The Slow Lane That Froze

Do you remember that I promised (in Life in the Slow Laneto continue my saga of monitoring Whooping Crane colts? Well, it has taken me a while, but finally here is part two. Just to remind you of some background, my monitoring assignments are 30-17 and 72-17. My target bird that those two were released near is 71-16, but she flew the coop and now hangs around Horicon Marsh. I accused Heather of stealing her, since Heather is monitoring two birds down there. At the end of part one, Heather and I had just found 30-17 at the edge of the woods and the marsh, standing upright (WHEW!), and later that day we saw her fly back into the marsh.

The next day proved even more interesting. First thing in the morning, I drove into the marsh and bounced my way over to the dike where the chicks had been released. The dike is about a mile long – every few hundred yards I would get out of the truck, take out the receiver and directional antenna, and take a reading on 30-17’s beeps. Sounds easy? Not on your knees! Getting out of the truck involves a “slide/jump” because the truck is so high. Getting back into the truck the first few times in a day is not bad – there’s a handle to help – but by mid-day my knees and hips are feeling it, and by the end of the day I’m very selective as to where and how often I decide to check for beeps!

I was able to bi-angulate the beeps to point to a location somewhat centered in the nearly rectangular set of dikes I was riding. I drove to the opposite side where the cattails were knocked down, thinking maybe I’d get a visual on her. It seemed like a good spot for a view if she decided to jump, dance, or flap. I climbed into the bed of the pickup (this is something you do NOT want to see!) and sat in the camp chair, scanning left-right-left-right, hoping for a glimpse.

Suddenly there she was! Not jumping, dancing, or flapping, well yes, flapping – she was FLYING! I got my binoculars on her and followed her short flight, making note of where she seemed to land. It was pretty close to her release site, so I headed back to that dike (that took me about 20 minutes). Once there, I put the truck on auto-pilot (no foot on the gas pedal) and crept along at 2 mph while I peered to the right, trying to peek through the cattails for a glimpse of her. Every so often I would take a beep reading. Each time, she was still somewhere out ahead of me, so I kept going in the same fashion, alternating between making sure I wasn’t driving off the dike and peering through the cattails on my right.

At one point, I decided I had to be pretty close so I decided I would stop the truck and go the rest of the way on foot. I shut off the ignition and turned to my left to open the door. As I did, obviously my line of sight turned to the left – a direction I hadn’t looked the entire way down this dike. And left was where she was! She was over on the other side of the canal on the left, looking at the truck like “hey stupid, I’m over here!”.

I froze! I panicked! You know that classic comedy routine where two people suddenly notice each other and both scream? That’s what I felt like – I’m supposed to be monitoring her – she’s not supposed to be monitoring me! At that point I just sat very still and she turned back to foraging and ambling alongside the canal, totally ignoring my presence. After about 30 minutes, she had made it to the far end of the canal where there is a path that crosses over to the dike I was parked on. I didn’t know if she would turn left into the scrub, head straight up the hill that becomes a road out of the marsh, or turn right and come onto the dike. She took her time deciding – there must have been some pretty good eats in that area.

Finally she committed to a direction – she took the path onto the dike, which is the last thing I thought she would do. This spot is at a corner of the rectangle I had been driving around, so she now had two choices – walk towards me or head on the “cross-dike” to the right and out of sight. She walked towards me! Actually, it’s hard to call it walking. It’s more like forage here – forage there – look around – take a step – repeat. But slowly, very slowly, she was making her way towards the truck. I guess I should have started the truck and retreated slowly in reverse, but I kept thinking that the truck would disturb her and that certainly, at some point, she would notice the truck and turn around.

At last she turned around and retraced her forage-steps for a while. And then turned around again coming towards me. At one point I think she finally got aggravated that I was in the way – she took flight and went right past me, and seemed to be muttering “I thought this marsh was closed to traffic – I’ll have to write to my representatives!” She landed on the same dike, a hundred or so yards behind me, and continued to forage-walk away from me.

I doubt I will ever have an experience like this again when I’m out monitoring, and rightfully so – such a close encounter is not at all what we strive for! Please don’t tell my boss how happy I am that this happened!

Young Whooping Crane 30-17 flies by a very surprised Jo-Anne Bellemer (photo – OM)

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Beast Goes into Hibernation

Guest Author: Cathy Fouche

The “beast” has been tucked away in the hangar for the winter, bringing to a close Operation Migration’s 2017 CraneCam season. And what a season it was…

For the first time ever, a Whooping Crane nest was observed on a live stream. We watched a pair of young Whooping Cranes dubbed the Royal Couple dutifully tend, defend, and maintain their first nest.

Whooping crane 3-14 or 4-12 incubating the two eggs they produced. Photo: Operation Migration

Then Peanut (#4-14) showed up, as did the coyote, and our hearts were broken. We watched as this young pair of birds demonstrated that you just have to keep on keepin’ on as they continued to claim and defend their territory. And then they danced. And we saw it.

We bid adieu to the Royal Couple’s turf, along with the pelicans and egrets, as the beast was relocated to the pen and lo and behold, Peanut and his buddy 11-15 showed up on the runway, and he danced. And we saw it.

Then came the pen cleanup and expansion. It was incredible and exhausting, and that’s just for those of us who watched. Magic happens when a dedicated group of people come together to do good things. The team and the volunteers did just that. And we saw it.

Then at long last, the chicks arrived. Seven cinnamon colored Whooping Crane chicks, so young that special crates had to be built, were flown from Patuxent, Maryland to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and then driven to the White River Marsh and introduced to their new 10,000 square foot temporary home. They were glorious. So young that they had to swim to reach their destinations in either of the two ponds. And we saw it.

They were led on excursions to acclimate them to their surroundings and encouraged to exercise and experience the marsh. Deeper into the marsh they explored, discovering new ponds and new delicacies like snakes and berries. At first the costumed handlers flew better than the chicks. It was adorable. Then the chicks started to fly. And we saw it.

One day the chicks were visited by the adult Whooping crane pair consisting of 4-13 and 10-15, and weren’t completely sure how to react. The pair flew a circuit around the pen, returned, gave a goose bump inducing unison call, then flew off. And we saw it.

The chicks became more confident in their flying abilities and gradually less dependent on the costume, eventually flying to and from the north pond and in some cases walking themselves to and from via the route the handlers had taught them. They grew into a cohesive cohort, walking and flying together from place to place. And we saw it.

They discovered the pond #5-12 and his little buddy #30-16 call home and started to visit. Then one night they didn’t come home. They began to spend more time with these two older birds, as was the hope for the program. Somewhere along the line, they grew up and no longer needed the tumes, and finally the pen. They gradually self-released. And we saw it.

The marsh appeared to come alive in the spring as it greened up and the young of year began to appear. The parade of new life across the landscape was only rivaled by the parade of seven young whoopers hither and yon over the summer. The sunrises and sunsets seemed to be in competition as to which was more beautiful, and the storms were both scary and awesome. The migratory songbirds gradually started to move on and fall began to work its paintbrush through the trees. And we saw it.

I would like to express my gratitude to OM, Mike the Beastmaster, and most especially, Heather, for working so hard to allow us into the world of the Whooping Crane via the CraneCam. It has truly been an honor and a privilege to drive the CraneCam this season, and I thank you for the opportunity.

The Beast may have gone to its winter rest, but our dedicated Operation Migration team is hard at work doing what they do best, helping Whooping Cranes. Thank you all for all you do. 

Ed. Note: It is we, who must thank you and all the other volunteer CraneCam drivers who give up your time to entertain and educate viewers. Thank you Cathy Fouche, Terry Johnson, Rich Smith, Kimberly Bubser, Ginny Lulow, Lori Verhagen, Dawn Fronk, Bev Birks, and Jo-Anne Bellemer.

Technically speaking, this was one of the more challenging seasons, but we were rewarded with some incredible views into the wonderful world of whoopers.

The “Royal Couple” still very much a pair. Photo captured early October. Photo: Operation Migration

RAFFLE Tickets! Get Yours Today!

Less than two weeks remain for your chance to snag one of this year’s OM Staff Avian Abode’s!

October 31st at noon is when we’ll be making the drawing for each of these creative, um, masterpieces! Get your raffle tickets today!

The Odd Couple: Brooke Pennypacker and Bev Paulan

Creating a novel birdhouse was a task assigned to Brooke but we all know where the talent lies in that couple.

The creative use of wine corks provides a beautiful and practical exterior to their birdhouse and maybe a little insight to one of their other favorite hobbies.





The Backyard Enthusiast: Chris Danilko

Chris’ inspiration for her birdhouse design came from her three grandchildren: Abby 7, Mikayla 5 and Thomas 4. Chris spends weekends with the trio and is continuously coming up with ideas for all to participate in and to inspire them to appreciate nature and birds.

The finished product is completely edible and can be consumed by the occupants – providing you are a bird.




The Vagabond: Jo-Anne Bellemer

It seems that three months on the road was not enough to dampen Jo-Anne’s wanderlust. An aspiring RV owner, Jo-Anne’s birdhouse looks like a mini Winnebago for our feathered friends. Let’s hope they don’t get too attached. We might see them heading to Florida on foot with their mobile home in tow.




The Birdwatcher: Heather Ray

Heather’s birdhouse design incorporates her stained glass hobby into her other favorite pastime of birdwatching. She has provided our feathered friends with a nest opportunity that is safe from the elements, while still allowing you to peek in discretely. She is also teaching the birds a life-lesson about not throwing stones.




Greek Weddings and Colleen Chase

We are not sure if Colleen has any Greek ancestry but her birdhouse resulted from (un)-ceremoniously breaking a lot of plates. She scoured antique stores for old dinnerware and used the smashed pieces to create a mosaic birdhouse. What better way to provide shelter to pairs of expectant parents. OPA!




The Intemperate: Joe Duff

The birdhouses created by the OM team likely reflect their personalities more than they care to admit.

Joe started with a simple bird shelter and kept piling complications on top. Joe never learned the lesson most important to an artist and that is knowing when to stop.





Tickets are sold in sets of 5 for $5/set.

Visit this link and select your favorite(s) from the dropdown menu. The draws will be made on October 31st at noon and the winners will be notified on our blog and also by telephone. 

Once everyone has been notified, we will send the Avian Abode’s to each of the winning ticket holders by mail, or, if local, we’ll personally deliver them to the winner!

More tickets increase the chances of your name being drawn.

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10 Year Love Affair…

Guest Author: Jeff Weingarz

So maybe the title got your attention if for nothing else blatant curiosity – why on earth is a saucy tabloid headline gracing the top of OM’s In the Field blog today? Well, it’s not what it seems – maybe to the disappointment of some and the relief of others!!! No, the reason is pretty straightforward – it’s been 10 years since I was introduced first-hand to the endangered Whooping Crane. Not that I wasn’t aware of Whooping Cranes and their status; my wife and I knew of Operation Migration and their work – but after several years of offers from fellow birders to take us up to Necedah, and then the tragic news of the Class of 2006, we *finally* made plans in 2007 for our first trip to Wisconsin.

We left our house in Illinois at 3AM; drove the 3 hours to Necedah, stopped at the Kwik Trip to get a little early morning caffeine, and by 6AM we were on the viewing platform at the wildlife refuge anxiously awaiting our first sight of these magnificent birds during their morning flight training.
I remember it like it was yesterday. We could hear the trike; but it was coming in low over the trees to our right; we weren’t able to see it until the last second when it flew over the platform (if memory serves correctly, Brooke was flying that day). And behind the trike were the cranes – in formation, struggling a bit to keep up with the trike as it was a little warm and humid that morning, but nonetheless we were just overwhelmed by the sight.

Flying past the observation tower at Necedah NWR.

It just so happened that George Archibald from ICF joined us with some guests on the platform that morning; so we also had the opportunity to discuss and learn from him as well. Later during the visit we were able to meet many of the OM team for the first time, and with that memorable trip, my friends, was the beginning of what has been a 10 year love affair with our friends the Whooping Cranes and Operation Migration.

There have been so many stories and adventures over the years that it’s hard to keep track. Lost birds on migration; an entire group of birds deciding to go AWOL on their own and the OM team having to chase them down; trike, Cessna, truck, and trailer malfunctions; cold days, hot days, down days, good days and bad days – the list goes on and on.

I have learned so much – not only about Whooping Cranes, but about conservation in general – and the wonderful and knowledgeable people that my family and I have met along the way have broadened our lives considerably. But through it all, here is the takeaway I want all of us to consider – as I look back over the years and see the fruits of OM’s (and a lot of other organizations) labor, we now have an eastern migrating flock and adult nesting pairs – the vast scope of this accomplishment can sometimes be easily overlooked.

While there is so much more work to do to insure the continued protection and expansion of the eastern flock, all of us should take a moment and appreciate what has been accomplished. And I mean all of us – whether it be the Operation Migration team, all of the other supporting organizations of WCEP, or all of us as conservationists supporting Whooping Cranes and the environment in general through our daily words and actions. It takes a village, and in this case, more like a small city of people and organizations banding together to protect an animal species. But all of us as individuals should take pride in this accomplishment – no matter how small a role that you played, it has been absolutely critical to the success that has been achieved so far.

So in this 10th year of my love affair with Whooping Cranes and Operation Migration, I am honored to join the Board of Directors of this organization – it is my hope that I can contribute even more of my time to this fantastic organization as we move into a new phase of the program. With the recent announcement of the closing of Patuxent, we are faced with several unknowns moving forward, but please know that the team is continuing to focus its efforts to ensure forward progress. There will always be change – it is inevitable in any program; Operation Migration will use this change to look for opportunity and use it to the Whooping Crane’s advantage.

I want to leave you with a quote from a fellow and well-loved conservationist. Jane Goodall wrote this in her book “With Love” back in 1999, and I think it encompasses what every conservationist already knows:
“Every individual matters. Every Individual has a role to play. Every individual makes a difference”

So in closing, am I up for another 10 years of this torrid love affair? You bet.

Jeff Weingarz

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There is no excuse for stupid

John Wayne once said that “life’s tough but it’s a lot tougher when you’re stupid.” I fit in there somewhere and this story sets a perfect example.

When Heather left camp one morning last week to monitor two Parent Reared cranes at Horicon Marsh, she asked if I would run the generator that charges our live camera. She had asked me the day before to take the trail camera out to Henry’s Pond so I thought I would do both at once.

The chicks spend the night at Henry’s Pond and it was still very early – about the time the sparrows normally stretch and fart, so I thought I would first drive down to Marquette County to see if crane #26-17 was still in the same location as the target pair.

I don’t think I’m any less intelligent now that I’m older but, like most people my age, the filing system isn’t what it used to be. I packed my chest waders, grabbed the trail camera and some zip ties but it wasn’t until I was parked on the roadside listening to reassuring beeps that I realized I needed a post to drive into the marsh to hold the camera. So on the way back, I stopped at our storage facility in Princeton to grab a T-post. We have everything in there from airplanes to fire hose but no T-posts so I cut a point on one end of a 2×4, found a hammer and headed to the pensite.

Halfway there I realized that the genny needed gas. Now that was something I knew yesterday but just like my name and where I put the keys, that bit of critical information was misfiled… and of course I didn’t have a gas can.

Sometimes happenstance can save you from all the consequences of stupid; like if one of the six gas cans we have happened to be full, but nooooo. So I drove all the way into Berlin.

Still bent on accomplished something today, I stopped at the parts store to pick up the tail pipe I had ordered for one of our trucks. They brought out this rusty, bent pipe that looked like they had dragged it all the way from the distribution center so that had to go back; and my to-do list remained check-less.

Back at the pensite, I filled and started the genny and prepared to head into the marsh.

Now the pond used most nights by the costume-reared chicks and their target pair is only quarter of a mile into the marsh so how hard could that be? Well, apart from the lions and tigers, it could be compared with slogging through the jungle. The ground is muddy and the grass is chest-high which means you can’t see where you are stepping. Most of the vegetation grows in clumps so their root base sticks up like a soggy stump about the size and height of a paint can.

Clump grass – nearly impossible to navigate.

Imagine covering your basement floor in paint cans about a foot apart, add a few inches of water and a foot or so of sticky mud and then turn the lights out.

Most of the area is surrounded by bull rush and scrub brush so once you are out there it’s a bit disorienting. I mean, it’s not like you could get lost, but your route in may not be exactly straight and it likely won’t match your route out. The deer paths are everywhere but deer don’t really have a destination in mind. After all, their food is everywhere and so it their bathroom so following them only adds to the confusion and may have a surprise ending. Occasionally I pulled out my phone and punched up Google Earth, which shows me where I am and where I wanted to be.

When I got close, I could see the plastic Whooping crane decoy that everyone refers to as the dummy mummy. Brooke put it out there a few weeks ago and asked me to bring it back. So I put my sharpened 2×4 down and waded out into the open water. Based on the law of equal and opposite reactions, as I pulled out the decoy, my feet sunk farther into the muck and as I struggled to free them, I fell and stuck both arms shoulder deep into the water.

No big deal but in that maneuver, I may have been turned around because when I waded back to shore, my 2×4 was gone. Ok it has to be here someplace I said repeatedly as a trudged back and forth through the mud and clump grass. Twenty minutes later, I reached the point of diminishing returns. After investing twenty minutes of sweat, I was running out of places to search. It was hard to believe I lost a four foot long 2×4 in only fifty feet of marsh but that couldn’t be the only conclusion. I was so dumbfounded that I stood still and yelled “BROOKE!! IT’S NOT FUNNY ANYMORE! GIVE ME BACK MY 2×4.” Of course, he didn’t answer and my 2×4 did not reappear. Halfway back to the truck I realized I was carrying the decoy in one hand and its mounting post in the other, so I turned back one more time. I fastened the camera to that one-inch rod and tripped over my 2×4 on the way out.

Here are a couple photos from the trail camera.

At the Roosting Pond: Background right are adult Whooping cranes 5-12 & 30-16. Foreground are two Costume-Reared Whooping cranes.

A curious Whooping crane investigates the trailcam.

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Happy Sunday

Adults 27-14 (F) and 10-11(M) near Grand River Marsh – Two Whooping cranes under the watchful eye of ten Turkey vultures.

Cranes are a symbol of happiness and eternal youth while vultures signify patience and tolerance. We could take lessons from birds


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Wild (Crane) Chicks

Guest Author: Doug Pellerin

It’s been a good season for me as I’ve been able to see a good number of adult whooping cranes. But it was so awesome to have the opportunity to see both wild-hatched chicks with their parents.

The one family I knew where it was. That’s 24-09 and 42-09 and chick. The other family I had no idea where they were until I was driving on Saturday and spotted two adult white birds out in a field. I stopped to get a photo when I noticed that there was a chick with them!

Was I ever surprised at my luck to see this family consisting of parents 24-08 and 14-08. It was an amazing and rare experience to be able to photograph two wild chicks in one day.

I’m sure glad I went out that day photographing. It just goes to prove that you never know what you’ll find when out in nature.

Parents 24/42-09 with W3-17 in Adams County, W.

Parents 14/24-08 with W7-17 in Juneau County, WI.

Life in the Slow Lane

Ever since parent-reared Whooping crane #30-17 was released last Thursday, I’ve been assigned to monitor her and record observations about her whereabouts, her behavior, the habitat she’s choosing, who she’s keeping company with, and anything else that seems noteworthy. To do that, I obviously need to situate myself somewhere in her vicinity, preferably with a view. That’s easier said than done!

The marsh is traversed by numerous grassy dikes that I drive on for 2’ish miles to get out near where she was released. Not far you say? Ha! It takes me 30 minutes to travel those 2 miles. The problem is the dikes are full of potholes that you can’t see because the mower leveled the grass off all at the same height. You can’t tell that you are about to send your front tire into a 1 foot hole until your head hits the ceiling in the truck. And that’s only going 7 mph! I quickly learned to reduce my speed to 3-5 mph – it was that or wear Heather’s bicycle helmet.

You know how most cars and trucks will move forward slowly even when you don’t have your foot on the gas pedal? That’s mostly how I had to drive in the marsh for my first 3 days there. The truck does anywhere from 2 to 3 mph at idle, so even if I DO hit a pothole, I don’t bite my tongue off.

I’ve also learned which dikes are smoother than others so I avoid the worst ones whenever possible. By driving round and round on the same dikes trying to triangulate beeps to locate “my bird”, the tires finally tamped down the grass enough so that, for the past couple of days, the potholes are apparent. That has allowed me to speed up considerably – up to 8 mph at times!

Oh! You want to hear about “my bird”, don’t you! Let’s see…

Friday – Whether she was timid or just needed time to recover from HER drive over the bumps, #30-17 did not seem to move around at all on Friday. All my biangulating and triangulating put her beeps pretty much where she walked out of her crate into the marsh. The vegetation is so tall that there was no chance of getting eyes on her. By sunset, when I left, I was pretty concerned that she might not be alive.

Saturday – Upon arrival at sunrise, #30’s beeps put her in the same area, escalating my concern. But, as I proceeded down the “release dike” farther and farther, checking the direction of her transmissions every 100 yards or so, I was surprised when I got beyond her release spot and the beeps were still out in front of me. This was GREAT news – she had MOVED! More beep-tracking seemed to put her out of the marsh where there are some ag fields (where AREN’T there ag fields in Wisconsin?!?!). I knocked at the door of the closest house and the gentleman there was kind enough to drive me in his Polaris to the other end of the fields so I could check beeps there. Nope – not in the ag fields – in the WOODS!

Sunday – Heather came with me to see if together we could locate #30 (with our eyes, not our telemetry receivers). Instead of spending 30 minutes to get into the marsh only to find that she had left the marsh (which would mean another 30 minutes to get back out), we tried listening for her signals on the roads around the marsh. She seemed to be in the same wood lot as the night before. We hiked across the ag fields and then into the woods, using the strength of her beeps to steer us. Both of us feared the worst at this point – cranes don’t usually hang out in this habitat. Suddenly Heather whispered “STOP!”. There, about 30 yards in front of us, right on the edge of the woods and marsh, was an upright #30!

See the bit of white through the branches? Click to enlarge.

My heart flipped – this was my first sight of her since she stepped out of her crate Thursday night! We took a few photos and then backed away to return to the marsh where we could keep an eye on her. We took note that she wasn’t limping and she had spread her wings a few times, so she appeared to be fine. She also tucked her head and took a brief nap. Late in the morning she flew back into the marsh (and out of sight) and we breathed a sigh of relief.

Monday and Tuesday were VERY interesting days, so tune in to my next post for, as Paul Harvey said, “The Rest of the Story”!

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Looks Promising…

Brooke and I went to check the Costume-Reared chicks at daybreak yesterday and at 6:58 all seven arrived at their favorite field. At 7:01, adult cranes 5-12 (Henry) and 30-16 put in an appearance.

Seven Costume-Reared Whooping crane colts and two adult cranes forage in a nearby field. (click to enlarge)

We watched awhile then headed down to look for 28-17, Joe’s elusive Parent-Reared chick, while he babysat the group of seven. They are too close to a busy road for my liking and need a crossing guard.

We did not find 28-17 and after an hour of riding around and listening to static we headed back to White River Marsh.

Joe and Brooke went to the pensite to start the generator, while I nestled down to watch the nine large white birds in the field.

I no sooner got comfy when all of them took off to the west. Henry and 30-16 broke a bit to the north. Then they swerved to the south and climbed higher with the chicks before breaking off again.

At this point they were getting close to the pen and I was hoping Joe and Brooke were looking up. There was no way I was taking my eyes off this show to call one of them! Just then the two adults came back to the chicks and they all circled higher and to the south. The adults called and the chicks peeped.

They landed in a wetland on the other side of the river.

Brooke called a few minutes later to ask if I had seen it, he said they were right over him and Joe!

It was beautiful and impressive and could not help but fill us with hope that Henry will take them south in a few weeks. I am not willing to bet the farm yet but it’s looking possible!

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Crane Spotting

Can you spot the crane in the following image? Sometimes when out tracking, we’re able to detect a beep and then we end up staring at a spot on the landscape, hoping for the briefest sign of movement before you absolutely HAVE TO BLINK.

This is what Jo-Anne and I stared at Sunday for two and a half hours before this young female Whooping crane finally flew out. #goingblind

When you think you’ve found her, click the image to enlarge/reveal.

The Best Laid Plans

Last year I was fortunate enough to monitor the only Parent Reared chick that was properly adopted. There were two pairs of adult Whooping cranes using White River Marsh and we hoped one of them would take number 30-16 under their wing.

Both of those pairs used an open ag field a mile from our pen but they weren’t what you would call close. Unlike Sandhills, Whooping cranes don’t gather together in large social groups. They may use the same habitat and tolerate each other but only if the buffer zones are respected. Prior to selecting mates, they will often form bachelor cohorts so when you see more than a few Whooping cranes together, there’s a good chance that most of them are sub-adults.

We thought the best way to expose little 30-16 to both pairs was to put him in a temporary pen on that favored field and see which one was interested. Turns out neither of them were. Or maybe it turned into a mutually agreed to neutral zone that they all avoided because no one seem to take any interest.

After a couple of days, we released 30-16 closer to the pen and shortly thereafter 3-14 & 4-12 (locally known as the Royal Couple) accepted him. He spent the rest of the fall with them – roosting in safe territory deep in the marsh and foraging in isolated fields.

On the day of the first serious snowfall I watched them head south, all three in perfect order. They wintered in south Georgia and led him back to White River in the spring. He hung around until they chased him off and began to build their first nest. Those familiar will know that they incubated two eggs until the last day before hatch when a coyote took them – live – on camera.

Interestingly enough, that chick is buddies with another male 5-12 (locally known as Uncle Henry). These two are now busy showing the ropes to our Costume-reared cohort.

“Little 30-16” is the second crane from the right – All grown up now. Photo captured last week near the marsh.

It would seem logical to give the Royal Couple another chick this year but things haven’t work out. They don’t use that open field anymore and they roost so far into the marsh that we have no hope of carrying a crate out there. Seems a shame.

When you work with Whooping cranes you soon realize that they don’t follow our plans no matter how carefully conceived.

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Modern Family

Right about now our team would be gathering in Wisconsin and gearing up for the start of the migration, so it’s an interesting exercise to instead be preparing our birds for release.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service directed WCEP to focus on parent-rearing which we have done for the last two seasons. But, just like most things in life, saying and doing are not the same. For one thing, birds in captivity can produce more eggs than they can raise, hence the use of incubators and hand-rearing. In order to parent-rear chicks, adult pairs must stop producing eggs and instead spend all of their time being mom and dad. Consequently, the captive centers can only produce so many parent-reared chicks, and that does not include all of the eggs salvaged from Necedah NWR. 

The odds of a chick surviving to breeding age when it was hatched in captivity and released into the wild are slim. In any reintroduction it is important to get the numbers out there because you never know who will be around in five years
To offset attrition and keep the numbers up, the Fish and Wildlife Service allowed WCEP to include a small group of costume-reared birds along with the maximum number of parent-reared birds. 
But it’s not all about the numbers. Birds parent-reared in captivity and released in the fall are somewhat disadvantaged. First, they learn how to fly in a pen or at least they try. Secondly, they don’t get much time to form a bond with their introduction site and their inclination to come back the following spring is compromised. And finally they don’t have much time to form a bond with the older Whooping cranes whom we hope will lead them south and show them how to survive along the way. Addressing those problems were our three ambitions when we started last spring and, so far, so good. 
Brooke and Colleen have been doing a stellar job of caring for these seven callow birds. But, instead of improving their connection to the costumes and the aircraft so they will follow us over 1200 miles, they had to slowly remove themselves and foster independence. 
We began by encouraging the chicks to fly. Whooping cranes take eighty to one hundred days to develop the feathers and muscles to fly. But it’s not like a switch that one day gets turned on and they are expert aviators. Learning the subtleties of balance and grace takes time and practice. Inexperienced birds will collide mid-air or even fly into trees. We have seen them try to land downwind which always reminds me of stealing rides on farm wagons when I was a kid. 
In my home town farmers would stack bags of seed from the mill high on flatbed trailers pulled by tractors. As they drove slowly through the town we would jump on the back for a free ride. Once they’d get on the back roads though, they would shift into high gear. We were left with a choice of walking back from a farm some miles out in the country or trying to exit a too-fast tractor with too-short legs. We would dangle from the back of the trailer, trying to get our legs going fast enough to match the trailer speed – then let go. It never worked. Birds landing downwind have that same look on their faces when they realize just how fast they are moving. 
Our seven costume reared birds are now expert flyers ready for a long migration.
Next the birds were introduced to the marsh. We cut wide paths through the tall grass and Brooke used a gas trimmer equipped with a blade to open up two nearby ponds. They were led there every day until the birds would fly on their own, but they wouldn’t stay alone for long. So Brooke or Colleen would hide in a blind while the chicks foraged. Still the bird knew the hiding places and eventually came looking. Brooke put out decoys of an adult bird and a costumed handler, and he would get into the blind before Colleen let them out. Instead of leading them to the pond she would close herself into the pen and finally the chicks would fly to the pond unaware of Brooke’s watchful eye. 
Eventually they became more independent and, about that time, 5-12 (“Henry”) and 30-16 (the adopted son of the Royal Couple) began moving around more, a typical fall behavior. Those two males spent most of the summer deep in the marsh but now they often roost in a pond to the southwest of the pen, and our seven increasingly independent birds join them. They spend the nights together and go their separate ways in the morning.

Trailcam image shows the two adults on the right and the juvenile cranes on the left.

Lately that bond has slowly been getting stronger. The more opportunity they have to spend time together, the better the chance the chicks will follow when it’s time to head south. We still have a month or two before that happens so we are letting nature take its course. Brooke and Colleen leave the pen door open and occasionally the chicks will stop in for food, but they are no longer dependent on what we provide. They have roosted out for the last two weeks and now some mornings all nine fly out together.
Henry spends his winters in St. Marks NWR and is famous for his attempts to encourage the 2015 cohort to follow him north. Three times he left the pen but came back to try again. He is also a forlorn and rejected male. Three times he has lost his mate to other, more aggressive males.  
The “allo-prince”, number 30-16, followed the Royal Couple to Georgia last year in the only successful adoption.
Together, Henry and 30-16 are like Oscar and Felix but, hopefully, they will mentor this odd hybrid of costume-reared and adult-bonded chicks. It’s a modern family story. Stay tuned.
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Would You HELP?

We have all watched the nightly news stories showing the devastation caused by hurricane Harvey in Texas. The news focuses on the effects humans have to deal with and shows destroyed homes and communities trying to put their lives back together.

Naturally, our first thoughts were with our friends and colleagues on the coast, but then our concerns turned toward the Whooping cranes. Luckily, the cranes that winter in and around the Aransas National Wildlife Area were still in Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Canada when hurricane Harvey tore through their winter habitat.

In fact, now, a month after the hurricane, some of those cranes are on their way to their winter home – and with a record number of young-of-year!

The massive storm, with 120 mph winds and rainfall measured in feet, is believed to have eroded marshes and coastlines that are home to dozens of species of birds and marine life, including, of course, Whooping cranes.

The water in and around Aransas is a brackish mix of salt water from the Gulf and fresh water from the Guadalupe River. That delicate balance sustains the blue crab population which, along with the pistol shrimp, clams and wolfberries, make up the primary diet of wintering Whooping cranes.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff have yet to determine if the series of fresh water ponds that the Whooping cranes use for drinking are contaminated. Most of that habitat is extremely resilient. Its vegetation evolved to withstand regular floods, but modern floods bring with them another hazard that wasn’t part of their evolution: plastics, tires, human debris, even barrels of oil have been found in critical crane habitat. The solids can be cleaned up eventually but the liquid contaminants take much longer and are far more expensive to remove.

This critical habitat was spared from the massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 but those in the Whooping crane world on the Texas coast have always said, “it’s not a matter of IF there’s a chemical spill but rather WHEN…”, and when that does happen, what then will the cranes’ habitat look like?

Storms of increasing intensity and rising sea levels threaten the critical habitat used by Whooping cranes both in Texas and Louisiana where a reintroduced flock of non-migratory Whooping cranes is now up to over fifty birds.

These are the primary reasons Operation Migration remains committed to building the Eastern Migratory Population. IF/WHEN something happens to the wintering habitat used by the only naturally occurring population, it could threaten the existence of the entire species.

The Eastern flock is an insurance policy – when the Eastern Migratory Population began in 2001, it was intended that the cranes would winter in the salt marshes on the Gulf Coast of Florida. Obviously, the birds had other ideas because they now spread out over much of the east – from southern Indiana and south into the Florida panhandle.

That distribution was once considered a shortcoming of this project but it will likely safeguard the population from any one disastrous event – weather or man-made. Perhaps it makes them more adaptable than the natural flock that congregates in a relatively small area of precious habitat with an uncertain future.

This is why we can’t stop until the Eastern flock reaches a self-sustaining level. We need public support and involvement to get the Whooping crane population back to healthy numbers.

Operation Migration receives no government funds and does its work through the support of people who care about cranes and nature, and who do not want to see this species go extinct in our lifetime.

This year we have costume-reared a cohort of seven young Whooping cranes at White River Marsh in Green Lake County, Wisconsin and they are in the process of releasing themselves. In fact, over the past two weeks they have roosted at a nearby pond along with two older Whooping cranes. Here they are on a recent outing when they met up with two Sandhill cranes.

We are participating in and supporting Parent-Reared releases in Wisconsin – this week we will release an additional six young cranes.

In total, this year, we and our partners will have released nineteen young-of-year Whooping cranes into the Eastern flock and we’ll continue to monitor them until they head south in the coming weeks.

Naturally, our work doesn’t come without cost. We are a small non-profit operating on a shoe-string budget.

Our annual Mile-Maker campaign, which ran in conjunction with the ultralight-guided migration flights, generated over $200,000 each year. This is funding we lost when the Fish and Wildlife Service halted those flights.

We still have work to do and we’re asking you to help with a financial contribution. We’re not giving up on the Eastern Population and we hope you’ve not given up on us!

Will you help us safeguard this incredible species? Click here to help.

Or call our office at: 800-675-2618

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Auction Deadline Looming!

This year’s online auction will wrap up this Saturday, October 7th and NOON (Central) so, if you don’t already follow Operation Migration’s Facebook page, it’s time to click FB_like

The minimum bid amount listed on each item in no way reflects the fair market value of that item. Instead, the minimum bid amount was established to cover postage/packaging costs within North America.

To place a bid, just leave a comment on the photo of the item you are bidding on, including the amount of your bid. If you are outbid, you may increase your bid by posting your new bid in another comment.

At the conclusion of the auction, you will be contacted for payment information and, upon receipt of payment, your item will be sent to you. Happy bidding!

ALL funds raised will go to support Operation Migration their work with Whooping cranes in 2017. Here’s just a few of the items available! 

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Whooping Crane Update

October 1, 2017

Below is the most recent update for the Eastern Migratory Population of Whooping Cranes. In the last month we have begun releasing the parent-reared juveniles. 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 maximum population size is 101 (42 F, 55 M, 4 U). This includes two fledged 2017 wild-hatched chicks (unknown sex), and the six released parent-reared juveniles. As of 1 October, at least 89 Whooping Cranes have been confirmed in Wisconsin, 1 in Iowa, 1 in Michigan, and 1 in Kentucky. The remaining birds’ locations have not been reported during September. See maps below.

2017 Wild-hatched chicks
There are currently two wild-hatched chicks alive in Wisconsin, both of which have fledged.

W3_17 is still with its parents in Adams Co, WI.

W7_17 is still with its parents in Juneau Co, WI.

Parent-Reared 2017 Cohort
19_17 (M) and 25_17 (M) were released 14 September in Marathon Co, WI near adults 2_15 (F) and 28_05 (F). 19_17 is often seen associating with the adults, and 25_17 has occasionally been seen with the adults. 19_17 has been flying a bit further out than 25_17, but both have been roosting in the same marsh as the adults.

26_17 (F) and 28_17 (M) were released 18 September in Marquette Co, WI near adults 27_14 (F) and 10_11 (M). 26_17 has been using some of the same fields as the adults and 28_17 has been exploring a much larger area.

24_17 (M) was released 20 September in Dodge Co, WI near adult 66_15 (F). He has been roosting in the same marsh as 66_15 and has begun exploring the surrounding fields, often with Sandhill Cranes.

72_17 (M) was released 26 September in Winnebago Co, WI near adult 71_16 (F). The two have been seen foraging in the same field, but have not yet been regularly associating. 72_17 has been flying around the area and has also been associating with Sandhill Cranes.

Parent-Reared 2016 Cohort
29_16 (M) and 39_16 (M) left Ward County, ND and are currently in Marathon Co, WI.

30_16 (M) is still in Green Lake Co, WI, associating with 5_12 (M). These two have also been seen associating with the captive-reared cohort near the pen at White River Marsh SWA.

31_16 (M) spent all of September in Winnebago and Waushara Counties, WI.

33_16 (F) continues to be in Clinton Co, IA.

69_16 (F) left Jefferson Co, and spent most of September in Dane Co, WI.

70_16 (M) is still in Knox County, KY.

71_16 (F) spent all of September in Winnebago Co, WI. On 26 September, 72_17 was released in the same area as 71_16 (see above).

61_15 (F) was found dead on 21 September 2017 in Dodge County, WI. She had likely been dead for a while and the cause of death is unknown. She was last seen in the area on 30 August 2017.

Full extent of Whooping Crane locations as of 1 October 2017.

Zoomed in map of Wisconsin locations of Whooping Cranes as of 1 October 2017.

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