The Royal Couple

Sunday morning Doug Pellerin was on his way to the pensite to assist Colleen on an outing and just as he turned onto White River Marsh Rd. he came upon these two beauties in the field. 

They are female 3-14 and male 4-12 aka the Royal Couple as they are the first pair to claim White River Marsh as their summer territory.

The pair nested this year and everyone was deeply saddened when on May 8th at 7:20pm a coyote predated the two viable eggs. Shortly thereafter the pair moved to an area deep in the marsh and were not seen for 8 weeks or so. It is very likely one or both were molting and temporarily flightless.

Needless to say, we’re thrilled both were spotted again on Sunday near the pensite.

#4-12 on the left and female 3-14 on the right. Photo: Doug Pellerin

Female 3-14 on the left and male #4-12 on the right. Photo: Doug Pellerin

Heading back to the marsh. Photo: Doug Pellerin

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Turns out Whooping cranes love ’em! 

If you’re not familiar with these tiny, purple Dewberry gems of sweetness, they are cousins to the blackberry, but unlike their cousin, Dewberries grow on the ground and not on upright canes. They are similar in that both plants have prickles, which for humans can make for a painful picking session but thankfully cranes are perfectly suited to pluck them from the vines with their long, slender mandibles. That said, they do still get messy… 

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Solar Eclipse Frenzy

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few weeks, you’re well aware that tomorrow will bring a solar eclipse, which for some, depending on whether you’re fortunate to be in the 60- to 70-mile-wide “path of totality,” will see the moon completely block out the sun and cause the sky to go black in the middle of the day. 

Unfortunately, Wisconsin is outside the path of totality and the forecast is calling for clouds and possible storms, which means we will see little difference. I was looking forward to watching the CraneCam to see if the young cranes react in any way when darkness falls. We may get lucky and the clouds won’t appear – time will tell. The cranes may head to the water and assume their roosting stance on one leg.

Have you given any thought to how wildlife might react? I mean birds spend 24 hours a day outside so they’re far more tuned in to the rise and fall of the sun/moon than we humans could ever hope to be. 

Will diurnal bird species go quiet as conditions darken on Monday? Will nocturnal species begin to vocalize much earlier? I can’t wait to find out!

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Whooping Cranes vs. Garter Snake

*warning: if you’re at all squeamish you may not want to watch.

On the way back to the pen yesterday, following a 3-hour outing, the cranes happened upon a large garter snake in the grass.

You may recall number 3-17 has some experience with snakes now after he ate his first last week so he took the role of lead snake wrangler, while the others occasionally had a nip at it. Watch to see how it ends for the snake and who gets the prize…

Thanks to Colleen Chase for capturing on video.

White River Marsh Blind Visit

Now’s your chance to visit the viewing blind at White River Marsh!

The blind is located close to the pensite where there are currently seven young-of-year whooping cranes being costumed reared in preparation for release in just a few weeks.

You can visit the blind on Thursday mornings by contacting Doug Pellerin at 920-923-0016 – Don’t forget your camera!

Speaking of Doug, here are a couple of great photos he captured yesterday from inside the viewing blind: 

Whooping crane #4-17 in flight. Photo: Doug Pellerin

Photo: Doug Pellerin

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Banner Year for Whooping Crane Hatches at Wood Buffalo

A record 63 whooping crane chicks were born in Wood Buffalo National Park this year — an encouraging sign for conservationists who continue to monitor the rare bird’s long, slow climb back from near-extinction. Among this year’s hatches are four sets of twins.

The impressive birth rate blows away the previous high of 49 fledglings, set during the 2006 season.

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Aerial Survey

Wisconsin DNR Pilot, Bev Paulan was able to dodge raindrops yesterday and get a flight in over the central part of Wisconsin. She was able to determine that W3-17 and W7-17 are both still alive.

W7-17 with either 24-08 (Mom) or 14-08 (Dad) on Necedah NWR. Photo: Bev Paulan, WI DNR

We’re fairly certain W7-17 hatched out on May 31st, which would make it now 11 weeks old. It was captured safely on July 28th for transmitter placement and legbands. At that time, blood was drawn so we should no soon if it’s a boy or a girl crane.

In Adams County, Bev flew over W3-17 with parents 24-09 (Dad) and 42-09 (Mom) but was unable to get a photo. Luckily Brooke captured the following image in late July.

Whooping crane colt #W3-17 with parents 24-09 & 42-09. Photo: Brooke Pennypacker

This youngster hatched May 4th, making him/her almost 15 weeks or 105 days old. Both are now fully capable of flight, which means they’ll be able to escape land predators and have a better chance of surviving.

NEW Events Added!

We have recently added a couple of exciting things to the Whooping Crane Festival roster and we want to make sure you’re aware of them.

Firstly, on Thursday evening, Sept. 7th, you’ll have an opportunity to join everyone at a create/paint your own sign event! 

This will take place at the VFW lodge in Princeton and the bar will be open so come on out and have a beverage, socialize with old friends and make new ones, while supporting a great cause! 

The instructor will have all the prep work done and will offer a number of unique designs so you’ll be proud to take your masterpiece home with you as a memento.

Next, we’ve added a speaker to the line-up but this one will take place on Sunday, Sept. 10th at the Caestecker Library in beautiful Green Lake, Wisconsin.

Associate Professor Misty McPhee is our featured guest speaker at 11am. Misty has been the lead researcher at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge for the past 2 years and will share her initial findings in determining the post-hatch/pre-fledge whooping crane chick mortality issue. 

Check out the entire festival line-up and be sure to register for those events you want to attend over the weekend!

The Food Chain

For these birds to survive they have to find food in the marsh. It was windy Saturday and the chicks were nervous. I gave up on the pond eventually, even though all of them came in — even #8-17 who really does not like to get her feet wet THERE but, they clung to the costume. 

Number 8-17 prefers to stand atop grass clumps instead of the water at the pond.

Instead, we went foraging. We found a new patch of Dewberries for them to snarf down. #3-17 ate a mushroom. We discovered little acorns and when we eventually got back to the pen the main course!

3-17 ate a small snake for lunch! (click for larger view)

But don’t feel bad for the rest of the birds. They ALL got a piece or two of Doug!

Happy to report yesterday (Sunday) went much better. All of them were quite preoccupied foraging in the pond. Doug hid in the blind and I slipped away behind a thicket of alders out of view.

Hiding out of view while the cranes explore the pond.

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Woody Woodpecker was Really a Whooping Crane

His real name was Woody Whooper. Don’t look so surprised. You didn’t really believe everything they told us when we were kids, did you? I mean, think about it. Did Columbus really discover America? Do you still believe crawling under your elementary school desk in a “Duck and Cover” exercise would have saved you from that atomic bomb? And even though you spent a whole year being a good little boy or girl, did Santa really bring you that pony for Christmas? I didn’t think so. Then why trust them to know the difference between a woodpecker and a whooping crane.

Actually, I uncovered this simple truth the other day quite by accident when we took the colts on a foraging expedition to the North Pond. There, next to the pond, center stage stood a very old, rotten tree stump… remnant of a once great presence, beaconing to the chicks like a ringing dinner bell to come and get it… which they did. Now, biologists have proven that locked deep within the soul of every young whooper chick is a woodpecker trying desperately to get out. There’s nothing a little whooper enjoys more than jack hammering away at a rotten anything. Not in quest for the bugs within, but for the pure, sensory pleasure of the doing. And so, how do they spell rotten tree stump?  “Beakathon.”

First contestant was #1, which I guess is why he’s #1. His initial rather timid, exploratory pecks soon grew into a blinding fusillade of hammer blows, creating a cloudburst of wood chips showering down from above.

His beak blurred as it assaulted the stump with the manic intensity of a child whose mother forgot to give him his Ritalin. It was a sight that would have made any self-respecting woodpecker squeal with envy. “When I grow up, I want to be a whooping crane.”

Then, as if following the First Law of Whopper Physics which states, “Monkey See, Monkey Do,” #3 joined in the fray from the opposite side of the stump. “Two heads are better than one,” he shouted as a second cloud of wood chips ballooned up from the scene.

The whole spectacle held me transfixed and mesmerized… like watching some mini volcanic eruption. Could all the answers of the Universe really be somehow magically contained in this simple act of two woodpecker wannabees reducing a tree stump to dust? After all, the Lord really does speak in strange ways. “Get a grip, Grasshopper,” the voice commanded gently from above.

And that’s when the true reality of it all hit me. This was, like the rest of life, a Contact sport, which meant it was a Concussive sport… which meant Head Trauma! I suddenly felt like a parent at a high school football game watching his son get tackled hard to the ground as helmets cracked and crowd cheered and a few fans stepped off the bleachers for hotdogs, while the other tribe… ah, team marched off the field in triumph. Did I really want #1 and #3 suffering from Early Onset Dementia? I can hear their conversation now; “How many fingers am I holding up?” and “Put me back in, Coach.”  I just hate it when reality buys a ticket to the game!

But then, it’s all about “Enrichment.”  Zoo Science has proven that if you leave critters in a cage or pen with nothing to do long enough, their cognitive skills suffer, their brains shrink and they undergo “Partial Zombification.” It’s the same with humans, which explains the coke bottle that fell from the sky in the Must See movie, “The Gods Must Be Crazy. However, there is also such a thing as over-enrichment (“Hey Bubba. Watch this”!), especially when it is hazardous to one’s health. That’s what whistles are for… so I blew mine, which in whooper terms means I turned on my vocalizer “Contact Call,” whoopereeze for “Everybody out of the pool.  We’re going home.”

“But I didn’t get my turn at bat!” #4 lamented.

“Next time,” I replied. “Life is full of next times. And besides, a mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

As our happy little cohort headed off for home, Colleen and I examined #1 and #3 closer than a traffic cop doing a sobriety test. “Had anything to drink tonight?” Colleen asked #1. Then he stood on one leg while his eyes followed her index finger as it drew a right and left, then up and down. “Now, what was your mother’s maiden name?” she queried. He just looked over at #3… and giggled.

Back in the pen, it was the usual daily homecoming… feeder chow downs followed by strolls down beautiful “Bayou Vista.” As we exited, I noticed #1 leaning against the pen wall steadying himself doing his best imitation of someone just home from a “Toot.” And we weren’t far down the runway when his oh so familiar voice rang out.

“Avig…Avig…Avig…That’s all, folks!”

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Weaning From the Costume

The young Whooping cranes are now being taken out for longer periods of time. Once out, we sneak away and letting them do bird things on their own. Numbers 1, 2, 3, 4 and 7 are doing ok and are gaining independence.
Alternatively, 6 and 8 are not sure they like the pond, so far they would rather not get their feet wet. It’s a process. 

This is the view from inside the blind.

One of us goes in the pond to lure them in, after they are busy and distracted that costume hides in the scrub in the deeper water, where there is a perfect hidey hole.

We stay in our hides till they get antsy and start looking panicky. We are doing about 3 hours out now. Then it’s back to the raspberry patch for a snack on the way back to the pen.

Water floods your boots and you squish all the way back to the van.

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Learning to Fly

It is estimated that it takes between 80 to 100 days for a Whooping crane to grow large and strong enough to fly. It seems surprising that a term like ‘estimated’ would be used for a species so widely researched… not to mention an evaluation that allows almost a month of latitude. Still it is a hard question to answer when the determining factors are as diverse as weather, geography, vegetation, physiology and nutrition.

Anyone who has watched our camera knows there is a substantial difference in the size of our chicks and it is not always governed by gender or age. Some birds are just smaller or slower to develop than others. In the wild, nutrition may play a role in that development but our birds get a balanced diet that is not dependent on the abundance of natural food or how good they are at foraging. The better their nutrition, the faster they can develop the muscles needed to fly. Proper and adequate nutrition can also ensure strong and flawless feathers.

Weather could also affect their progress from egg to airborne. Wings, whether they are made of feathers, fabric or fiberglass must all pass through the air in order to generate lift. When you are faced into the wind, some of that air is already moving over your wings even before you start adding your won energy to the process. That means it takes less effort to take off into the wind.

If you have watched the crew trying to encourage the chicks to fly by running up and down the runway, it is obvious that they prefer to go into the wind. That is one of the first, and most important, flying lessons learned by birds – and pilots. Breezy conditions, especially in the morning, inspire young birds to spread their immature wings and run/flap into the wind. That exercise helps to develop muscles and balance well before they are ready to lift off.

Vegetation and geography can also factor into how soon they fledge. Whooping cranes generally take a few steps to get airborne. Mature cranes can lift off vertically when needed but that takes strength and experience. Fledglings start by running, which evolves into elongated steps and then short hops as the load is progressively transferred from their feet to their feathers. For young cranes, their early takeoff runs may be as long as fifty feet. That kind of open environment might be hard to find in tall, marsh vegetation or open water.

That’s the primary reason we keep the old runway cut. It allows the birds to get a running start and even while they are too young to actually leave the ground, it develops their muscles and teaches balance.

There is a phase of flight called ground effect that has to do with induced drag and the proximity to the surface but it simple terms, it means that it is easier to fly within a few feet of the ground than it is at higher altitudes. You may have noticed the birds flying the length of the runway at a few feet up and stopping at the far end. Most wild birds don’t have the advantage of an open flat runway unless their parents led them to feed in a harvested agriculture field. Keeping the runway cut, gives the costume reared chicks an early start at flying.

The other problem in determining how long it takes Whooping cranes to learn to fly is figuring out when they have it mastered. You could say they are flying when they are a foot or two off the runway but that does not mean they could fly across the marsh with their parents to feed. In the past, we suggested the flock was fledged when we recorded the youngest bird making a full circuit around the pen area. Using those criteria, we estimated (there’s that word again) that the birds we raised over 15 years, fledged at an average age of 94 days on August 12th. This year’s cohort fledged on July 30th at an average of 91 days. Admittedly, that’s a broad evaluation so let’s leave it between 80 and a hundred days.

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Stepping Back

Colleen reports that the seven young whoopers in the costume-reared cohort are doing well. Each received a temporary snap-on VHF transmitter last Friday so that if they decide to wander off or land out in the marsh, they’ll be easier to find by following the beeps from the handheld receiver.

As is usually the case, they are very curious about this new foreign piece of plastic and its antenna and are rather preoccupied pecking and probing at it and even limping when they walk. 

The daily outings continue and the birds are gaining more and more independence. After leading them to a small pond north of their enclosure, Brooke and Colleen hide out of sight and allow them to explore on their own. Saturday and Sunday’s excursions each lasted over 3 hours. 

Getting them back into the pen is a bit more difficult now that they’ve discovered the raspberry patch at the north end of the runway.

Last Thursday morning our camera apparently sustained a lightning strike, which fried the power inverter inside the camera trailer. I ordered a replacement last night and Brooke will be able to swap out the new for the fried once it arrives later this week.

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FESTIVAL is FAST Approaching!

2017 Whooping Crane Festival in Princeton, Wisconsin

The festival takes place the second weekend in September with activities getting underway Thursday, Sept. 7th with a fun Paint your own Sign night at the VFW Lodge in Princeton! This is a new event that we’ve just added as a way to get reacquainted with festival friends. Our instructor will have all the prep work done so all we have to do is have an adult beverage and use the stencils, paints and boards provided to create your own keepsake.

The next day features a field trip to nearby Marsh Haven Nature Center near Horicon Marsh. Your trip will include a presentation about Birds, Butterflies and Your Backyard followed by lunch and a boardwalk stroll. Bus transportation to/from is provided.

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. 

Saturday, Sept. 9th 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.

NEW this year! We’re thrilled to offer a Nature Photography Workshop! 

Love taking photos of birds? Butterflies? Flowers? Mystified by the camera settings? This workshop is for you! Check out the details and register here. Space is limited.

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:

Saturday evening we’ll see a Crane Trivia re-match! The VFW Lodge in Princeton will be the place for this epic brain battle. Will team OMG win back the title from team Chix’s Chicks? 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 – 10, 2017 – we hope to see you there!

“I lost my phone”!

God created the earth and everything on it in six days. On the seventh day he stopped to rest. Not because he was tired, but because he lost his cellphone. It was a problem. When you’re God, it’s more than a little embarrassing to have to yell down, “Hey Adam. Do me a favor and call my cell phone. I lost it!”  Especially when you know the only answer you’re going to get is, “What’s a cellphone?” And so began mankind’s universal journey of frustration that continues to this day. Or at least until Monday… when Colleen lost her phone in the marsh.

The day began as most days here do…. as we walked the birds to a new “foraging destination” Joe had mowed a few days before. I was watching the birds as they madly probed the wetland for each and every “beakable” item waiting just beneath the surface when I noticed Joe and Colleen suddenly doing the same thing… only with their arms.

Then, as their speed increased from 45 to 78 rpm, they began to resemble a couple of costumed cardiac patients digging in a swamp for their pacemakers as if their lives depended on it. A new training protocol, I wondered? Or was this the beginning of some kind of twisted reality show. You have to remember, people in costumes can look pretty funny doing just about anything, no matter how many years you’ve been watching them.

Finally, I just couldn’t stand it anymore and walked over to Joe. “What are you doing?” I asked.  “Colleen lost her cellphone,” he replied. “She fell in the water and it popped out of her costume pocket.” This came as a surprise because I hadn’t seen her fall. But then I rarely do because she has become so skilled at the art of “face plant recovery” that most times it all happens so fast you don’t even see it. Like staring at a hummingbird in flight and trying to see its wings. In fact, the only way I know it’s just happened is because the chicks suddenly all line up like Olympic judges, holding up large scoring cards with big numbers on them.  I joined in the search, but as usual was not much help.

“Can’t we call Jacques Cousteau to come take a look?” Colleen asked. “Nope” I replied. “He and his narrator, Rod Serling, are already busy working on another project; “Eternal Decompression.”

We walked the birds back to the pen while Colleen quietly sang the “Wizard of Oz” song, “If I Only Had a…. Phone.” Then it was back to the parking lot to regroup. At a time like this, who you going to call? Not “Ghost Busters” because the marsh isn’t haunted. No. You call “Detector Man”!  That’s who.  Now, it just so happened I had recently purchased a brand new metal detector. “Plan for your retirement now!” the TV financial guru demanded. “Social Security is not going to be there when you need it. Neither is healthcare.” So… I bought a metal detector. It’s better than a Swiss Bank Account. No account number to forget. And besides, what better way to spend your “Golden Years” than sweeping deserted beaches, metal detector in one hand, beverage in the other, for its hidden treasure of pop tops and thin dimes… the very cornerstones of any financial retirement plan. Those things add up… and pennies really do make dollars. And no Tax Man.

We sped back to camp, retrieved the metal detector from the locked bank vault and returned to the “Accident Scene.” As we walked past the pen, I heard #1 say to #4. “Looks like he’s practicing for retirement.” With shaking hands, I adjusted the detector settings to “She Dropped Her Cellphone” as the metal detector barked to life and the search began. It wasn’t too many sweeps later that the detector began to scream, prompting me to dig way down until my fingers hit the jackpot.  “Got it!” I whispered as I yanked it up and excitedly cleaned it off for inspection. But as with so much of the rest of life, the thrill of victory quickly morphed into the agony of defeat as we confronted the new reality that Colleen had become the proud new owner of a… PAPER WEIGHT. 

“Can you call it to see if it still works?” Colleen asked.

“Better not.” I replied. “We don’t want to disturb the little fish swimming on the other side of the screen, unless of course you’ve got it on “Aquarium App.”

It was then we heard the voice from above call down, “The Lord Giveth and the Lord Taketh Away. That is why I created INSURANCE.”

Less than 24 hours later, our good friend Jerry from the Refuge stopped us on the road and passed a just delivered box through the van window. “Your new phone,” he said smiling.  Colleen proceeded to tear open the box with all the calm delicacy of a hungry lion devouring a gazelle… and there it was.  The new phone. She stared at it as if it was a winning lottery ticket. Then her joyful expression quickly faded to confusion and suspicion. “This phone is from a different manufacturer,” she said.

“What manufacturer?” I asked.

“Chicken of the Sea!”

Nice to know the “Man Upstairs” hasn’t lost his sense of humor.

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