Banding Complete

“Just the facts, Ma’am.”  Sargent Joe Friday, Dragnet”

Our chicks were banded last Monday morning by Eva Szyszkoski from ICF with the help of Tim Dillenger and Carolyn Enloe, FWC, Scott Tidmus and Cheryl Tybor, Disney and our own Colleen Chase from OM.  Bert Burton and Craig Kittendorf from the St Marks Photo Club were there to do a documentary video of the procedure so it can be made into a teaching aid for others to learn the proper banding technique from the pro.

As many of our readers know, we usually do the banding along with health checks together shortly after the end of migration so as to handle the chicks as little as possible and release them as soon as possible.  However, this year it was decided by the WCEP Guidance Team that the traditional health checks were not necessary and that the birds should be released prior to banding since the banding would take an extended period of time to organize and schedule. We released the chicks on December 19th. This was of course was a risk since the chicks do not always return to the pen every morning. But luck was with us. The two chicks that left the previous night and had not yet returned when Colleen put the other chicks in the top netted pen (which we had practiced every morning for the previous two weeks) did return just before we returned to do the banding and we dodged another bullet.

Eva, WCEP’s most experienced bander, performed her usual magic, banding each chick with focused and practiced precision, while instructing Tim in the art and allowing him to do some of the banding also. Scott held the chicks while Colleen used every trick in the book to keep #4-12 and his new friend #4-13 away from the proceedings.  Cheryl assisted.


Meanwhile, Bert and Craig documented the procedure with a new high tech video camera the St Marks Photo Club had recently donated to the Refuge. The process was quick and efficient and caused minimal stress to the chicks.  In what seemed like no time at all, the chicks were back in the top netted pen, preening away at their new jewelry and even coming up to the handlers and taking grapes.  This was the best banding session I have ever witnessed and well worth the wait.


We would like to thank Eva Szyszkoski from the International Crane Foundation, Tim Dellinger and Carolyn from Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission, Scott Tidmus and Cheryl Tybor from Disney, Craig Kittendorf and Bert Burton from the St Marks Photo Club, and Colleen Chase from OM for their experienced professionalism and considerable contribution to the health and well-being of the birds and the success of our project.

Cranes are hooded during the procedure to reduce stress.

Cranes are hooded during the procedure to reduce stress.

The banding crew leaves the pensite.

The banding crew leaves the pensite.

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Game Wardens Investigating Whooping Crane Death

From Texas Parks and Wildlife:

Texas game wardens in Aransas County are awaiting necropsy results on a state and federally protected whooping crane found dead Sunday near a duck blind located in the Aransas Bay system close to Sand Lake.

The bird was partially decomposed when recovered by Texas Parks and Wildlife game wardens who had been contacted Sunday morning by a local hunting guide who had originally discovered the crane.

Whoopers are the tallest birds in North America, standing nearly five feet. The cranes are solid white except for black wing-tips that are visible only in flight. They fly with necks and legs outstretched. Each fall, they make a 2,400-mile migratory journey from Canada to the Texas coast. In the spring, they return north.

TPWD game wardens and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are jointly investigating this incident. If anyone has additional information regarding this matter, they are encouraged to call Operation Game Thief at 1-800-792-GAME (4263). Callers may remain anonymous.

Since beginning their slow recovery from a low of 16 birds in the 1940’s, whoopers have wintered on the Texas coast on and near Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Recently though, several groups of whooping cranes have expanded their wintering areas to include other coastal areas and some inland sites in Central Texas.

Wheeler NWR Crane Festival This Weekend!

A fun-filled day of nature walks, live raptors, and special programs is planned when the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge holds the third annual Festival of the Cranes. Set for this Saturday, Jan. 10, the celebration of Sandhill Cranes and Whooping Cranes will bring together experienced birders and those who would like to learn more about birding and other wildlife that call the Refuge home.

To learn more and to plan your trip, visit the Festival page!

Here’s a short clip of just two of the Whooping cranes currently spending the winter at the Wheeler NWR

Got a Minute? #43 Whooping Crane Flight from Mike C. on Vimeo.

A pair of Whooping Cranes take flight from Wheeler NWR, in Alabama. They were pretty far away, they seldom get very close to the observation deck. There were 2 pair there that day and they did gather together for a while. In all there were 11 Whoopers on the NWR.
Around 5 feet tall, Whoopers are the tallest of the North American Cranes.
A very rare, endangered bird.
I hope it makes a rare minute for you.

2014 Migration Memories – Good & Bad

At the end of each migration there is usually one lasting impression that shapes the memories we carry home. Passing time seems to round the edges of all the unpleasant experiences. The shock of wading through 12 inches of icy water in 10 inch boots is softened, along with the frustration of long boring days and constant winds.

But even time can’t erase the torture of taking 36 days to cover only 52 miles so maybe we’ll come away from the 2014 migration with two memories. One for the bitter cold and all the failed attempts to get the birds to follow us in the north and one for the southern half and the 530 miles to St Marks that we covered in just 26 days.

The migration team consists of anywhere from 10 to 12 people depending on the success of our volunteer campaign. Each member plays a critical role from releasing the birds to fly with the aircraft, to tracking them from below. The pen that the birds just left must be disassembled, cleaned and transported to the next site while our fleet of trucks, trailers and motorhomes is prepared for the move. The outreach staff run the cameras and post the updates that keep our online audience informed as well as answering questions at the public flyovers.

At the end of the day when the birds are safe and the camp is ready, stories are exchanged and I am always amazed at how much can happen in the two hours, while we are airborne. Pen trailers get stuck in the rain soaked fields where they have stood for a week and generous farmers with tractors are cajoled into helping.

Trailer tires blow on the interstate and other team drivers rendezvous to change them. Birds drop out and the trackers coordinate their retrieval. Birds in crates are passed between vehicles to speed their transport to the next site and free up the manpower in preparation for whatever happens next. If the birds split up into small groups, each aircraft will pick up a few. If we get separated, our resources are spread thinner. Radio messages are relayed if we are out of range, GPS coordinates shared and the entire team is mobilized. On bad days it all happens at once and that’s when the team really shines.

Some on our team members are experts and have been with the project for several years. Brooke Pennypacker and Richard van Heuvelen are experienced enough to handle any situation like landing with exhausted birds in a conservation area and fending off bus loads of school kids while keeping the birds isolated; or setting a trike down in a tiny patch of clear ground between bales of hay to retrieve a bird that landed too close to buildings. Volunteer tracker, Walter Sturgeon has worked with cranes for 40 years and assisted on ten migrations. He is our first choice for all crane health and transport issues. Whenever we think we are breaking new ground, we ask Walter who has likely been there before.

Heather Ray has many responsibilities and many talents. On the migration she drives one of our diesel trucks pulling a 34 foot trailer. Plus she can crate birds and dismantles pens with the best of them. Her real job is as our Director of Fund Development but mostly she is known for her Facebook postings, tweets and daily website updates. Through her computer expertise she brought us into the electronic age, sometimes kicking and screaming. Using live cameras and social media she introduced a world audience to a project that was cloistered by its own protocol.

Geoff Tarbox has been with us for six seasons and knows the birds as well as anyone. His willingness to help with any task, from carrying heavy feed bags to wading chest deep in cold water makes him a valued member of the team. His video game prowess also keeps the camp zombie free. 

But there are also team members who don’t have that long term experience. People like volunteer, Colleen Chase who didn’t have any practise at driving trucks three years ago but now delivers one of our travel pens, pulled by a diesel one-ton already burdened with a heavy side-in camper. Her bird experience extended to her collection of parrots and other exotics but now she works with birds almost as tall as she is. When push comes to shove though, she’ll spend all day with wet feet from wading into a too-deep marsh to retrieve an errant bird.

Jo-Anne Bellemer likely didn’t fully understand what she was getting into when she volunteered to help. Two migrations later she can drive a diesel pickup pulling a long trailer filled with aircraft, or help knock down a pen in record time, or deliver crated birds in a motorhome, or entertain 30 people at an early morning flyover event – sometimes all on the same day. Jo has also accepted a position as our new Chief Financial Officer.

The most unsung hero of the project is Chris Danilko. Singlehandedly, she staffs a three person office in our absence. She handles the logistics of our operation and knows most of our supporters by name. She is a critical part of the team but never gets the credit she deserves. 

I recruited eight volunteers this year for two week tours of duty. Some of them only saw one stopover while we were stuck in poor weather. Others saw too many as we flashed through the southern states. I think everyone on the team agrees that the program was a wonderful successful. Thank you to Doug Pellerin, Clark Schultz, Steve Schildwachter, Bill Minard, John Gerend, Dave Nadell and our old friends David and Linda Boyd. I hope they are all still interested in helping again next year.

Liz Condie retired this year and is currently vacationing in Australia. This past migration is the first she has missed in many years. Operation Migration owes its existence in part to Liz. Her knowledge and expertise helped build the infrastructure of our cross border corporation. Through hard work Liz restructured OM, tracked the red tape, rewrote our bylaws and brought us into compliance with myriad agencies that govern non profits. 

I was asked to focus this update on my favorite memory of the 2014 migration. I could have written about the joy of flying with birds or the relief I felt when they finally followed us from that cotton field in Tennessee, but instead I wrote about what impressed me most.

I was flying over Lodi, Wisconsin directing Colleen and Geoff to a field where Brooke had landed with two exhausted birds. We hadn’t flown in two weeks – our weather window was closing fast - Richard was dealing with other birds in field to the north – Heather and Jo were coaxing yet another dropout to a spot where it could be captured and Walter was crating them as fast as he could. It was a horrible day for human led migration but wonderful to watch this team face adversity and win. We didn’t cover any ground that day but the birds were safe, no one was hurt, no laws were broken or land owners offended. I was very proud of the crew who really are the wildlife heroes our supporters claim them to be.

So that is my favorite memory of 2014. I’ll forget the cold, the waiting and the wind and remember what it is like to watch such an altruistic team perform at their best.

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EMP Update Time

Whooping Crane Update, 5 – 31 December 2014

The map below indicates the last known location of the Whooping Cranes in the Eastern Migratory Population. This map does not include birds that have not been reported for over one month, are known to have moved from a previous location or that are long term missing.


Maximum size of the eastern migratory population at the end of the report period was 103 birds (54 males, 49 females). Estimated distribution at the end of the report period included 40 whooping cranes in Indiana, 7 in Illinois, 9 in Kentucky, 7 in Tennessee, 17 in Alabama, 3 in Georgia, 14 in Florida, 4 at unknown locations, 1 not recently reported and 1 long term missing. The total for Florida includes 7 newly released juveniles.


The remains of male no. 5-13 were recently found at the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Wakulla County, Florida. His death apparently had occurred on Thanksgiving night.

2012 Cohort

Nos. 4-12 remained at the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, Wakulla County, Florida.

No. 5-12 remained at the St. Marks. National Wildlife Refuge, Wakulla County, Florida, until being chased away by no. 4-12 on 24 December. He was detected still in the area on 26 December. No subsequent reports.

No. 7-12 remained in Knox/Greene Counties, Indiana, throughout the report period and was observed associating with up to 10 different individuals.

No. 14-12 was found in Jackson County, Indiana, on 1 December and had left this location by 5 December. No subsequent reports.

No. 16-12 remained in Jackson County, Indiana, throughout the report period.

2013 Cohort

Nos. 2, 4, 7, and 8-13 remained on and near the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, Wakulla County, Florida, throughout the report period.

No. 9-13 continued south from Barren County, Kentucky, on 9 December. Satellite readings placed him at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, Alachua County, Florida, on the afternoon of 11 December where he remains.

No. 22-13 remained at the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge, Meigs County, Tennessee, throughout the report period.

No. 24-13 remained in Knox/Greene Counties, Indiana, throughout the report period and was observed associating with up to 10 other individuals.

No. 57-13 remained in Jackson County, Indiana, through at least 21 December. No subsequent reports.

No. 59-13 remained at the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, Morgan County, Alabama, throughout the report period.

2014 Cohort


No. W3-14 remained with her father in Greene County, Indiana, throughout the report period.


Seven juveniles in the ultralight-led cohort arrived at the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, Wakulla County, Florida, on 11 December. They were released from the top-netted pen on 19 December.


No. 19-14 remained with pair nos. 7-07 and 39-07 at their wintering location in Lowndes County, Georgia, throughout the report period.

No. 20-14 remained with pair nos. 9-05 and 13-03 in Greene County, Indiana. These three birds have been seen associating with pair nos. 8-04 and 19-05 at this location.

No. 27-14 remained with pair nos. 2-04 and 25-09 in Hopkins County, Kentucky, throughout the report period. Pairs nos. 24-09 and 42-09 as well as nos. 1-10 and W1-06 are also at this location. An additional pair was reported here on 24 December, however they have not yet been identified.

No recent reports 

Female no. 27-10 was last detected on the Necedah NWR, Juneau County, Wisconsin on22 April. Her transmitter is likely nonfunctional.

Long term missing 

Female no. 2-11 was last reported at her wintering location in Marion County, Florida, on 9 April 2013. She has a nonfunctional transmitter and cannot be tracked.

This update is a product of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership. To access our previous project updates and additional information on the project visit our web site at

We thank Windway Aviation Corp and pilot Jerry Burns for aerial tracking assistance. We also thank staff and volunteers from the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources and the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, Dan Kaiser, Dan Troglin, Rick Houlk, Charles Murray, and John Pohl for tracking assistance.


News From St. Marks

Life for our little Whoopers has gone from 33 1/3 rpm to 78 in what seems like minutes since their release from the top-netted pen. Freedom is like that… and it promises more change than a politician running for office. Every day is a great big new adventure for them and for us, and at times, it’s all we can do to keep up.

The marsh is a big new world and it’s a big job exploring it a – especially when you have to explore it all with the end of your nose… ah, beak. Each day, their flights are longer and more numerous, their “extramarshestrial” journeys expand in radius, and their confidence and independence grows. Here are a couple of highlights:

“Noah!  Build yourself an ark!” Last week’s three straight days of rain would have sent Noah off on a mad dash to the lumber yard. (“You want to buy enough lumber to build a WHAT”??) Chick Land was magically transformed into Water World, with Fishing Season wide open and no license required.

The pen area after three days of rain.

The pen area after three days of rain.

The call of the day was “Back stroke!” as the chicks splashed and frolicked in the thin surf and learned that probing in water is a lot more beak friendly fun than probing in mud… even with no lifeguard on duty.

Wait a minute! Come to think of it there were two lifeguards on duty… the ever present sub-adult cranes, #4 and 5-12, who stood by with attentive anticipation watching the scene endlessly unfold. “These guys… ah girls, are even more fun to watch than last year’s cohort.” commented #4. “This is going to be a fun season, don’t you think”?  #5 replied with a weak, sinister half smile.

It was late afternoon on Christmas Eve when Colleen and I watched #4-12 pull a real life “Cain and Abel” move in some twisted expression of Christmas Cheer. He and #5-12 were in the pen walking shoulder to shoulder when #4 took a healthy swig from his bottle of Christmas cheer and turned into the Whooper version of Freddy Krueger in the horror flick “Friday the 13th.”  Before you could dial 1-800-Dr. Phil, he suddenly turned his considerable psychotic holiday rage on his long time buddy and began chasing #5 first around the pen, then into the sky as he delivered his Christmas gift… “Expulsion!”

For what seemed like hours, the two carved invisible aerial crop circles against the evening sky in a whooper dog fight as dramatic as any seen on the silver screen. It was, in fact, a repeat of last year when without warning or the slightest sign of provocation, #4 also kicked #5 “to the curb.”  Poor #5 spent Christmas day in the neighboring marsh, his temporary sanctuary after his banishment last year. The following day, he flew off for the ”Land Of Who Knows Where,” leaving #4 in the pen, calling and calling with such ear splitting intensity that it left us feeling like detainees playing Jeopardy at Guantanamo Bay.

4-12 vocalizing after chasing 5-12 out of the winter release pen.

4-12 vocalizing after chasing 5-12 out of the winter release pen.

These long spasms of exorcism-like calling continued for several days after #5-12 was long gone. Was it a territorial display, we wondered?  Or was it a vain attempt to coax his old buddy to return and give him a second chance?

4-12 still calling while looking skyward.

4-12 still calling while looking skyward.

After all, life really is about second chances. Or perhaps it was just his way of commenting on the absurdity of it all.  Who knows, but whatever it was, it sure had us guessing. But then we do a lot of that while working with cranes.  It’s an occupational hazard. The only thing that can be said for sure is that the more we think we know, the less we really know and that absolute certainty is where the Devil resides.

Meanwhile, our chicks adjust with the speed of light, which is easy to do when you live exclusively in the present. No past or future to distract or trip over. It’s all “Be Here Now” and “Full speed ahead!” All we can do is sit on the edge of our seats with baited breath and observe it all unfold with the hope that, like all good Fairy Tales, this too will have a happy ending.

“So Marsha… Where was Noah when the lights went out?”

“That’s an easy one, Peanut. In the Dark!”

Happy New Year, everybody.

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ONLY FOUR Days Left to Vote!

Operation Migration’s Brooke Pennypacker has been nominated for the 2014 Eagle Rare Life Award, which could earn $50,000 for Whooping crane recovery. YOU can HELP – It’s super easy. All you have to do is CLICK HERE then CLICK Vote for this story.

Eagle Rare Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey will be awarding $50,000 to one nominee’s charity and $5,000 awards to six others in their 2015 Eagle Rare Life Awards. The voting period began on May 27th and runs until January 6, 2015. You can vote once every 24-hour period, and you can vote on each device you own. Your laptop, desktop PC, phone, tablet.

Last year, your votes helped OM earn $5000 in Citgo fuel cards so we know you can do this!

Check out Brooke’s Rare Life story by visiting the Eagle Rare site and to learn more about the awards, be sure to watch the video following the photo of our dashing pilot below. And share it! Don’t forget to share!

While you’re on the page, why not add a bookmark in your browser so you can find it daily?

Please vote EVERY day until January 6, 2015 to help Brooke (and OM) earn $50,000

Need a Crane Fix?

A fun-filled day of nature walks, live raptors, and special programs is planned when the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge holds the third annual Festival of the Cranes. Set for Jan. 10, the celebration of Sandhill Cranes and Whooping Cranes will bring together experienced birders and those who would like to learn more about birding and other wildlife that call the Refuge home.

To learn more and to plan your trip, visit the Festival page!

MileMaker Campaign REALLY Close to Goal!

It’s been just over 2 weeks since our seven young Whooping cranes in the Class of 2014 arrived at their new winter home at St. Marks NWR in Florida on December 11.

Unfortunately, we still have not reached our MileMaker goal needed to ensure we have the funding in place to cover their southward journey.

Each year we launch the MileMaker fundraising campaign – This very important campaign raises the funds necessary to carry out the aircraft-guided Whooping crane migration from Wisconsin to Florida.

The way it works is quite simple — We have determined that each mile of the southward migration has a cost of $200 associated with it. This covers insurance, fuel and maintenance costs for the ground vehicles and aircraft, food for the cranes and the crew, any repairs or maintenance required for the crane enclosures, etc.

By far, the MileMaker Campaign funds the largest portion of our annual budget and is critical to the success of our annual Whooping crane migration.

Currently, the campaign is sitting at 94% – SO close to being fully funded! Please consider becoming a MileMaker sponsor today. It’s also that time of year when you can make a first time, or additional gift to take advantage of a tax-receipt as tax time is just around the corner.

You have the choice of sponsoring a full mile ($200), a half mile ($100) or even a quarter mile ($50). In addition to helping these young Whooping cranes, your name will be entered into a draw for an incredible thank you gift, which will be held at the end of the campaign on December 31st. 

If your name is drawn you will receive a two-week stay at a private home in beautiful Costa Rica!

Sponsor a full mile and you get four entries into the Costa Rica trip – sponsor a half mile and you get two – and quarter mile sponsors receive one entry into the draw.

We’ll also list your support on the MileMaker recognition page so everyone will see that YOU CARE about a future with Whooping cranes.

Will you help?

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The Week After Christmas

Tis the week after Christmas, I sit here alone
thinking Heather needs updates, I must send her one.
It’s been so darned busy since the end of migration
and I haven’t been lazy or gone on vacation!

I’ve barely unpacked and the laundry’s not done,
But I made it through Christmas and wow it was FUN!

December was speedy, it passed like a blur.
It seems just like yesterday we were in Alabamer!
(In tiny RI we mess up our R’s
we mis-insert them and we pahk our cahs)

So how did we get to the end of the year?
I’ll try to recap how we got here from there…

At first the birds stuttered, they forgot all they learned.
They actually flew northward! They tried to return!
Two of the youngsters were pulled from the flights
and rode in the Jambo with me. “This ain’t right!!!”
Was what they were yelling as they stood in their crates,
“Give us more chances! Open the gates!”

But once in the south, those whoopers they flew!
A five-some, a two-some, against the sky so blue.

To Hardin, to Winston, to Chilton, to Lowndes,
the young-of-year whoopers cried “we’re no clowns!”.
We know how to do it, we know how to fly.
But we wanted to spend quality time in Lodi.

Pike County, Alabama, was our home for a week.
But that was ok, we needed a break.
We must get to Georgia, we must travel on.
And travel we did, with no moss a growin’!

Peanut healed nicely, he’s no longer lame.
And together with Marsha, they got in the game!
They flew behind Brooke like peas in a pod,
each time the gate opened when he gave the nod.

And Joe led the others, his harem of colts.
Number 7 was trouble, his wing she gave jolts.
Under and over and even out front,
she caused some distractions and even some bumps.

One cold night in Georgia, and then one night more
We’re ready to finish, we’re ready to ROAR!
Oops, that’s Helen Reddy and Peanut is mad.
He says he’s no woman – he’s just a young lad.

Hundreds of Craniacs gathered to see
your fly-in finale and heard you cry “WHEEEEEE!”
As you flew overhead to your target down yonder
the two-year old boyz were wide-eyed with wonder.

They hoped and they prayed that you all made the trip,
and when they counted seven, they really did flip.
They felt like they knew you from White River Marsh,
where they supervised training last summer, B’Gosh.

Despite early trials the birds finished well
and they laughed at Colleen each time she fell.
Her costume was muddy, her face rather red.
Her boots were long gone and her socks? They were dead!

Come spring you’ll get antsy, you’ll want to head north.
You’ll soar on a thermal and then you’ll go forth,
to White River Marsh where the boyz will be waitin’.
That trip will go smoother, it’ll require no cratin’!

The wild world awaits you, young whoopers all,
go grow out your feathers and deepen your call.

On Marsha, on Peanut, on Seven and Eight!
And Two, Three, and Five, you’re doing great!
The blue crabs are ready and so are the frogs,
so find them and eat them (but watch out for hogs!).

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Homosassa Springs Park Presentation

Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park will be presenting a fascinating and informative Whooping Crane program featuring the work of Operation Migration this Saturday, December 27, 2014 at 1:00 p.m. The program will be held in the Florida Room at the Park’s Visitor Center located on US 19 in Homosassa Springs. Wanda Easton of Tampa, Florida, will discuss Operation Migration and their partnership with several government and non-profit organizations to form the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP).  Under this WCEP umbrella these organizations work together to safeguard the rarest crane in the world.  Easton has been a supporter of Operation Migration for many years and has worked with Whooping Cranes as a docent at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo. There is no charge to attend this presentation in the Florida Room. Regular admission applies for entrance into the Wildlife Park.

News From St. Marks NWR Release Pen

“Pssssst… Marsha… over here.”

“What is it this time, Peanut?  Aren’t you getting just a little bit tired of trying to impress me?”

“Just listen a minute.  I think we’re getting out today!”

“But they haven’t given us our health checks or new bands yet.”

“That’s just it.  They’re not doing health checks this year.  Turns out health checks are “Optional.”  And ICF can’t come down to do the banding till January 5th.  So… they’re letting us out of the top-netted pen  TODAY!”

“Where did you hear this?  The Costumed People never talk and the “Bad Boys”, #4 and #5-12, just stand outside the pen giving us the evil eye.”

“Remember when we were at Patuxent and I was so small compared to the rest of you?  Well… I had my ear to the ground… and I heard things… things I wasn’t supposed to hear. I still do.”


“Look!  Here they come now.”


“The Costumed People!  That one on the right is that idiot pilot of ours who couldn’t find his backside with both hands.  And the other one is the very same Costumed Person who did that butt plant in the mud and walked out of her boots while singing “The Hills Are Alive… With The Sound of … Mud” as she tried to chase you into the pen that day we landed here.  Remember?”

“You’re right, Peanut!”

“Quiet now, Marsha.  Pretend you don’t see them!”

As the “Bad Boys” looked on in rapt anticipation, Colleen pulled open the pen gates and out the chicks marched into their new world of freedom.

Opening the gates to the top-netted section.

Opening the gates to the top-netted section.


While most of them headed directly for the pond, Peanut and #3-14 went after the Bad Boys, chasing them willy-nilly around the pond. Obviously not the greeting the older birds had anticipated, but then you can never trust youthful exuberance. Just too much energy and surprise for measured prediction.

After this initial burst of freedom – the most intoxicating of intoxicants, Colleen began the “Tour.” First to the feed shed and the familiar feeders, the hanging fruit of crane chow.

Touring to the feed shelter

Touring to the feed shelter


Whooping cranes 4 & 5-12 keep a watchful eye


Then to the water bubbler where a few splashing three pointer grape shots drew poolside a collection of frenzied, exploring beaks.  Then out to the second feed shed and more hanging feeders.

Exploring the fresh water bubbler

Exploring the fresh water bubbler

Finally, the oyster bar… the causeway of oyster shells covered by a few inches of water reaching a third of the way across the pond.  At its end stood the familiar plastic crane decoy – Ground Zero for the evening roosting site and reinforcement of Crane Commandment number something or other…”Though shalt roost at night in the water where the predators aren’t.”

The oyster bar - roosting location

The oyster bar – roosting location


A few exploratory flights followed as five chicks took to the air and pounded their wings against the cool marsh air as if to sense for the first time the true boundaries of their new home.  Afterwards, it was all beak.  Beak this and beak that.  As Jimmy Durante used to say, “Only the nose knows!” The Google Earth of a whooper’s world is drawn with its beak.

After a while, Colleen and I quietly exited the pen and headed for the blind, leaving the chicks to their new beginning.  The magical experience elevated our spirits so high that the mud lost its malicious suck on our every step, transforming the usual labored trudge into the ghostly glide of an apparition.

“So Marsha.  What do you think now?”

“Well, Peanut. Why don’t you text me sometime. We’ll do lunch.”

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Western Flock Winter Update

Wade Harrell, U.S. Whooping Crane Recovery Coordinator sent along the following update about the Wood Buffalo/Aransas Whooping crane population.

We successfully completed our annual whooping crane abundance survey last week, flying surveys on a record six consecutive days, beginning on Monday, December 8 and ending this past Saturday, December 13, 2014. Rarely do we get that many consecutive days of suitable weather for surveys, so we feel extremely fortunate that we were able to complete the 6 survey flights that our whooping crane  abundance survey protocol requires. Once again, Terry Liddick, pilot/biologist from our migratory birds program, served as pilot, flying a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Cessna 206. Observers were Wade Harrell, Beau Beau Hardegree (Coastal Program biologist, Corpus Christi FWS office) and Diana Iriarte (Aransas NWR biologist).

Data management and analysis once the actual survey is complete is a significant effort conducted by multiple staff members, so we won’t have the final results to present for a few months. But, I will share some general post-survey observations:

  • We consistently observed whooping cranes using every unit of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge (Blackjack, Matagorda, Tatton, Lamar and Myrtle-Foester Whitmire).
  • We observed larger than average group sizes (>8) of whooping cranes in several of our primary survey blocks, with these groups consistently observed in the Blackjack and Welder Flats primary survey These large groups often contained more than 1 family group.
  • We consistently observed 3 family groups that included 2 juveniles (i.e. commonly referred to as “twins”).
  • One pair of whooping cranes was consistently detected from each of 3 of our secondary survey areas (Holiday Beach, Powderhorn Lake (Myrtle-Foester Whitmire Unit) and Matagorda Island North)
  • We detected whooping crane pairs both further south on San Jose Island (southern portion of primary survey area) and Matagorda Island (northern portion of primary survey area) than in the past few
  • While coastal salt marsh was the most common habitat type that we observed whooping cranes using during the survey, we observed whooping cranes using a wide variety of other habitat types as well including freshwater wetlands, upland prairies and shrublands and open-water bay
  • Overall, habitat appeared to be in better condition than the past few We observed a significant amount of freshwater and green, lush vegetation in upland areas.

Several of the observations noted from last week’s survey point to an expanding whooping crane population that is exhibiting a wider range of behaviors than we have observed in the past. This “change” is to be expected as larger populations tend to have greater genetic and behavioral variability than  smaller populations do. This wider range of behavior is a positive step in the long road to recovery for this endangered species, as larger populations with more behavioral and genetic variation tend to be more resilient to environmental changes than small populations. While the Aransas-Wood Buffalo population is still relatively small (about 300), it has roughly tripled in size over the last 30 years.

This year we were also able to capture some survey video footage with GoPro cameras mounted to the outside of the plane. These are wide-angle cameras that we are hoping will help us continually improve our survey methods as well as have some video of annual changes in habitat. Over the next few weeks, we will be sorting through some of the survey video and will work to share some clips in future updates.

I want to note that the annual whooping crane abundance survey is a collective effort, with the pilot and observers in the plane only serving one small role within the overall survey. I want to personally thank Greg Birkenfeld, acting Aransas NWR project leader, for serving as overall manager of the effort, Diana Iriarte, Aransas NWR biologist, for serving as our go-to data collection technology and data management specialist, Susie Perez and Josie Farias, administrative staff at Aransas NWR, for assisting with logistics and Grant Harris and Matthew Butler from our Refuge Regional Office Inventory & Monitoring Team for survey protocol development and data analysis.

We will be flying some additional training surveys in early January in order to get 2-3 new observers up to speed and ready to start collecting data for next year’s survey.

Habitat Management on Aransas NWR: 

Unfortunately, weather conditions haven’t allowed us to conduct any planned prescribed burns on the Refuge yet, but our fire crew continues to look for the right weather window. We have plans in place to implement prescribed burns on both the Blackjack Unit and Matagorda Unit of Aransas NWR this winter.

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