And They’re OFF!

Colleen messaged me this morning saying today would be THE day the two male Whooping cranes, 5-12 and 4-14 (aka Henry and Peanut) would leave St. Marks NWR to head north.

“Ya, ya,” I said “heard that from Brooke earlier this week.”

Someone needs to remind Brooke that it’s on Fridays that 5-12 prefers to travel… They DID leave today!

Colleen sent along the following timeline via text message earlier today and Brooke concurs they have left – for real: 

10:56 flight. Back to pond. 11:39 go over north pond. Go to NW 11:57 faint signal to NW. 12:01 faint faint, fainter… 12:09 I think I’ve lost the signal

And they’re off! Safe travels boys. Peanut – follow Henry to White River Marsh!


Watching Them be Wild

I thought when I stopped flying with birds that I would never again feel that attached to an animal. The connection you share wingtip to wingtip at a thousand feet is not a common experience.

Last fall I spent the better part of three months watching another bird, one to which I had no connection at all. We didn’t share the skies or even the marsh. In fact, he was parent reared and scared to death of me or any other person. I couldn’t put on a costume and use a puppet to communicate with him. He didn’t read my body language or size up my place in his social order and in truth, I hardly ever saw him.

Of all the parent-reared birds we released last year, number 30-16 was the only one that was actually adopted. After a tumultuous start, whooping cranes 4-12 and 3-14, referred to as the Royal Couple, took him in like he was their own.

When Whooping cranes behave the way nature intended, it is not a spectator sport. This engineered family spend most of their time deep in the White River marsh. They sometimes flew to distance ponds on private property but landed out of sight of roads and houses. Occasionally I could see the tops of their heads through binoculars but mostly I listened to the steady beep coming from the leg-mounted transmitters. If I found that beep before sunrise and knew which of their favorite spots they were using to roost, I could sometimes stand on top of the truck and catch their early morning departure.

Parent Reared whooping crane colt #30-16 flies with alloparents 3-14 and 4-12. Photo: J. Duff

Three perfect birds dressed in Royal White but one with a touch of gold. They flew in formation with the chick in the middle and it seemed like the marsh created the mist only to mute the colors of autumn and highlight their beauty. I became attached without ever knowing that bird personally and I watched them leave the marsh on a cold and snowy day in December as the three headed south for the winter. 

They are back at White River now, maybe a little early. They have been spotted deep in the marsh, the adults close together and the chick a few hundred yards off.

male 30-16 was located approximately 300 yards from cranes 3-14 & 4-12. Photo: D. Pellerin

They likely chased him away now that they are back home. That’s a good sign that they may breed this year and produce their own offspring. They taught 30-16 how to migrate and to be wild, and maybe he taught them how to be good parents. And all three of them taught me to appreciate the simpler things.

Parent Reared Crane Returns to White River Marsh!

Volunteer tracker, Doug Pellerin was able to confirm the presence of Parent Reared Whooping crane number 30-16 at White River Marsh yesterday afternoon!

So this young crane did indeed return from southern Georgia with the pair consisting of 3-14 (F) and 4-12 (M) – FANTASTIC news!

Number 30-16 was the only parent reared colt to be ‘adopted’ by alloparent whooping cranes last fall. Photo: D. Pellerin

Why not Give A WHOOP! to celebrate his return!? 

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Royal Couple has Returned

… to White River Marsh!

We received a PTT hit Tuesday evening indicating female 3-14 was back at the marsh. Curious to learn whether male 4-12 and Parent Reared crane number 30-16 were also with her, Brooke sent an email to Tom Schultz.

Shortly after, Tom responded with “I didn’t have strong expectations of seeing the birds, since I knew that they often hung out deep in the marsh, but I was still hopeful.

Well, the good news is that I was able to spot them – standing among cattails, perhaps 200 yards off the road. I parked and got out to attempt to get photos, even though they were well hidden in the vegetation, and it was difficult for the my camera to find the right focal distance.

Then, after only about 20-30 seconds they suddenly took flight. I tried to grab a few shots as they flew (see attached), but at that point I sure wished that I had set my camera to rapid-fire mode. Perhaps you can tell who they are from the photos, even though the view of the bands isn’t great – but I suspect that they were “The Royal Couple”. Unfortunately there were only two of them there, so perhaps 30-16 is no longer with them?”

Young 30-16 was the only crane to not receive a remote tracking device last fall when he was released. He does, however, have a VHF radio so Doug Pellerin will be listening for his beeps on a tracking excursion this week. We’ll let you know when/where he turns up (the young crane – not Doug).

We know 30-16 wintered in south Georgia with this pair and it’s typical for adults to chase off youngsters when breeding season rolls around so hopefully, he’s just been chased away and is still in the area.

In the meantime, enjoy a couple of photos captured by Tom Schultz yesterday morning!

Whooping cranes 3-14 and 4-12 among the cattails at White River Marsh, in Green Lake County, WI. Photo: T. Schultz

A close crop indicates male 4-12 on the right and female 3-14 on the left. Photo: T. Schultz

2017 Season Details

The scientific name of the Whooping Crane is Grus americana but I always thought it should be Grus problematica. One would think it would be simple to switch from the aircraft-led migration method that required months of training to a parent-reared method where nature does much of the work, but that’s not the case. I will try to explain some of the complications but I warn you, it will take some time and the results will likely provide more questions than answers.

The Whooping Crane Recovery Team must balance the allocation of the available eggs between the Louisiana Non-Migratory Population (LNMP) and the Eastern Migratory Population (EMP). To do that they have proposed that the eggs produced in the captive breeding centers should go to Louisiana and the EMP should use eggs that can be collected from the nesting birds at Necedah NWR. 

For the past three years, the biologist at Necedah has been experimenting with a forced re-nesting study. The early nests produced at Necedah every spring seem to coincide with peak of black fly season so he has been collecting all the eggs from half the nests and leaving the other half as his control group. Pairs that lose their eggs early in the incubation cycle will often re-nest, and that generally occurs after the short black fly season has run its course. Those later nests are generally more successful. In fact, twenty-three chicks were hatched last year at Necedah. There is a downside to this practice, as it requires intensive management. A full time team must monitor the cranes and the air temperatures to estimate when the black flies will emerge and when to collect the eggs. Long-term, intensive management is not one of the characteristics of a self-sustaining flock. Still, the Refuge is willing to continue for now as it provides eggs that will hatch into chicks that we can then release into the Wisconsin Rectangle. A few nests just outside of Necedah are also affected by the black fly issue. More eggs could be collected if they included those nests; however, they have to guesstimate when to limit collection lest they overwhelm the captive breeding centers with eggs.

Nest abandonment happens quickly when the black flies are thickest. The eggs are collected over a short time period and are transferred to ICF, and maybe eventually to Patuxent in Maryland. That means the captive centers are inundated with eggs around the same time that their captive birds are producing, resulting in a heavy workload.

That same principle of multiple clutches is also applied to the captive breeding cranes. Eggs collected from them are hatched in incubators, prompting them to produce more. Except, of course, if they have to stop the production and allow the adults to raise young chicks for the parent-reared (PR) project. That balancing act limits the breeding centers to a combined production to around fifteen parent-reared birds per breeding season.

There is also a Canadian Whooping Crane breeding center at the Calgary Zoo in Alberta. Last year, they produced three parent-reared chicks but could not get them into the U.S. in time for a release in Wisconsin. Shipping live animals across the Canada/U.S. border usually involves livestock transported in trucks or on trains. There are only a few ports of entry at airports that can deal with animals, including endangered birds. The only commercial aircraft flying out of Calgary to the nearest of those entry points does not have cargo doors large enough to handle the crates in which the cranes are transported. Instead, they were flown in a larger aircraft to Texas, which is much closer to Louisiana, so they were added to that release program.

All of this has to do with eggs collected from the wild or produced in captivity. And, just like every year, that’s a guessing game played by professionals with years of experience with captive breeding birds. But not all of the eggs hatch. The formula for calculating the number of eggs that will hatch into chicks is roughly 75 percent, and 75 percent of those that hatch will survive to be released. That calculation has been simplified and updated recently to 59 percent of fertile eggs will result in releasable chicks.

To all of this balancing, calculating, estimating and guessing, WCEP has added another variable. We also hope to produce a small group of costume-reared whooping cranes in 2017. If approved, and if there are enough eggs available, and if the captive centers can handle the workload, we may be moving six to eight costume-reared chicks to the White River Marsh pen facilities early in the season. Our first objective it to get more birds into the Wisconsin Rectangle but we also want to experiment with improvements to the PR release method.

One of the issues that concerned WCEP last year was the inability or reluctance of some of the PR birds to fly when they were first released. That is not surprising, considering that Whooping Cranes fledge at 80 to 100 days of age. For the parent-reared birds, that happens when they are in captivity where they can’t get airborne for more than a few yards. The costume-reared cranes we will raise at White River Marsh will spend the summer learning to fly at the appropriate time. This fall when both the costume-reared and parent-reared cranes are released, we will be able to compare the difference.

Philopatry, or their propensity to return to where they were introduced, is also a problem. Birds that are released late in the fall may not form an affiliation to the area as a wild crane would to its natal area. Costume-reared birds at White River Marsh will spend the entire summer there and, during that time, we expect they will have opportunities to interact with some of the adults that use the marsh. Although it will be a small sample size, by the spring of 2018 we should be able to compare the behavior of both groups.

Our job is to replicate the natural life cycle of these birds as best we can. Ideally, the cranes we reintroduce would spend as much time as possible in the wild, so the plan is to transport them to White River Marsh at the earliest shippable age, around 35 days. Our pen facilities include a dry pen that is fully enclosed and a visually open wet pen where the cranes can roost at night. If this all works out, we will enlarge that pen to include not only the water but also more uplands. We will seed the pen with natural foods like insects and crawfish so the chicks learn to forage as they would in the wild.

Ideally, chicks would spend the summer with their parents and maybe in the future we could arrange for some adult role models during that time. That would be about as close as we could come to providing a natural environment for reintroduced cranes but it wouldn’t be easy. We may be able to use captive adults that are too old to reproduce, yet still have nurturing skills – if they exist. And what do we do with them over the winter while the chicks they raised head south? And how many chicks could a pair raise? Two would be the maximum in the wild but that means we’d need lots of non-reproductive adults to act as alloparents, and many pens to get a reasonable sample size.  Still, it would be an interesting learning opportunity with much to gain if it worked.

As I mentioned earlier, twenty-three chicks were hatched at Necedah last year and I am sure you all know that none of those birds survived. With intense nest management, the black fly problem has been circumvented, at least for now, but we don’t yet know what is causing the post-hatch mortality. This year, OM’s ecologist, Jeff Fox, will be working with Refuge Biologist, Brad Strobel, and Professor Misty McPhee from UW Oshkosh to find out what is happening to those chicks during that vulnerable stage before they can fly. The new study, <strong>Survival and Cause-Specific Mortality of Whooping Crane Chicks on the Necedah NWR</strong> has been approved for this year. According to Pete Fasbender, Field Supervisor for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Twin Cities Ecological Services Field Office, <em>“There is not higher priority for our eastern U.S. reintroduction project to achieve success than determining the cause of Whooping Crane chick mortality in their first 90 days of life.”</em>

The Whooping Crane Recovery Team recently conducted a population viability analysis (PVA) that included all the Whooping Crane populations. For the EMP it was determined that only a moderate reduction of mortality from egg to fledge, from 92-96% to ~ 85% is needed to stabilize the population and eventually reach our self-sustaining goal.

We have two pairs that frequent the White River Marsh that have now reached breeding age. We hope to relocate our camera, getting it close enough to monitor at least one pair during their incubation and, with luck, be able to track them as they introduce their chick to the surrounding habitat. Remember that “the beast” was so named for a reason, it will not be easy relocating it deep in the marsh, or guessing where the birds will nest before that process begins. But, if we are successful, it will be the first time in history that nesting and nurturing Whooping Cranes will be captured on streaming video and broadcast live.

If all of this comes to fruition, it will be a busy season. We will be monitoring nesting birds in the spring and attempting to capture one pair on camera. Depending on egg availability/survival, we will be caring for costume-reared chicks at the White River Marsh pen and assisting with the releases and intensive monitoring in the fall, while trying to determine what is causing the loss of all those chicks at Necedah. Plus, we have our ongoing job of capturing the growing list of birds that must be captured to replace non-functioning transmitters.

This is just an outline of the plan and a lot of details have yet to be finalized within the various WCEP teams. Each project has pros, cons, and a hundred variables. If we can sort them out ourselves, we will keep you posted.

Capturing Cranes

Dr. Richard Urbanek has worked with cranes for most of his career with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Well before this eastern population began, Richard was experimenting with Sandhill cranes in hopes of eventually beginning a reintroduction of Whooping cranes. He was a biologist at the Seney National Wildlife Refuge in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

I first met Richard in 1995 when he came to Canada to give us tips on raising Sandhill cranes back when we first started. When the Eastern Migratory Population began and the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership was established, Richard was the likely choice for lead biologist and he moved to Necedah.

In 2005, Richard began what eventually grew into the Direct Autumn Release (DAR) project and he was the first researcher to suspect that Black flies were causing nest abandonment. He is an expert tracker, handler and for many years, was responsible for all of the WCEP transmitters and ID bands.

Banding birds means they must be captured and handled, which is in violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. To do this legally, a permit is required for specific species and the process is managed by the Bird Banding Lab located at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. The permits are valid for three years and some states require additional permits, but it is not simply a matter of applying. To protect wild birds, experience is mandatory.

Dr. Urbanek retired from the Fish and Wildlife Service last year but he still holds a banding permit for Whooping cranes. After spending a lifetime dedicated to the continued existence of a species, his passion didn’t end with his retirement.

The VHF tracking devices that we use to monitor the birds only last an average of three years, which is impressive considering they send out a signal constantly in all kinds of conditions. Consequently, a large percentage of the cranes in the eastern flyway don’t have working transmitters. Operation Migration has volunteered a team to opportunistically capture them and replace those non-functional devices. Brooke is adept at this task but does not have a permit, so Richard has volunteered with Operation Migration. This allows him to continue the work he loves, gives Brooke some help and provides us with a permit.

Recently Richard travelled to Goose Pond FWA in Indiana to meet the new manager, check on cranes and see if any captures were possible. Brooke is still in Florida, so he had to recruit some volunteers to help. He recorded the confirmed location of twenty-one cranes and made eleven capture attempts.

4-08, 34-09, 10-09, 17-07, W10-15 and 23-10 in Greene Co, IN. Photo: Dan Kaiser

Often the birds were too deep in the marsh to have even a reasonable chance. At other times, wild birds close to the cranes flushed at Richard’s approach, causing the Whooping cranes to also take off. He did manage to capture 7-11 and replace a dead transmitter. Catching cranes that are wary of people is not easy, especially in open territory where they can easily walk or fly away. One successful capture in 5 or 6 days is a good showing. 

Whooping crane #7-11 gets a new VHF transmitter. From L to R: Dr. Urbanek, S Smith, A Gillet and A Kearns. Photo: Dan Kaiser

Dr. Urbanek, in costume gets close to cranes 3-11 & 7-11 in an attempt to capture 7-11. Photo: Dan Kaiser


It happens every year about this time. The Countdown, I mean, to when the birds will finally “Blast-off” on their migration north to Wisconsin. And it always begins with the question, “So Brooke, when are they going to LEAVE”? It’s the question everybody I see, everybody I have ever seen, everybody I ever will see… I mean, EVERYBODY asks me. I can’t even turn on the TV without the actors looking out at me, wearing that look of mock sincerity, asking, “When”?  It gets to the point where all I can do is drop to my knees in a “duck and cover” and scream “INCOMING!” at the approach of any and all creatures… with legs.

You would think that after all these years I would have a really good answer.  And I do.  In fact, I have two.  One I stole from the late, great treasure hunter, Mel Fisher, who when asked when he was going to locate the treasure galleon, Atocha, would respond, “Today’s the Day!” The second, I stole from the late, great trumpeter swan reintroduction pilot and dear friend, Mark Reese, who when asked a question to which there was no answer would answer anyway by leaning in close to the inquisitor and answer in a quiet, almost conspiratorial voice as if delivering the secret of the very universe itself, “Nobody knows.”

When I first became involved in this phase of the project, I asked one of the WCEP crew members that had monitored the birds for years at Chassahowitzka, “How do you know when they’re going to leave.” I was anticipating an answer that involved temperatures, wind velocities and directions and lunar phases as well as acts of God. But the answer was as simple as it was embarrassing. “One morning, you’ll go out to the pen and they’ll be gone.” Now, why didn’t I think of that!

And so, our first year monitoring the birds here at St Marks, Bev said, “I want to be there when the birds leave.”  She spent every day, dawn till dusk, out in the pen observing, beginning a couple of weeks or more before we thought they might “go.” And in those hours and days, the subtle germination of pre-launch played out and grew in intensity. The birds began eating more, flying more, doing their crane things as usual but with an increase in urgency. Then the periodic listening began. They would periodically stop, weather-vaning their bodies north as if hearing the faint whisper of Mother Nature commanding them to “Come.”

“They’re leaving Monday morning!” Bev announced on Friday with all the excitement of one who had just discovered the secret of how the great magician performed the trick. Later that day, Joe from the St. Marks Photo Club hailed us down on the highway. “I just got a new long lens from a guy in California on eBay and I wanted to get some shots of the birds.” “Monday!” we replied, with all the assurance of true believers who think they have their fingers firmly pressed against the cosmic pulse. “Come Monday!”

Monday morning broke bluebird clear as the three of us huddled together in the blind. Camera, scope and binoculars at the ready and our breaths abbreviated by anticipation, we looked out at the pen against the harsh, morning light. The birds were doing their usual bird things only with just a little more vigor and assurance. The record was playing at a slightly increased RPM. A couple of practice flights followed, accompanied by increased vocalization as their confidence and certainty grew. Then, after a few trips to the feeder for last minute refueling, the inaudible starting gun sounded and they were off… first, thermaling in ever widening circles to altitude, joined as if in comic relief by a single young white pelican who happened to be in the area. Then, as if attaining compass calibration and a GPS satellite lock, they headed off north on the greatest adventure of their so very young lives.

And so this morning, I ask myself, “So Brooke.  When are Henry and Peanut going to leave?”  I involuntarily flinch at the question but slowly gather myself into a credible pose, turn and face my inquisitor and with great assurance answer.  “Today.  They’re leaving today!”  Then I pause to discover with surprise that today, I really mean it!

Stay tuned!

Crane Transport Flight Needed

In the late 1990’s, Bill Lishman became the first person to fly in formation with a flock of birds. He documented his great adventure by producing a homespun video called C’mon Geese, which won a number of film festival awards.

Terry Kohler was a Wisconsin businessman, an entrepreneur, a conservationist and a lifelong friend of Dr George Archibald. Terry was also an avid pilot with a fleet of aircraft including a business jet, (Cessna, Citation) and helicopter (Bell, Jet Ranger) and a turboprop (Cessna, Caravan). As it happened, Terry saw Bill’s video one day and passed it on to George with a note saying something like, “Do you think this could be used to teach Whooping cranes to migrate”?

A lot of things changed after that. I put aside a lucrative photography career. Bill and I formed Operation Migration and George joined our Board of Directors. We experimented with Canada geese, Trumpeter swans and Sandhill cranes. We worked with Columbia Pictures to make the movie “Fly Away Home,” helped establish the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership and began reintroducing Whooping cranes into the eastern flyway.

Terry Kohler also stayed involved. In 2000, while the US Fish and Wildlife Service obtained all the permits and permission for the reintroduction, we conducted a preliminary experiment with Sandhill cranes. Terry used his helicopter to help us collect eggs from the wild. When the reintroduction finally began in 2001, Terry’s crew flew his Caravan from Sheboygan to Baltimore. They spent the night in a hotel so they could load ten young and inexperienced Whooping cranes in the early morning before the heat of the day added to the stress of their ordeal. By noon, they landed at the quiet, little Necedah airport without so much as a ruffled feather. Over the next 15 years, Terry was responsible for 32 round trip flights, delivering 209 Whooping cranes from Patuxent in Maryland to their new home in Wisconsin. On top of that generosity, Terry flew swans from Alaska, cranes to Alabama and once flew around the world delivering Siberian cranes to Russia for ICF. In fact, many cranes that now migrate in the wild once flew on one of Terry’s aircraft.                                        

Cessna Caravan, unloading cranes in Wisconsin

In year one of the Whooping crane reintroduction, Terry purchased a hangar that we found for sale at the Necedah airport. When he stopped in for a visit a year or two later, he realized it had a sand floor, so that winter he had it paved. He also had it insulated and hooked up the power giving us lights.

During our early morning migration flights, our departures were often delayed until the sun melted away the frost that accumulated on the wings. Fabric wings are difficult to scrape very effectively and glycol is messy, expensive and awkward. So, one day I bought 75 yards of Velcro, a bolt of black, waterproof nylon and a cheap sewing machine, and spent several down days making a wing cover. I am not much of a sewer and that cover was a hack job with crooked seams and lots of threads hanging out, but it worked. It fit so snug around the wing that you could push the aircraft out, start the engine and do all the pre-takeoff checks. Then you could rip apart all the Velcro seams before climbing in. The cover just hung over the wing protecting it from frost until the last possible minute. When it was time to go you simply dipped one wing and the cover, along with its coating of frost, slipped to the ground. We were airborne before any new frost could form.

That cover worked well but we needed more than one. I had yards of fabric laid out on the hangar floor when Terry walked in one day. He shook his head at my meandering seams while I explained what I was doing. With a smile, he reminded me that he owned one of the largest sail making companies in the world. He left with my original prototype as a pattern and a week later, we had five new wing covers with straight seams, professional corners, and like a badge of honor, each one displayed a big circular North Sail logo.   

North Sail wing covers prevented frost delays

Terry Kohler passed away last September at age 82. We lost a great conservationist, a supporter and a friend. Terry left behind many legacies, not the least of which can be seen migrating in the skies of his home state. But the work he supported is not yet complete and those all-important flights are still needed, now more than ever as we get closer to our goal. We are searching for another pilot/owner with an interest in the creatures that taught us all to fly.

The Calgary Zoo in Alberta, Canada is able to raise three or four Parent-Reared Whooping crane chicks this year but getting into the U.S. is problematic. A number of Ports-of-Entry along the U.S/Canada border are able to process live animals imported into America but they normally deal with livestock transported by trucks or trains. The closest Port-of-Entry at an airport is in Chicago, but the only commercial aircraft flying between Calgary and Chicago does not have cargo doors to its pressurized hold that are large enough to accept the custom made crates in which the cranes are shipped. So we are desperately seeking a generous pilot to fly these precious birds from Calgary, through Chicago to the airport at Oshkosh, which is 25 miles from the White River Marsh.

The flight is not needed until mid to late September but we must find someone before the team at the Calgary Zoo go to all the work of Parent Rearing these chicks only to find we have no way to deliver them. We are looking for a Cessna Caravan type aircraft so if you know of anyone with a large aircraft, a love of birds and a philanthropic spirit, please pass on our plea. 


Who doesn’t love a good sale?  Check out OM’s “Marketplace”

We’ve reduced a number of items due to low inventory so don’t wait… the “early bird gets the worm.” 

Proudly show your love of Whooping cranes with the Wild for WHOOPERS sweatshirt. Very comfortable and warm, featuring an adult Whooping crane with magnificent outstretched wings.

Celebrate 15 years of flying with Whooping cranes, 17,457 miles over 8 states, with this short sleeved, unisex T-shirt.  Fantastic artwork depicting our history with the Whoopers!


People still like receiving cards in the mail. How about sending a note to friend letting them know you are thinking about them. The Springett Blank Notecards would be perfect! 8 cards featuring 4 images (2 of ea.) of the original Whooping crane oil paintings by artist and friend of cranes, Jimmie Springett. 

OM’s black wristband is also on sale. Very limited quantities on this item.  Order now!

Finally, the very, unique Whooping crane socks. Have you noticed how popular character socks are these days? Seems like all the stores are carrying them – but nobody has Whoopers on their socks except for OM. Pick up a pair for yourself or loved one today before they are all gone!

Vikings Stadium is Killing Birds

A number of conservation groups and researchers expressed concern for birds when plans for the new US Bank Stadium in Minnesota were unveiled in 2014. Turns out they were right to be concerned.

US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, MN.

The mostly glass $1.1 billion structure reflects the sky and trees in the area and birds can’t distinguish the glass barrier.

The Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority is conducting a 3-year study to determine the effects on migratory birds passing through the area but volunteers who patrol the facility looking for stunned or dead birds know firsthand the building is killing birds.

Read more.

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The Peanut Gallery

As the curtain begins closing on this year’s winter monitoring season, we sit in the blind looking out over the marsh, observing the activities of Peanut and Henry.  And it reminds me of another time long ago… when the simple act of sitting and watching held equal joy and magic.

“Hey kids.  What time is it”?

”It’s Howdy Doody time!” we hollered back excitedly at Buffalo Bob from our seats in the “Peanut Gallery.”

And so began our 1950’s childhood TV favorite, “The Howdy Doodie Show.” We raced into our living rooms Saturday mornings to take our seats, front row-center, in the “Peanut Gallery” where we bathed in the black and white remote-less-connectivity-box-television glow while a red haired, 48 freckle-faced marionette named “Howdy Doodie” and his wonderful world became ours. For the next half an hour, this little fellow moved before us at the end of his eleven strings amongst an assemblage of quirky, enchanting stringed characters; each as familiar as family but a lot more fun.

There was Mayer Phinius T. Buster, and Dilly Dally, and Flub-a Dub, and Heidi Doodie. And the humans; the cowboy garbed host and ringmaster, Buffalo Bob Smith. And Clarabelle the Clown, who spoke volumes to us in mime (played by the guy who would later reincarnate as “Captain Kangaroo”… which proved to us that in America, everyone is entitled to a “Second Act.”) And my favorite, Chief Thundercloud, who would punctuate the absurdity of it all by mugging the camera for a close-up while giving voice to the one piece of dialog that physicist Steven Hawking would later proclaim as the single word which best sums up the universe and all that it contains, “KOWABUNGA”!

And now, all these years later, I’m still sitting and watching… from the “Peanut Gallery.” As Colleen chronicled in her update last week, Mack and 8-14 have left the building, racing north in hopes of picking out a good nesting spot. Their void was quickly filled by Henry and Peanut who almost immediately flew in to take over possession of the pen. Like a Hermit crab moving into a bigger shell, they have upgraded and seem perfectly content to spend their days probing sand and mud with their beaks, vacuuming up any and all tiny offerings within. They often move so close together that one often appears to be the living shadow of the other… so much so that when they finally do move apart, we think we’re suddenly seeing double. At night, they roost in familiar comfort and safety on the oyster bar.

But way out, just beyond the pen and the marsh and the far tree line, the natural symphony of marsh sounds are joined by the backstage racket of that greatest puppeteer of them all, Mother Nature, as she tensions the strings controlling Peanut and Henry and prepares for the drama’s grand finale, Migration. Very soon she will yank them up off the stage and into the sky for the journey north, and after a time set them back down on another stage… White River Marsh or southern Illinois or who knows where. Then this curtain will close, this screen will fade to black, and we will feel very much alone and abandoned.

But not yet. We’ll leave that for tomorrow, or the day after or the day after that. For now, we enjoy the finale… and continue to watch the wonder of it all unfold from our perch… in the “Peanut Gallery.”


Birdwatcher hopes to raise awareness in death of whooping crane

  • UPDATE – Kevin informs us the date of his event has been changed to March 25th.

An avid birdwatcher is gathering bird lovers and hunters to raise awareness about the death of a whooping crane earlier this year.

Kevin Cornell is hosting a gathering at the Walmart in Linton on Saturday, March 25th to raise awareness of the death of the whooping crane, known as 4-11. The informational gathering has been titled “Justice for 4-11.”

The Indiana Department of Natural Resources is investigating the death of whooping crane, found on Jan. 3 near Lyons in the area of Goose Pond Fish and Wildlife Area.

Since announcing the death of the endangered crane, which is believed to have been shot by a high-powered rifle, several organizations have come together to establish a $16,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the individuals responsible for killing the bird.

Cornell said he encourages bird watchers, hunters and environmental enthusiasts to turn out for the gathering starting at 9 a.m. He said the goal is spread awareness about the death of the crane by handing out flyers to passers-by and discussing the importance of protecting endangered animals. 

“You’re so blessed to have these birds there (in Greene County) on a regular basis. I’ve seen up to 18 at Goose Pond at once,” Cornell said.

“I’m asking hunters to attend, too, because people who are poaching give them a bad name,” Cornell explained.

Cornell said he has spoken with the managers at the local Walmart to coordinate and get permission for the gathering.

If anyone has information about the poaching of the whooping crane, contact the Indiana Conservation Officer Dispatch at 1-812-837-9536 or the tip line at 1-800-TIP-IDNR.

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Counting Cranes – Debate Continues

Aransas Wildlife Refuge biologist Tom Stehn conducted Whooping Crane census flights for 29 years at Aransas during which he tried to find every crane. When Tom Stehn retired from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2011, the agency changed from doing a weekly Whooping Crane census to conducting a survey that takes place for approximately one week each December. 

Unlike a census, a survey incorporates a technique called “distance sampling” where not every crane is counted but estimates of the cranes not seen are based on how far observed cranes were from the aircraft when sighted. Unfortunately, the margin of error for this survey is quite large, equaling plus or minus 39 cranes for the estimated wild flock of 338 during the winter of 2016.

In January 2017, Dr. Bruce Pugesek, Montana State University and Tom Stehn, published an article in the Proceedings of the 13th North American Crane Workshop entitled “THE UTILITY OF CENSUS OR SURVEY FOR MONITORING WHOOPING CRANES IN WINTER”. The article compares the survey and census methods of counting Whooping Cranes.

The abstract is provided below. To download the entire text of the paper, click this link: WHOOPING-CRANE-CENSUS-OR-SURVEY

1 Department of Ecology, Montana State University, Bozeman, MT 59717, USA
THOMAS V. STEHN, 1613 South Saunders Street, Aransas Pass, TX 78336, USA

Abstract: We discuss recent changes in the monitoring program for endangered whooping cranes (Grus americana) on their winter habitat in Texas. A 61-year annual census was replaced in the winter of 2011-2012 with a distance sampling procedure. Justification for the change was, in part, based on criticism of the previous methods of counting cranes and the assessment of crane mortality on the wintering grounds. We argue here that the arguments, methods, and analyses employed to discount the census procedure and mortality estimates were applied incorrectly or with flawed logic and assertions. We provide analysis and logical arguments to show that the census and mortality counts were scientifically valid estimates. The distance sampling protocol currently employed does not provide the accuracy needed to show small annual changes in population size, nor does it provide any estimate of winter mortality. Implications of the relative merit of census and mortality counts versus distance sampling surveys are discussed in the context of management of the whooping crane.