A Tennessee Challenge

Later this afternoon we’ll be heading out to the pensite to crate our seven charges and then quickly tear down the travel pen so that Walter & Brooke can get on the road.

They’ll travel throughout the night, which will mean less stress for the birds.

Jo-Anne, Geoff, Joe and myself will pull out at 5 am tomorrow morning to make the 9 hour drive to Carroll County, TN

“In honor of the birds arriving in Tennessee whichever method, unconventional or not.”   An anonymous Tennessee supporter will match any amount to the 2014 MileMaker campaign up to 3 miles.

Visit the MileMaker page if you’d like to help: https://secure.operationmigration.org/np/clients/om/campaign.jsp?campaign=45

Plan B (or C)

As everyone knows, a good plan “A” should have a plan “B”. The first one never works out exactly as you intend so the second one must be flexible.

When we start our migration every fall, we begin with high hopes and blind faith that the weather will cooperate but there are never any guarantees. When, or if we will arrive in Florida is beyond our control and that is a tough pill for a team of control freaks. We manage every aspect of the birds experience from hatch and through the summer training. Then we suffer the frustration of leaving it all up to the whims of the wind. After 34 days on the road and only 52 miles behind us, it is time to consider our options. In fact, we have nothing but time to think about them.

We have never been this far behind and the polar vortex that is bringing wind and record cold temperatures to much of the central part of the continent is predicted to last another week at least. If we wait, there is a good chance that the birds will not follow us after that long on the ground and we will be back to square one. If the strong winds continue thereafter, we could be forced to make a decision, so rather than wait, we are making it now.

After checking the forecasts there is a chance we could fly Saturday – as long as we start from northern Tennessee. So we will take today to pack up and Thursday to drive to Carroll County, Tennessee and begin again. Colleen Chase and our new volunteer John Gerend, have retrieved our travel pen from the Green County, WI stopover and are on their way south. While they make the drive, we will pack the aircraft and prepare to break camp. Tomorrow morning, we’ll all load up the cranes in our two tracking vans, hitch up the pen that the birds are in now and Brooke and Walter will head to Tennessee. Once the rest of us have loaded whatever is left we will make the nine hour drive ourselves with the two motorhomes and two trailers. Once there, we’ll unload the aircraft trailer and by late Friday we should be ready to fly if it all works out as planned – he said with his tongue in his cheek.

There are different weather patterns in the southern half of the migration and it often goes faster than the first. That will give us a fighting chance of getting them to St. Marks where we can do the best job of protecting them over the winter. On their return trip they will have knowledge of the direction from which they arrived. There will be a gap in the middle of that awareness but it’s a straight run north and with luck, we will see them back in White River next spring. If we stay here they will likely arrive at their wintering grounds in crates so our plan is the lesser of two evils.

It is not ideal but it’s the best we can do for the birds and it feels good to have a plan.

Ed. Note: We’ll leave the CraneCam running in the morning while we’re crating the birds. There will be no camera for the rest of Thursday and until I get it setup again on Friday – in Tennessee.

Huge thanks to the town of Lodi, WI for putting up with us for much longer than we had anticipated. Special thanks to Jean, Jeannie, Bill, Sheryl and Dave for ‘adopting’ us during our stay!

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“Crazy Person” Follow-up

Regular readers will recall when last week, Brooke Pennypacker wrote about our adventures last year when we left Columbia County in an attempt to make it to Green County. His post was titled “Crazy Person.” Brooke spoke of landing short of our destination, only to encounter a group of students who were out on a class trip that day.

We received the following last evening and encourage you to read it to see just how much of an impact that day’s adventures had…

Dear Operation Migration,

I want to begin by saying “Thank you” to all of you for the amazing work that you do. My son and I have been following your work over the past several years. We are often learning new information about whooping cranes, and are in awe over your continuous dedication to your work. I really appreciate your efforts to keep the general public informed of your work and the progress of the yearly training and migration with your use of the crane cam, Field Journal, fly overs, and now the recent addition of the Sunday afternoon live chats. The fact that you are willing to pull us in and allow us to be a part of your world is truly remarkable.

That being said, I hope you don’t mind me sharing a story. I felt compelled to write to you after reading Brooke’s “Crazy Person” entry in the Field Journal. I really loved reading his humorous perspective on the events of that day.

As I mentioned, my son as been following along with me. He is currently ten years old, but for as long as I can remember he has had a big heart and awareness for animals, plants, and conservation. In May of 2013, we visited our local zoo for their International Migratory Bird Day event, as we learned that members from Operation Migration and International Crane Foundation would be there. It was at this event where we met Doug Pellerin and spoke with him for a bit about his role with Operation Migration. Doug let my son try on his helmet and crane puppet, and I took a photo.

Fast forward to fall of 2013. As a means of encouraging students to write on their own time, my son’s classroom teacher set up an internal writing system where students could write about and share their own thoughts and topics of interest with members of that class. My son chose to share his knowledge of whooping cranes and Operation Migration. He described the training, the trikes, the migration route, and the flight cam. He included the picture of him wearing Doug’s helmet and crane puppet, and even provided a link to your web site for all in his class to read and learn about. He later took this blog and turned it into an informational piece of writing that was also shared with his class.

Being from an area in between migration stops #3 and #4, I pay particular attention to arrival and departure dates of these stops. I recall the day you left Columbia County for Green County last year. While I am not a chatter on-line, I did try to look in at the chat every so often to see if there was any indication that the cranes made it to their next pen site. I recall reading several comments throughout the day that cranes had dropped out at various locations, and I could not wait to get home from work to see if there was any updated information. I did receive an update, however, not in the way that I had expected. My son gave me the first hand news in the car ride home from school that day.

My son had gone to school that day with the excitement of heading out on a class field trip. The trip was actually planned for a week prior, but was rescheduled due to, well…poor weather–an issue I assume you all know quite well. That morning, four classrooms of students made their way out to this great Conservancy just outside of town to study the geography, geology, history, and culture of this area of Wisconsin. I have to say I felt like a bit of a “crazy person” for having the fleeting thought that maybe, just maybe, if my son looks in the sky when he is out in that field, he might catch a glimpse of a couple of trikes with whooping cranes following close behind.

My son was working with a small group of students on a side project pertaining to the Conservancy, and thus were off investigating with a chaperone in a separate area from the rest of the students. Soon, their attention was drawn to the sky. There was a small airplane flying overhead, but it isn’t all that unusual to see and hear small planes in this area with the local airport not too far away. But, as they took another look they realized they saw more than the small airplane. Can you imagine the awe in these kids and their chaperone as they saw Brooke and 4 whooping cranes float from the sky and land literally right in front of them? My son saw it happen, but couldn’t believe it was real. He looked to the sky again, and that small plane was still overhead. They all froze…not with fear, but with wonderment. My son recalls Brooke holding up and waving his hands, which was the clear signal to stay back. They slowly retreated and made their way back to the rest of the group.

Upon returning to the group, they could not contain their excitement. As my son describes:

“We ran back to find my teacher and tell him that we saw the cranes and the ultralight, and that the pilot told us to stay back. Some of the other kids wanted to see what was going on, so we walked back over and tried to hide in the trees at the top of the hill. I could not believe that this was real! Now my class can see what I have been sharing with them about Operation Migration. My teacher, the students, and the naturalist were so excited! I thought that it was so cool and I couldn’t wait to tell my mom, but I thought it would be cool for the other kids to know about Operation Migration so that they could learn about a bird that is endangered, and also I know that a lot of other kids like animals.”

When the class returned to school, they followed up with a discussion on the morning’s events. The classroom teacher followed up again with his students the next day, discussing Operation Migration and allowing students to ask questions and talk about this incredible experience. It definitely was made clear to students and parents alike what a rare and unique opportunity this was for all. My son was aware that Brooke was the pilot with those 4 birds, and thus providing the class with the name of said “crazy person.”

While I listened to him tell this story with complete amazement, I have to say I was also a bit nervous for the birds, hoping the students stayed out of sight and kept their voices down. Yet, I was so overjoyed that these students were able to see first hand the work that you do. These students left that field trip with a lesson like no other.

Even a year later, my son recalls that moment in the Conservancy as so surreal. Now, it’s a new school year, new students, and new teacher. My son’s class was instructed to write a short informational piece as an in class assignment. He chose to write about Operation Migration once again. He loves to write, so no, he wasn’t taking a shortcut from last year’s work. He just knows how important your work is and wants to share it with others.

So, Brooke, we don’t really think of you as a “crazy person.” In fact we are so grateful for what all of you do. It is amazing to see how much dedication, perseverance, and coordination it takes to do the work that you do. Thank you for opening your world to the rest of us; for sharing your stories, for letting us watch you in action, and for your overall commitment to the importance of whooping crane conservation.

Here is a link to a newsletter from Pope Farm Conservancy from fall of 2013 that featured a brief article on Brooke’s landing with the birds: https://popefarmconservancy.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/News-Updates-for-Friends-of-Pope-Farm-Conservancy-Nov-2013.pdf

We are hoping the weather improves soon, so that you can continue on with this year’s migration!


Anna Bechner and Ethan

An Intruder

John Gerend is our next volunteer and he joined us on Saturday I took him to the pen this morning to help with the early morning checks. He has been following us for many years but this was his first time to see the birds up close and on their own level. I gave him all the standard precautions like how the head gear we wear reduces peripheral vision and even blocks some of the sound. You can be interacting with one bird and not realize another has walked up behind you and how you much check before stepping backwards. We spent twenty minutes changing water, replenishing the food and checking each bird for signs of injury or stress.

We were not back in camp more than ten minutes when Heather rushed in to tell us that someone was near the pen and the birds were hitting the top net. Walter Sturgeon and I grabbed our costumes and headed back. He checked the birds again while I walked the tree line. The birds seemed relaxed and I didn’t see anything suspicious. The day before I had put up signs warning that the area is closed and to speak to the property owner for access. On the way out we met with the owners who had just heard of the intrusion. They expressed their concerns and told us that their land backs onto a DNR preserve that is open for to the public. Although their property line is clearly posted, they told us they often have hunters and hikers wandering up from the forest and into their fields.

It was not until we returned to camp and Heather showed us the archived CraneCam clip that we realized just how fearful the birds were. You can see from the video (below) how far away the intruder was and how the birds reacted to a non-costumed person. It appears that a man came out of the woods onto private property. He walked the tree line and paused, maybe to read our sign. Then he disappeared back into the woods. He was not dressed like a hunter, nor did he seem to be carrying a gun so we can only assume he was a hiker. Apart from the fact that he was trespassing and ignored the property owner’s signs, it does not look like he meant any harm. He did not approach the pen and after reading our sign or seeing the reaction of the birds, he left.

Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream

The video clearly shows the birds trying to escape as they flew up into the top net. Luckily none were injured and we are very thankful that whoever it was didn’t come any closer. It does however, demonstrate that our months of hard work have paid off and these birds are well on their way to true wildness.

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Lead Pilot Report – Divide and Conquer!

Date: Nov., 7, 2014 Migration Day: 29
Dist. Traveled: 5 miles
Total Dist. 52 miles
Location: Dane County, Wisconsin

“We think we can! We think we can!”  Yay, that’s the spirit. “We just got to believe!”  Yep, you’re getting the picture. “Every day in every way, we’re getting better and better!”  Sing it loud and sing it proud!

Nothing like a little pre-migration pep rally to get the aerial juices flowing as Geoff and Colleen readied the birds for this morning’s migration attempt.  But to add assurance to the success of the effort, Walt and Bev helped as #4, 9 and 10 were boxed, leaving #2, 3 7 and 8-14 free for the first release attempt.

Divide and conquer was the plan. Try and fly the best fliers to the destination first. Then come back and fly the others. And the destination was a field only five miles away. It was Joe’s idea. As every good teacher knows, a student must be given the opportunity to experience a series of small successes, which in time, will hopefully build into larger ones.

At this point, our migration needs at least one successful leg to get our momentum going, even if it is only 5 miles away. Like Confucius said, “The longest part of a journey is the first step…. and be damn careful not to stub your toe in the process.”  Migration so far has been a series of toe stubs with most of them taking place in a box. Richard found the perfect destination a few days ago and so this morning, thanks to good weather, we put the plan into action.

It was with greater than usual anticipation that we blasted off into the morning sky and headed off for the five mile flight. Rodeo here, rodeo there but eventually we arrived. Then Joe hid the birds while Richard and I returned for Round 2. Out of the boxes popped #4, 9 and 10 and again we were off and after the obligatory rodeo, we arrived at the site. Bev helped Joe hide the birds while Richard, Geoff, Colleen, Bill and Walt erected the pen.

Soon all the birds were safely ensconced in their new surroundings, the trikes were tied down at the airfield and the whole crew was enjoying a celebratory breakfast at a local bistro. It was a small success but at this point in our migration, a small success is HUGE.

I rely on Heather’s accompanying pictures to fill in the blanks of today’s effort, remembering that a picture is worth a thousand words, even if they are in a foreign language… in this case, CANADIAN!

Brooke appears over the horizon with Whooping crane colts 2, 3, 7 & 8-14

Brooke appears over the horizon with Whooping crane colts 2, 3, 7 & 8-14


As one of his four cranes turned back, Richard moved in to pick her up. It was later learned that this was number 8-14 who flew to the new interim stop with Richard.


The twenty or so folks that turned out again to watch were treated to another great show.

Once the first group of four were at the new site, Brooke and Richard returned to fly cranes 4, 9 & 10-14 successfully to the new site.

Once the first group of four were at the new site, Brooke and Richard returned to fly cranes 4, 9 & 10-14 successfully to the new site.

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A Challenge

We received the following message from Dora this morning. Dora is a Craniac in north Florida who says…

Today is the 10th anniversary of my oldest daughter’s death. She was a teacher and loved animals, birds, etc. She rescued a mother springer spaniel with 7 one week old puppies one time and successfully saved all of them. I know she would have loved these beautiful birds and would teach about them to all of her students (ages 3- 8th grade).

I will donate $200 and challenge anyone who has lost a loved one to donate any amount they can, $1, $2, $5, $50, $100 or what ever they can. If more than $1,000 is raised  in one week, I will donate another $200 next month.

If you’d like to take Dora up on her challenge, please use this link. Please include in the Donation Note field: “for Dora’s challenge”

Thanks everyone!