flock of ibis standing near him seemed unusually unconcerned and the chicks never even came over to mess with him. Odd, I thought.

But then there have been a number of odd-but-interesting behaviors coming out of him this winter. His territorial imperative, hormonal spikes or his diploma from the “Charlie Manson School of How to Win Friends and Influence People” have provided quite an interesting soap opera. First, he chased off the two Southwood birds, #11 and 15-09, each of the four days they came to visit. (They, by the way, left on migration two weeks ago) Then he morphed into complete “Terminator Mode” when poor little #8-10 showed up to play and repeatedly chased him in long aerial pursuits over the marsh and into exile. And just when peace began to return to the pen, he turned on his old constant companion of two years, #5-12, and chased him out of the area. All this, while even the smallest of the chicks, little female #2-13, regularly gave him a daily dose of “Whoop-ass.”  Spending all winter at the bottom of the pecking order couldn’t have been fun and illustrates the difficulty in releasing a large group of chicks with one or two older ones. This is just one of a number of like experiences over the years. There is definitely unit cohesion in the world of chick cohorts. It is a bond not easily broken or influenced by one or two upper class-men.

But despite having experienced this situation previously, we couldn’t help but hope that our chicks would learn from this older, more experienced fellow. Perhaps a survival trick or two or even the easiest and safest migration route back to Wisconsin. Something!

But like human teenagers, it would appear crane chicks just don’t contain the proper enzyme to digest such nourishing wisdom. Not that #4 or #5-12 tried all that hard. They did great at being wild and doing wild things prior to the chick’s arrival.  #4 pulled out some serious fish from the pen pond and gobbled them down with all the grace and skill of a circus sword swallower, while #5 probed the depths of the marsh for its bounty of snails and crabs like a jackhammer in heat. However, once the chicks were released from the top-netted pen and the feeders were hung and filled, the two old boys went back on Welfare. No more fishing or singing “Wild Thing.” From then on, it appeared the only thing the chicks learned from the older birds was how much fun it was to beat up on them.

sub-adult Whooping crane

Sub-adult Whooping crane number 4-12

Still, there was the hope or at least the meager expectation that #4-12 would assist the chicks on their migration back to Wisconsin. But alas, that was not to be. When I returned to the blind Friday afternoon, he was gone, having left on migration alone. No note, no text, no farewell email. Just. Gone.

To my surprise, I felt suddenly sad and realized I missed him already. This feeling was perhaps accentuated by the fact that the chicks continued to do their usual chick things as if not to even notice his absence. Tough crowd, these chicks! Perhaps it’s because they only spent one winter with him. I spent two. Or that he had also spent most of last summer getting in our way up in White River Marsh.

But perhaps #4-12’s real purpose here was not so much to teach the chicks as it was to teach us. Maybe his lesson was not just one of biology, of wildlife behavior, of mysteries that spawn mysteries, but rather of the importance and necessity of thoroughly enjoying the presence of another while the opportunity exists. To share with them the present. To cherish and savor those moments. To squeeze from them all the joy and wonder they hold within. And maybe in the doing of this, we will be granted a privileged view through a larger keyhole of all that is truly meaningful. No silver bullet, this, but a silver lining for sure.

God speed, #4-12.  See you next summer on the runway at White River Marsh.