Just the Facts

In an article in the Wisconsin State Journal on August 18 Wade Harrell, coordinator of the Whooping Crane Recovery Team, was asked to comment on the departure of OM from the Whooping Crane Recovery Team. He was very gracious about our contribution but again skirted around the real issue. Here is a link to the article and below, a few excerpts, and facts that he avoided.

“The eastern migration population of cranes that Operation Migration nurtured in Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Juneau County now has over 100 members”, said Wade Harrell, Fish & Wildlife Service whooping crane recovery coordinator. “The number is encouraging but the flock is struggling to raise wild chicks and changes need to be made, he said.” 

Changes included cutting Operation Migration’s plane-led migration training for baby birds — which Harrell said jump-started the cranes’ reintroduction to the wild — and shifting raising of the chicks from human caregivers to captive adult cranes.“The changes may help the cranes learn natural rearing abilities, thus reducing chick mortality rates,” Harrell said. 

But Harrell said “the flock needs to focus on the unique challenges posed by their environment and circumstances. With sturdy numbers, the eastern migration population needs to focus on raising “natural” chicks, rather than pure chick numbers, so they can sustain themselves. The more that we can mimic Mother Nature in how we raise a chick in captivity, the more wild it will be when released,” he said.


The Fish and Wildlife Service and the Whooping Crane Recovery Team insist the cause of low reproduction within the Eastern Migratory Population (EMP) is a result of artificiality – especially in the way Operation Migration raised the birds. Rather than the cranes being raised by people in costume, they directed WCEP to release only cranes that were raised in captivity by real Whooping crane parents. In other words, we could only release parent-reared birds as opposed to costume-reared birds.

Their idea is that birds raised by costumed people miss some nurturing lessons that would help them defend their own offspring once they mature. Inattentive parents, they suggest, is the reason up to 20 or so chicks that hatch each spring at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge die before they learn to fly.

There are many factors that suggest this strategy is wrong but they continue to ignore the facts:

Fact one: Parent-rearing has been used numerous times in the past. It was even used to release Mississippi Sandhill cranes but the technique did not improve reproduction success.

Fact two: There is no way to test the benefits of parent-rearing within the EMP. Even if it was a superior method, it is impossible to demonstrate those results. The EMP is a mix of Whooping cranes raised by various means including costume-reared, parent-reared, Direct Autumn Release (DAR), Ultralight-led and even a few wild hatched chicks. If a parent-reared crane breeds with a DAR crane or an ultralight crane, how is it possible to determine which method led to the success or failure of that pair to raise a chick? So how is the Recovery Team going to tell if those “cranes learn natural rearing abilities, thus reducing chick mortality rates”. Even if two parent reared cranes paired and bred successfully it would be a sample size of one and nothing on which to base any sort of conclusion.

Fact three: The only way to test the superiority of parent-rearing would be to flood the landscape with chicks raised using that release method. If enough of them survived to breed, they would be able to see a clear delineation in breeding success, but the Recovery Team has restricted the number of chicks available to the EMP so that method is not available.

Fact four: It has been known since 2007 that black flies at Necedah cause nest abandonment. Those numbers of black flies do not exist at the White River Marsh State Wildlife Area and the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge, so in 2011, WCEP moved the project to those new locations. However, not enough chicks have been allocated to the program to test those new habitats. Instead, the success of the EMP is judged solely on chick survival at Necedah.

Fact five: It has been known since 2010 that even if a pair can hatch a chick at Necedah, the chances of it surviving long enough to learn to fly are almost zero. However, the cause of that mortality is still unknown and plans to manage that habitat for Whooping cranes has not been developed.

Fact six: Sandhill cranes, which occur naturally in Wisconsin can’t keep their chicks alive at Necedah either. Over the last two years the productivity of Sandhill cranes at Necedah has been studied and the results indicate that they are not doing any better than the Whooping cranes. In fact, this year it seems they are doing far worse. So if a naturally raised Sandhill crane can’t breed successfully at Necedah how can reintroduced cranes be successful there? The Recovery Team and the Fish and Wildlife Service however would rather blame OM than admit that their selection of Necedah as a reintroduction site was a mistake from the beginning.

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Operation Migration Resigns From WCEP & Dissolves Organization

Operation Migration took flight 25 years ago when two artists-turned-aviators developed a method of teaching birds a new migratory route. The innovative approach helped stabilize the dwindling population of the magnificent Whooping crane.

Bill Lishman and Joe Duff developed the aircraft-guided migration method into an effective means of reintroducing endangered Whooping cranes into an area they had not inhabited in over a century.

Our first migration flight leading Whooping cranes occurred in 2001 – shortly after the 9-11 attack on the United States. It was a time when the nation needed an uplifting story; one of ordinary people working to save an endangered, North American species.

For 15 years, Operation Migration pilots and a dedicated ground crew led Whooping cranes on a journey toward survival. During those years, we contributed more than $10 million dollars and covered 17,457 miles with a total of 186 trusting Whooping cranes trailing off our wingtips.

Each of the cranes that survived the winter period in Florida returned north the following spring, and continued to migrate annually thereafter. Gradually, the number of cranes began to increase, giving hope for the species, which in the 1940s numbered only 15.

The aircraft-guided migration method was ended in the fall of 2015 when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a document titled “FWS Vision for the Next 5-year Strategic Plan” that claimed the method was “too artificial.” They suggested that cranes raised by our costumed handlers resulted in inattentive parents that did not adequately protect their offspring.

We continued work for another 3 years based upon our belief that the goal of a self-sustaining Eastern Migratory Population of Whooping cranes was attainable. However, with new management directives authorized by the Whooping Crane Recovery Team and implemented by Region 3 of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, we no longer believe this goal to be achievable.

As a result, we cannot continue, in good faith, to accept contributions or justify assigning our staff and volunteers to carry out the work outlined in the strategic plan imposed on the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP).

This led us to an extremely difficult decision: The management and Board of Directors are withdrawing Operation Migration from membership and participation in WCEP and dissolving the organization. This decision is heartbreaking for us all but we have exhausted all possible avenues to avoid this outcome.

Supporters from around the world have generously contributed to Operation Migration’s aircraft-guided work, its successful costume-rearing program, and education and research efforts, all of which have contributed to the recovery of Whooping crane. When our work began there were fewer than 500 Whooping cranes in North America. Today, the species total stands at more than 700 – a significant part of the increase is attributable to your help.

While disappointed that we were unable to achieve our long-term goal to establish a self-sustaining Whooping crane population, we take great pride in Operation Migration’s accomplishments, which your support and time helped to make possible:

  • Hundreds of thousands of people are more aware of the plight of Whooping cranes and wetlands thanks to our blog posts for the past 19 years;
  • Our partnership with Journey North, a distance learning program, brought information about Whooping cranes to millions of school-aged children worldwide;
  • We hosted the first-ever LIVE streaming camera featuring wild Whooping cranes; 
  • We raised awareness for the Whooping crane and gained global attention for the efforts to save them through the aircraft-guided program for 15 years. Our work was featured in numerous news stories, documentaries and published in many books and magazines that inspired people to care about, and take action for these vulnerable cranes;
  • The reintroduced Whooping cranes are avoiding humans, selecting proper habitat, pairing with other Whooping cranes and are producing offspring;
  • Aircraft used in our work are now on display at three distinguished locations: Disney’s Animal Kingdom, The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), as reminders that people can take innovative action to help wildlife species in trouble;
  • Operation Migration contributed images to numerous educational textbooks over the past 20 years to help tell the story of Whooping cranes to students of all ages;
  • Our work garnered the attention and support of President Jimmy Carter and noted conservationist Jane Goodall.

We are grateful for the awards we have received over the years, which include:

  • 2002 National Wildlife Federation “Conservation Achievement Award;
  • 2003 Canada Post “Canadian Environmental Award”;
  • 2004 The Whooping Crane Conservation Association “Honor Award”;
  • 2006 American Birding Association, Partners in Flight “Outstanding Contribution to Bird Conservation”;
  • 2009 U.S. Dept. Of The Interior “Partners in Conservation Award”.

So many accomplishments, and all achieved with your help. We want to extend our heartfelt gratitude to all Operation Migration members, supporters, volunteers, and staff (past and present).

Your financial and emotional support kept us going more than you will ever know during many stressful and trying periods over the past 18 years of this reintroduction project. You have been like family to us.

There would not be Whooping cranes migrating over eastern North America without your support.

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Invading Personal Space

Henry (#5-12) doesn’t like it much when those pesky Sandhill cranes invade HIS alfalfa field!

He promptly, and in not so many words, asked the Sandhill to vacate. Photo: H. Ray


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Have you Registered Yet?

The festival is FAST approaching!

It takes place the second weekend in September with activities getting underway Friday, Sept. 7th with a guided tour of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) Museum where one of our ultralights is now on display!

Friday evening the festival kick-off dinner gets underway at 6pm at the American Legion Post 306 in Green Lake, Wisconsin. We’ll have a fantastic buffet dinner, followed by a presentation by Operation Migration’s CEO Joe Duff and Associate Professor Misty McPhee, lead researcher overseeing research taking place at Necedah NWR. Advance reservations are required!

Saturday, Sept. 8th brings the all-day FREE festival for all ages at the Princeton School. Kids can take part in one of the interactive and informative sessions with David Stokes – the snake, turtle, frog man. Kids can also build their own birdhouse, have their face painted or take part in some of the other fun activities. 

We have a fabulous speakers line-up this year for the adults, so check it out and make plans to attend one or all of the sessions throughout the day.

Arrive early and take part in the pancake breakfast put on by the Princeton School students. The hotcakes start flipping on the griddle at 8am!

Stay for lunch and enjoy many local food offerings, including brats, cheesecake and many other favorites. Place bids on the silent auction items lining the school hallways! (Winning bids will be announced at 2:30pm).

The Vendors Marketplace will open at 8am and what a great opportunity to support local artisans and get your holiday shopping started! If you’re a vendor and would like to reserve a booth, we still have a few spaces left but you had better hurry. Please email: cranefestival@operationmigration.org

Saturday evening we’ll see a Crane Trivia re-match! The VFW Lodge in Princeton will be the place for this epic brain battle. Beforehand, we’ll relax and enjoy pizza, pasta and salad from Christiano’s.

Be sure to pre-register for this as space is limited.

CHECK out all the events taking place in and around beautiful Princeton, Wisconsin during the Whooping Crane Festival – September 7 – 9, 2018 – we hope to see you there!

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Who Are Those Guys?

The transmitters we attached to the Sandhill chicks, are glued to their lower back with false eyelash adhesive. That part of the back gets covered by their folded wings and is generally the last area to lose the down and grow adult feathers. But as the chick grows, the radio patch slowly comes off which means we have to re-capture them for either re-gluing or to fit a new one. 

Each capture takes at least two attempts so by this stage in our game, they have had lots of practice at avoiding us. They learn with each encounter, what strategies work and which ones end in our arms. 

There is a local farmer just down the street who has been very generous about allowing us access to his property. Yesterday, we arrived early to check the transmitters on the twin chicks but they weren’t in their usual spot. The property owner has a lovely home surrounded by trees and an assortment of farm equipment and the tracking antenna pointed towards his garden. 

Brooke and I took separate routes over barbed-wire pasture fences, around rows of hay bails and past the garden without seeing a crane chick.

Can you spot “Those Guys”? (Click to enlarge)

We followed the directional beeps and sometimes, were very close, only to hear it begin to fade as we stopped to look around. 

We both came out of the trees near the owner’s corn field and Brooke headed to the far side in hopes of cutting off the chick while I brought up the rear.  

When the beep gets strong, we turn down the volume so we can better determine their direction but just then the Air National Guard from Volk Field began a practice dogfight overhead. Its not an uncommon occurrence but for such small specks in the sky, they make an incredibly loud noise that drowns out the beep from our handheld receivers. 

Twice, the chick I was following moved into the corn field and came back out, and twice I was right on top of it, at least, if I were to believe the radio. Then it crossed a soybean field, circumnavigated an open pasture and led me on a wild crane chase.

Eventually it moved over a hill and down into the marsh where I could not follow. Not once did I see the chick during that mile or so chase through forest, corn, beans and pasture. There were times when I was within a few yards, and others when I could barely get a signal but I never saw so much as a feather or even detected the crops moving as he made his escape.

I headed back to the tracking van prepared to try another day. Heather and Colleen had lost us both and were just arriving back too but Brooke was nowhere in sight. I knew he couldn’t follow the first chick through the marsh either so I switched frequencies to the second crane colt, thinking when I found it, I would find him. 

Sure enough, we both converged on a small thicket of dense brush near the roadside. Signals from all around it pointed to the center so I cut through the middle. There was an entire unseen world in that tangle of undergrowth, stumps, brambles and veins. It was dark and damp and I am sure the chick thought I was the perfect hiding placed, yet there we were. He must of had visions of the famous line from Butch Cassidy and The Sun Dance Kid – “who are those guys”. 

Even in the middle of that quagmire I didn’t see the chick slip out the other side and if it hadn’t been for Brooke, I would again be listening to the beeps get fainter. 

We caught the chick but as it turned out, its tracking device was still perfectly attached so we simply let it go. 

It’s hot and we are wearing full waders while walking miles through mud and mire but its fun to track them and fascinating to see their world and how it works. 

The entire pasture is comprised of these grass hummocks, divided by thick, deep muck. Not at all easy to navigate over.

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Henry & Patty

These two whoopers have been hiding deep in the marsh near Henry’s pond since early June, so I was delighted, while on my way to Princeton this week to see them out in their favorite foraging field!

Whooping cranes #5-12 (Henry) on the left and #67-15 (Patty). Photo: H. Ray

Still no sign of the Royal Couple (4-12 & 3-14) out from their hiding spot but we’ll let you know as soon as they emerge.

It’s AUCTION Time!

The 2018 Whooping Crane Festival is just around the corner, and with it comes one of OM’s most exciting fundraising campaigns, our annual auctions. We are excited to announce that most auction items will be posted ONLINE! At the Festival’s Friday night dinner we will feature a few super-special items, then have those items too unwieldy to mail available for fast and furious bidding at Saturday’s Festival. Because we know that not everyone can attend the Festival in Princeton, Wisconsin, we will conduct the online auction on our Facebook page.

How can you help make our auctions successful? I’m glad you asked! You can help in three ways. First, if you have an item you’d like to donate, we’d be thrilled to accept it. Second, you can help us by thinking of businesses who might be interested in making a donation. Lastly (and most importantly), you can BID BID BID when the auctions open! 

To donate an item, click here. Fill out the online form and click “Submit.” Then, just ship or mail your item to the Princeton Chamber of Commerce (104 E. Main St., Princeton, WI 54968). 

Once we have received your item, the auction committee will assign it to the auction it best suits. No single item will appear in multiple auctions, and the auction committee reserves the right to make this determination. For example, most of the items that are light weight and easily mailed will be assigned to the online auction. Heavy and bulky items will be featured in one of the auctions held on Festival weekend so that they can travel home safely with the winning bidder.

If you come up with businesses that might be interested in making a donation, email the information to me at jbellemer(AT)operationmigration.org, including the name of the business, the address, and a brief description of what they do and/or what you think they might offer. I’ll then send a solicitation letter to the business explaining OM’s mission and the auctions.

Below are some FAQs that hopefully will answer your questions. If not, feel free to email me!

HOW DO I DONATE AN ITEM? Use our online form to tell us about your item and then ship it to the Princeton Chamber of Commerce at 104 E. Main St., Princeton, WI 54968.

CAN I DECIDE WHICH AUCTION I’D LIKE MY ITEM FEATURED IN? While we wish we could offer that option, it simply isn’t feasible due to the many items and the amount of work we have to do. The auction committee will decide which auction is best suited for your item in the best interest of OM.

CAN I SUGGEST AN OPENING BID FOR MY ITEM? The only opening bids that will be set are to cover postage costs for items that will be mailed to the winners. Otherwise, we can run afoul of IRS rules and regulations. (see next question/response)

WILL I RECEIVE A TAX DEDUCTION RECEIPT FROM OM? No, OM cannot issue tax receipts for goods donated without running into IRS rules about “fair market value”. The IRS states that to issue a tax-deductible receipt for a donated item “Fair Market Value” must be determined by obtaining three appraisals for each item. As you can imagine, this simply isn’t feasible.

WHAT IS THE CUTOFF DATE FOR SENDING IN MY ITEM? Our cutoff for receiving items is August 18th. This allows us enough time to inventory the items, determine which auction they go in, photograph them, and write descriptions. As you can imagine, we have a lot of work to do and cannot leave many items until the last minute. On a case-by-case basis we can make exceptions, such as if we make other arrangements for your item because it is being driven to Wisconsin. Other than that, August 18th!

WHEN ARE THE AUCTIONS? The Whooping Crane Festival will be held the weekend of September 7th, 2018. There will be a dinner on Friday night, 9/7, at which there will be a silent auction featuring a small number of items. On Saturday, at the all-day Festival, items unsuitable for mailing will be auctioned. The online (Facebook) auction where most items will be featured will open shortly after the festival. 

WHAT IF I DON’T USE FACEBOOK – CAN I STILL PARTICIPATE IN THE ONLINE AUCTION? Facebook is our best online venue as there are large numbers of supporters communicating regularly there. To bid on Facebook, you can either set up an account there temporarily, just for the auction, and then close it afterwards, or have a friend who DOES use Facebook submit your bids.

WHAT IF MY ITEM DOESN’T SELL AT ONE OF THE AUCTIONS? Occasionally we are unable to contact someone who posted a winning bid. In that event, we will simply hold onto the item for next year’s auction.

Any other questions can be emailed to JBellemer(AT)operationmigration.org.

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Phone Calls

Over the years I have received many phone calls from someone reporting they’ve seen a Whooping crane. Some sightings have been credible and others not. If it’s not, I do my best to kindly inform them that no, Whoopers don’t land in trees, they don’t travel in flocks of hundreds and so on. 

Last week I received a call from a gentleman and when I inquired where it was he had seen them, to my surprise he said Alberta! I don’t think I have ever received a sighting for the wild flock. We talked for a bit, he is a very experienced birder and has even rehabbed raptors for years. Unfortunately he didn’t have any photos but he was looking at them via binoculars and by his description it certainly seemed like a credible sighting. He told me that he had called several places to report his sighting but so far no one had gotten back to him. He found our number on the website and called the office.

While I have a lot of resources to report sightings on the eastern population, I don’t have anything but U.S. contacts for the wild flock. I did some searching and came up with a few to send to him. 

The next day Murray sent me an email:

“Thanks so much for your endeavours to try and find a place to phone!

I did get a hotline and they abruptly said it was an impossible sighting! So I hung up they were so caustic.

I have been birding for 70+ plus years and have photographed whoopers before. I also belong to the Alberta “Big Horn“ award group.

The rarity of the sighting makes it unacceptable to believe by so called specialists.”

I’m not sure which hotline he called or whether it was Canada or U.S. based. However, I did apologize for the treatment he had received. A short time later he sent me another email:  “Great news on the cranes!

The Canadian wildlife service just called and confirmed my sighting.

They had a radar hit on whoopers yesterday east and north of me at Toffield, Alberta.

They could not tell the number of birds so were pleased that I could supply them with the seven.

They think these birds will move east into Saskatchewan to join others before heading south.

Thought this would help you too?

Over the moon”

So there you have it. His sighting was credible and very valuable. It appears that some Wild Whoopers, likely juveniles, have started their migration south already.

Thank you Murray Mackay for your phone call. It was a pleasure speaking with you and I hope you see many more Whoopers to report.

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Wild Whoopers

Whooping crane colt #W3-18 hatched this spring to parents 24-09 and 42-09. Local area resident Ron Johnson submitted a public sighting report yesterday and allowed us to share the following image.

Clearly this young crane knows how to hunt for food on its own! He/she should be fledging very soon if its not already capable of flight.

W3-18 captured a snake or salamander. Either is a great source of protein. Photo: Ron Johnson

A Graduate!

Yesterday started off drizzly and grey, which I love, and the air so thick with mosquitoes that I inhaled a few. Seriously disgusting!

Each chick has an official number but is referred to by a name for easy reference, usually the nickname is the landowner’s name or location. The exception is Joe’s chick named after Joe!

We had 4 chicks to recapture and add glue to their transmitters.

On the other side of the river, the first on the list is off a narrow road that has no where to park. So I stayed at the van to move it if necessary and Brooke went out alone to nab little Huck. He was successful and off we went for the next little Sandhill.

Next on the list was Terry’s chick. He was way back, over a creek, and up a hill, and through the woods. Brooke suggested I stay put again, I am not sure if he thought he would need to do CPR on me or if he just did not want to hear me whine about the still nightmare-ishly thick mosquitoes. I tried not to be patheticly grateful! Off he went alone. And scored again! Another one crossed off the list!

Next we aimed for Joe’s chick who was for once, in the perfect spot to grab!

We headed across the street, Mom, Dad and the chick headed into a line of scrub.

We hit the field, ready to start the chase, when from behind the tree line 3 birds flew to our left!

We looked at each other and grinned from ear to ear, Brooke aimed the antenna at the bird bringing up the rear, sure enough! Joe’s chick was flying and flying well!

Our 1st graduate! We follow them till they fledge.

We stood and watched, silently wishing that little bird safe travels and a long life. I finally remembered to get a picture, not a great picture, but one that will make me smile till my last breath!

Sandhill crane colt JD2.1 follows his parents in flight. Photo: C. Chase


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Senior Olympics

“You better put your running shoes on”, the farmer laughed, looking down at Colleen and I from his tractor and eyeing our chest waders, hiking boots… and grey hair. “That chick can really run!” Then he gave us permission to access his bean field to capture the sandhill chick and glue a transmitter on it and drove off for some popcorn and a beer to watch the show, while whispering under his breath, “One small step for man — one giant race for the seniors”.

Meanwhile, the sandhill crane family stood out in the middle of the field giving us the dreaded, “Stink Eye”. “Looks like an AARP Convention”, Papa crane said to Mama crane.

 “The Senior Olympics are about to begin”, Mama crane sighed.

“Don’t they have to wait for the Olympic torch”, the chick asked?

 “Not in the Senior Games”, Papa crane answered. “Seniors can’t take the heat.”

“Let the Games begin”! my invisible friend announced as the starting gun sounded and our four legs began chasing the chick’s two across the field.  It was Like Wile E. Coyote chasing the Road Runner… minus the “Beep Beeps”.  (And we all know how that turned out!) The soybeans cried out in pain as our pounding feet crushed the life out of them. But they didn’t really care. They weren’t going to China this year anyway.

“Faster!” Colleen yelled. “He’s getting away!” We knew we had to catch the chick before it reached the safety of the not so distant woods where it would easily disappear.

“No Pain, No Gain!” my high school track coach screamed… from my distant past.

But soon my Pain began to outrun my Gain as my heart pounded against my chest so hard that I thought there was an alien in there trying to chew its way out. Then the snot began to boil out of my nostrils like lava from a Hawaiian volcano. My ears rang from the roar of my joints creaking and my bunions popping and the gas of a thousand McDonald’s burgers passing through me as if through a giant wind tunnel. Was it really possible, I wondered, to self-CPR? Would it require government Certification?

Photo: C. Chase

“When the going gets tough, the tough get going” my old coach began to scream, then added, “Win one for the Gipper!” Who is the Gipper anyway, I wondered? 

Row after row of soybeans flew by in a blur of speed and sweat. About a hundred hard won yards had passed into my rearview when my “Check Engine Light” flashed to life. Was I about to suffer the “Big One”? I was just about to brake for a stop when I realized Colleen was right behind me. What if she couldn’t stop in time? Visions of that cowboy in those old, black and white Westerns of my youth desperately galloping ahead of the stampeding herd came into my head. BANG! My foot slammed back down hard on the accelerator.

“Faster”! my invisible friend screamed. “It’s not whether you win or lose that counts — it’s how you keep from being run over and crushed into tiny bits of nothing by the stampeding herd that really matters.”

It was about then that everything began to go peacefully quiet… and all motion slowed… and I was suddenly disconnected and released and floating above it all, watching the whole drama unfold. I was having an “out of wader experience,” complete with the dark tunnel and the light at the end of it. But just then a sandhill chick ran into that light… and I heard Colleen’s voice yell, “Grab him!”

“Bummer!” the chick sighed in humiliation as I reached down from the heavens and grabbed the little fellow with my hot little hands. “I knew I should have eaten my Wheaties this morning.”

The process of “transmitter installation” was as fast and efficient as our arthritic hands would allow. And it had to be. Our morning “Bonanza” rerun was about to start on Me TV and we didn’t want to miss it. Pa, Hoss and Little Joe get really cranky when we’re late.

We released the chick, and over to his waiting parents he ran. “Let that be a lesson to you,” Papa crane told him. “Never compete with a Senior. They’re cunning and ruthless and they’ll beat you every time… even if they are on Medicare. Now go eat your Wheaties.”

As Colleen and I walked back across the bean field towards the tracking van, we could hear the sound of cheering and laughter coming from the barn. It was the farmer and his family. They were holding up large white cards… with numbers on them… all 10’s.

Turns out that In the Senior Olympics, “Going for the Gold” is “Going for the Old”.

Who knew?

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Due Diligence and Pure Luck

The basic concept of our Sandhill Crane Productivity Study is to determine the hatching and fledging success rate for the birds in and around White River Marsh. Phase one was to locate nests and attempt to determine the initiation date so we could guesstimate when the eggs would hatch.

One of 14 Sandhill crane nests we were able to locate. Photo: J. Duff

They were checked periodically during incubation and we placed trail cameras a few yards away to record activity. That was back when the marsh was just starting to bloom but it grew up so fast that some of the cameras recorded nothing more than a solid wall of swaying cattails.

Phase two of the study was to find parents that were very creative in hiding their chicks. Colleen kept meticulous notes on the behavior of pairs they watched every day. She kept track of where they roosted and when they left and made their way to their favorite foraging grounds. She and Brooke then plotted the best place to ambush them so the chicks couldn’t make it to the tall grass and disappear. Each capture is usually successful on the second or third attempt.

Earlier this week we had a full contingent. Brooke and Colleen led while Heather and I backed them up. A pair of savvy parents with twins have been avoiding capture primarily by spending a lot of their time in a cow pasture. That sounds like a perfect spot to grab them but this pasture is low and right next to the marsh. It is filled with clump grass which forms a solid root base that will support your weight if you place your foot just right. Obviously the cows don’t bother with hoof placement because the gaps between the clumps are deep with water, thick mud and whatever else the cows decide to leave behind. In the center of this pasture is a small thicket of trees and brush about thirty yards in diameter. It is dense with undergrowth and the perfect spot to hide chicks. Brooke and Colleen call it the island.

Navigating the pot-holed pasture to get to the island demands that you look where you are going or risk a broken leg, so you can’t keep your eye on the chicks as the attack is launched. However, Brooke and Colleen recently spotted the family in the lee of the lea. They were on the opposite side of the little forest from where we would attempt to cross their natural moat. That meant we could make a careful approach without being seen… in theory.

All four of us quietly (a relative term) crossed the Swiss cheese pasture and then worked our way through and around the island. We were almost to the far end before the parents took off. The brush was far too thick to see anything but we heard the thrash of heavy wing beats and knew we were close. Usually the chicks will run through the grass at remarkable speed and bury themselves like moles but we caught them off guard so they just tucked in where they were. Within a minute we had the first one.

Brooke quickly applied a fresh transmitter and let the glue set up a little before we released it. It disappeared in a second but we watched the trail of moving grass as it made its way to the cover of the island at amazing speed. It’s hard to understand how it could even navigate through grass three times tall than it was but it was gone in an instant.

Joe Duff gets swallowed up by the cattails.

We suspected the other chick was close so we made lots of noise while we attended to the first, in hopes of keeping him from dashing off. We began to check the area and Colleen spotted him within a few feet. We attached a new transmitter, checked him over and released him in the same direction as his sibling. We caught both chicks in the worst possible location without so much as spraining an ankle.

A lot of it was luck but as Mart Twain once said — the harder we work, the luckier we get.

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Population Update

Whooping Crane Update – As of August 1, 2018 

Below is the most recent update for the Eastern Migratory Population of Whooping Cranes. In the last month birds haven’t moved much, and our first chick has fledged! A huge thank-you to the staff of Operation Migration, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Department of Natural Resources, the International Crane Foundation, and all of the volunteers who help us keep track of the cranes throughout the year. We appreciate your contribution to the recovery of the whooping crane eastern migratory population.

Population Estimate

The current estimated population size is 101 (47 F, 51 M, 3 U). This does not include wild-hatched chicks. As of 1 August, at least 74 Whooping Cranes are in Wisconsin, 3 in Michigan, possibly 3 in Illinois, 2 in Iowa, and 3 in Minnesota. The remaining birds’ locations have not been confirmed in the last month or two. See maps below.


As of 1 August, we have had at least ten chicks hatch in Wisconsin, six of which are still alive, and one of which has fledged. Chicks in bold are currently alive.

W1_18 and W2_18 hatched to parents 12-11 and 5-11 in Juneau Co, WI. W1-18 fledged in late July.

W3_18 and W4_18 hatched to parents 24-09 and 42-09 in Adams Co, WI. W3-18 is currently alive and with its parents and has been banded.

Whooping crane #W3-18 was recently banded. Photo: D. Pellerin

W6_18 is still alive and with its parents 1-04 and 16-07 in Juneau Co, WI.

W7_18 and W8_18 hatched to parents 9-03 and 3-04 in Juneau Co. W7_18 is still alive.

W9_18 hatched to parents 14-08 and 24-08 in Juneau Co, and is still alive. We believe 14_08 may be dead since we have seen 24_08 alone with the chick for most of July (see below).

W10_18 hatched to parents 4-08 and 23-10 in Juneau Co, and is still alive. 

2017 Wild-hatched chicks

W3_17 (U) is still in Adams Co, WI, with 39_16. W3_17 was captured during July to be banded with uniquely colored bands and a VHF transmitter.

W7_17 (F) is still in Wright Co, MN.

Parent-Reared 2017 Cohort

19_17 (M) and 25_17 (M) left Clark County for Barron County Wisconsin during July, and are currently in Sibley Co, MN.

28_17 (M) is still in Marquette Co, WI.

24_17 (M) is in Rock Co, WI.

72_17 (M) is still in Ingham Co, MI.

38_17 (F) is still in Dodge Co, WI, where she was released in the fall.

39_17 (F) is still in Outagamie Co, WI.

Costume-Reared 2017 Cohort

7_17 is still with 4_14 (M) in Green Lake Co.

3_17 was last seen in Stephenson Co, IL with 31_16 (M) in mid-May.

4_17 (M) and 6_17 (F) moved around a bit but are back in Brown Co, WI.

1_17 (M), 2_17 (F), and 8_17 (F) have split up and 1_17 and 2_17 are currently in Franklin Co, IA. 8_17 was last seen in Sangamon Co, IL, but her whereabouts are now unknown.


We believe 14_08 (M) has died during July. We have seen his mate 24_08 alone with their chick for most of July. 14_08 was last seen 14 June. We have not found a carcass to confirm this mortality, or to determine cause of death, however due to the behavior of his mate, and the unlikeliness of 14_08 leaving his family group, we have removed him from the population totals above.

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Catching Cranes

On Tuesday, we managed to capture three previously tagged Sandhill cranes, which are part of our Sandhill crane mortality study. One of them was BP2.1 – one of a set of twins, whose original tracking device had fallen off after a couple of weeks.

Brooke and Colleen approached the roosting pond from the south, while Joe and I approached from the west and as soon as we neared the pond, the two adults flushed while the two chicks hunkered down in the grass as they are still incapable of flight.

Naturally, the first chick we found was the one that had the transmitter still attached. We took the opportunity to check the device and found it still functional and securely fastened so we released him and began looking for the colt with no tracking device. 

Finding a chick hiding in 4 foot tall grasses is not easy. They have this incredible ability to get under the vegetation and ‘combat crawl’ their way across a field. It’s easy to step on one so every step we make has to be calculated so we avoid hurting a crane.

The one we looked for turned out to be 2 feet to my left and as I approached it bolted, allowing Brooke and Joe to grab it.

Joe holds the young colt while Brooke applies the transmitter patch. Photo: C. Chase

Next on the target list were a set of twins whose transmitters had fallen off a couple of weeks ago. Colleen and Brooke were still able to keep track of them because they were the only set of twins in a known territory and were always seen with the adults.

The pasture is used by cattle and is not at all easy to navigate. Hummocks can be used to walk on but they vary in size and move when you step on them. The muck between them is almost knee-deep so one must concentrate on where you place your feet.

We were able to use a small island of trees as an approach blind and as soon as we came around the island, the two adults flushed, leaving the chicks to hide. Joe spotted the first one sitting in the tall grasses and grabbed him.

Joe and Heather hold the wings out of the way while Brooke prepares the transmitter patch. Photo: C. Chase

Within minutes it was tagged and released and it was only a couple minutes later when Colleen located the second colt about 10 feet from where we had tagged its sibling. It too, was tagged and released and we left the field as quickly as possible so the family could reunite.

All in all a great day capturing and radio-marking three crane colts!


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Mother of the Year Award…

… Goes to this Common Merganser and her 76 (yes 76!) youngsters. 

Female common mergansers only lay about 12 eggs at a time, so it’s safe to say that not all of the babies are the offspring of Mama Merganser. In fact, female ducks have been known to travel with a few extra babies in tow.

Ducks often lay their eggs in the nests of other ducks—sometimes, they will even deposit eggs with different duck species. 

Photographer Brent Cizek recently captured this incredible scene on Minnesota’s Lake Bemidji. 

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