The winds should FINALLY be in our favor Sunday morning… If they materialize as forecast, surface winds should be 3-5 mph and from the northwest. Aloft, they will be from the same direction.

If you’re in the area and would like to head to the flyover location, it’s very easy to find by following these directions or using the link to the google map:

Viewing site is along CR626E (also called Frontage Road) just east (approx. 1?2 mile) of Montrose Black Top Road (also called Spring Creek Road) just west of CR 575E. Google Map

Day 53 – Rain & Possible Snow

Areas to the north of us will be getting their first taste of winter and we’re currently being rained on.

With temps dropping throughout the day, there is a chance that we too will see some wet snow.

We’ll be standing down today and hoping conditions for tomorrow will allow us to head to our last Illinois migration stop in Wayne County.


Day 52 – Lead Pilot Report

Date: November 20, 2015 Migration Day: 52
Dist. Traveled: 56 miles
Total Dist. 350 miles
Location: Cumberland Co., IL


First we thought it was number 1-15. Then all the evidence pointed to number 2-15. With each flight we learn something but we don’t fly often enough to learn quickly or maybe I’m just a slow learner.

It was my lead this morning so we took off for a quick check of conditions first.

The GPS tells us our speed over the ground and the airspeed indicator, strangely enough, indicates our speed through the air. Quite often those two don’t read the same like when we have a headwind  (when don’t we have a headwind?)

This morning they both read 38 mph so any wind we had was likely a direct crosswind and didn’t influence our speed. That was disappointing because the forecast called for northerly winds at 2500 feet and I was counting on a nice little push.

All the birds came out of the pen together which hasn’t happened in a while. That meant I didn’t have to wait for the stragglers. We made a sweeping turn to come on course and everything looked good -for awhile. We headed for the flyover site just like the last time we tried this. At about the same place that they turned back last Saturday, they broke again. This time I was able to catch them and they all gathered on the wing once more.

Number 2-15 pulled her usual stuff and tried to lead the aircraft and number 1-15 dropped below the wing, taking a few others with her. At one point, I noticed both of them on my right wing, fighting for the lead and I realized it was not 1 or 2 – but both, competing for top dog position.

Number 1-15 on the right challenges 2-15 for the lead position behind the wing of the aircraft.

Number 1-15 on the right challenges 2-15 for the lead position behind the wing of the aircraft.

The other birds instinctively follow the leader so, as the two battled it out, the rest of the flock kept moving back and forth behind them, never getting to a spot on the wing where they could benefit from the free ride. That meant that I had to continually lose altitude to let them rest. We had covered 10 miles and were still at 300 feet and my dreams of a tailwind at 2500 were fading fast.

Periodically, numbers 1 and 2 would each take a lead position on opposite wingtips and only then would things settle down. I coaxed them up when that happened but twice they turned back anyway.

Number 1-15 honking in flight.

Number 1-15 honking in flight.

By that time, they were far enough from the departure point that their commitment to turning around wasn’t that strong. Maybe they weren’t completely sure what to do once they had the lead so when I moved in, they rejoined my wing and stuck with me as we turned back on course.

Twice, number 1 dropped low and behind and for a time we thought Brooke would have to collect her. But she is strong and managed to catch us. At 10 miles out from our destination, we reached 2000 feet but there was no sign of the tailwind. Imagine that! Another incorrect forecast!

We did a long slow descent and all of the birds landed together on a little tractor road next to a wet bean field. This flight was the first time all six birds followed one aircraft for a complete leg unless you count the very first stopover. That was only a four mile trip back when the birds were young and eagar. Seems like  a year ago. Total flight time =1 hour 43 minutes.

Day 52 – Departure Attempt

We arrived in Piatt County, IL 11 days ago and since then it has been extremely windy.

This morning the winds seem calm and from the southwest. Aloft, they are from the northwest, which means if the pilots can get the birds to climb out of the southerly flow of air, they should get a bit of a push.

If successful, we’ll be on our way to Cumberland County, IL.

If you’re in the Piatt County area and would like to head out to watch the cranes and planes attempt to leave, visit the Public Flyover page for location details.

St. Marks Arrivals

St. Marks Refuge Manager Terry Peacock forwarded the following two images captured by a refuge volunteer yesterday while working on the pensite.

So far, it seems these are the only two at St. Marks, though they’re hoping to get some tracking equipment out later this afternoon to confirm this.

The last hit, I’ve received for female 3-14, who should be traveling with male 4-12 placed them in Jefferson County, GA – a bit east of where we’d like them to be. Prior to yesterday they were on track to head straight south to St. Marks NWR. No doubt yesterday’s strong southwesterly winds blew them off course.

Number 7-14 was in Vigo County, Indiana at the beginning of the week and the female 8-14 was in southeast Tennessee in Hamilton County. And the female 10-14 was in Tallapoosa County, Alabama as of November 15.


Male Whooping crane 5-12 (left) and female 9-14 arrived at St. Marks NWR on November 17th. Photo: Refuge Volunteer

The two spent time foraging at a pond a short distance from the release enclosure at St. Marks NWR. Photo: Refuge Volunteer

The two spent time foraging at a pond a short distance from the release enclosure at St. Marks NWR. Photo: Refuge Volunteer


WHOOP! Here it is!!!

For a limited time only, each time you contribute a $10 WHOOP! – You’ll receive one of these fun wristbands!

Proclaim your support for Whooping cranes with these fun wristbands!

Proclaim your support for Whooping cranes with these fun wristbands!

Give more than one WHOOP!? – We’ll send you one for each and every $10 WHOOP!

Share the extra wristbands with your family or friends… They make great stocking stuffers!

CLICK HERE to show your support for Whooping cranes!

Preparing for the Class of 2015 at St. Marks NWR

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.

Photo: Nick Baldwin

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

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

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.

St. Marks pen prep

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

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

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.

St. Marks Pen Prep

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

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

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