One Mile at a Time…

We received a PTT hit for Whooping crane #10-15 a bit ago. She is one of the group of five young cranes that yesterday, was in Gibson County, Indiana.

It would appear that the group indeed headed north after leaving Gibson County and is now in Putnam County, Illinois.

A hit for female 2-15 has her still in Jasper County, Indiana.

With rain showers moving through the area today they will likely hunker down.

(Will post a map with the next update once we receive data from the newer tracking devices)

Northward Migration Progress

Our group of five young Whooping cranes continued north yesterday and made it to Gibson County, Indiana.

A bit further north, the lone female #2-15 appears to have stayed put in Jasper County, Indiana.

With winds from the southeast over the entire state of Indiana today, I suspect both groups are currently on the move and hopefully heading toward Wisconsin.

Here is the map showing the progress of the group of five since leaving St. Marks on March 30th, and as well, the location for Whooping crane #2-15 (farther north).

Progress as of evening of Apr. 4. Yellow placemarkers indicate our southward stopover locations. Yellow bullseye indicates last known location for five juveniles. Yellow sunburst is location for 2-15.

Progress as of evening of Apr. 4. Yellow place-markers indicate our southward stopover locations. Yellow bulls-eye indicates last known location for five juveniles. Yellow sunburst is location for 2-15.

Some Sad News…

I hate writing these types of updates. Always have. Always will.

It is with very heavy heart we must share news that the remains of male Whooping crane 9-13 have been found. This young male spent last summer in Marquette County, Wisconsin, along with 4-13 & 7-14 and did not turn up at the St. Marks NWR when the pair did.

Not really alarming considering he spent the previous winter south of Gainesville, Florida but when he didn’t turn up there either, we grew suspicious.

He had a PTT device but the last ping from the unit was dated November 11th and showed he was still in Marquette County. Still not alarming as last winter a good number of cranes delayed the trip south due to warm weather in the northern half of the country.

We finally received a ping from his device over the weekend and at first I was excited to see he had made it back to Marquette County. Then that little niggly feeling in the back of my brain kicked in. Why would his device come back to life after four months of silence and why was it pinging from the same location as the last hits on November 11th…?

Unfortunately, the only plausible answer was that sometime last fall 9-13 had been killed and over the winter his remains had been covered by snow – until recently.

One of the ICF interns ventured out yesterday and collected his remains…

Thanks to Doug Pellerin for providing photos so that we can remember him in all his whooper glory…

Male Whooping crane #9-13 photographed in the summer of '15.

Male Whooping crane #9-13 photographed in the summer of ’15.


Whooping crane #9-13.

Better Technology

Instead of waiting for an old, re-commissioned satellite to pick up three hits from a bird’s transmitter and triangulate the location, the new CTT units provide a GPS track history of exactly where the bird has been since the last update. In the past we would get a couple of locations during their return migration and we would simply connect the dots with straight lines to estimate the course.

As you can see in the last report, Heather was able to show the exact route they took. This is one of the first times we have been able to graphically show how closely they follow the path we showed them last year.

It makes you wonder just what it was they were learning on the way south. It’s hard to believe they gathered any information at all from so many weather delays, hour-long rodeos around the departure points and the times when some of them had to be crated to the next stopover.

Flying over the Tennessee River near Hiwassee State Wildlife Area.

The 2003 cohort crossing the Tennessee River near Hiwassee State Wildlife Area.

Even flying at 4000 feet you can only see 20 miles or so in all directions and that is on the clear days. And it’s not like our route is lined with obvious landmarks. Most of Illinois looks pretty much the same from the air as does Kentucky or Alabama.

In a preliminary study in 1996, we led Sandhill cranes from Port Perry, Ontario to Virginia. We flew around the east end of Lake Ontario and then southwest to Environmental Studies at Airlie near Warrenton, VA. On the way back, the birds flew straight north – making a beeline for home until they hit the south shore of Lake Ontario near Rochester, NY. It took them some time but they eventually made their way around the west end of the lake and back to Port Perry. That means they were 190 miles from anything they had flown over. Even with super crane vision, they couldn’t have seen that far, so we know they don’t recognize the route from visual clues, at least not entirely.

We also know that if they don’t fly at least part of the route, they get lost on the way back. Case in point are the 2014 birds that we trucked from Wisconsin to Tennessee to avoid the early onset of winter. We flew them the last half of the migration route and in the spring, they followed that path north until they ran out of information in southern Illinois — but what information were they lacking??

In our early studies with Sandhills, we even tried stage-by-stage migration where birds were trucked 50 miles, released to fly around, then trucked another 50 miles. We hoped they would connect the dots to find their way home, but it didn’t work. Brooke Pennypacker and Environmental Studies at Airlie carried some Canada geese aloft in large cage suspended below a gas filled balloon, hoping the birds could simply witness the migration in a passive sort of way and find their way back. But after they were dropped off, they didn’t return.

And why is it that some birds instinctively know how and where to migrate while others need to be shown the route. Precocial birds like cranes leave the nest almost immediately after hatching and follow their parents through the marsh to learn what to eat. They are considered more advanced than altricial birds, like passerines that are hatched naked with their eyes closed. They can’t keep themselves warm and the parents deliver their food until they fledge. Once out of the nest, they are on their own.

Some European Cuckoos are parasitic nesters laying their eggs in the nests of other birds, then leaving. Their offspring have no connection to their biological families yet they can migrate on their own to the same habitat used by their parent, thousands of miles away. Wouldn’t it be handy if cranes retained that instinctive migration knowledge while developing those other skills?

I am not much of a believer in the afterlife but I wish, as a reward for all the hard work of living, we would get twenty minutes after we die with a panel of experts who knew the real answers to questions like what is the origin of the universe, where is Jimmy Hoffa and how do cranes migrate?

Northward Migration UPdate

It would seem despite very windy conditions for most of the weekend the five juveniles from the 2015 cohort made pretty decent progress. As of late yesterday they had made it to Henderson County, Kentucky.

You may recall last Thursday they were in Elmore County, Alabama, and we know they also stayed at that location on Friday, which means over the past two days they’ve covered close to 400 miles!

Brooke and I have both mentioned that one of our CTT devices failed after only two weeks. This was the unit which number 1-15 was wearing. The last data set we received for her device was on February 29th – then radio silence… until last Friday that is.

I did a double take when I saw the unique identifier (ID#00000619) arrive in my mailbox Friday afternoon. Then I remembered the date – April Fools day. Despite this, I opened the attachment and out spewed five weeks worth of hits showing #1-15’s location(s) since February 29th. Geesh, did she ever move around but most importantly, she was traveling with the others in her cohort and on her way north.

Here’s a screengrab showing the progress of the 2015 cohort.

Yellow placemarkers indicate our southward migration stopovers. Red markers provide bird locations as they travel north.

Yellow placemarkers indicate our southward migration stopovers. Red markers provide bird locations as they travel north.

  • I forgot to mention 2-15! She stayed put for the weekend in Jasper County, Indiana – where it was extremely windy all weekend.

Wisconsin Rectangle Cranes

Volunteer extraordinaire Doug Pellerin has checked the White River Marsh SWA area twice in the past week and found some old friends!

On Wednesday, Doug drove into the pensite area to check for radio signals on 3-14, 4-12, 5-12 and 4-14. As he scanned the area with the handheld antenna, male number 5-12 landed on the runway! I bet Doug was thinking “Well, hello there! Thanks very much for making my job easier”!

Here are three photo he managed to capture of 5-12 before he took to the air again.

DSC_5868_1 DSC_5889_1 DSC_5892_1

Doug was able to get radio signals only for 4-12 & 3-14. There was no signal detected for 4-14 (Peanut). You know Doug will keep checking the area as time permits.

Yesterday, he visited the area again and confirmed 3-14 & 4-12 are still off in the marsh, north of the runway. He then drove to neighboring Marquette County and was able to locate 4-13 & 7-14 back on their summer territory. Below is a photo he captured of this pair.

Without visible legbands it's impossible to say which bird is which but Doug confirmed through radio telemetry they are 4-13 & 7-14, the pair that wintered at St. Marks NWR.

Without visible leg-bands it’s impossible to say which crane is which, but Doug confirmed through radio telemetry they are 4-13 & 7-14; the pair that wintered at St. Marks NWR.

Thank you Doug for your perseverance, time and photographs!

Whooping Crane Update March 2016

The 2015 cohort of Ultralight birds has been banded and released at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. Spring migration is well underway, with more sightings of birds returning to Wisconsin every day. A huge thank-you to the staff of Operation Migration, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Department of Natural Resources, and all of the volunteers who help us keep track of the cranes on their wintering grounds and throughout their migration. We appreciate your contribution to the recovery of the whooping crane eastern migratory population.

Population Estimate

The current maximum population size is 103 (48 F, 53 M, 2 Unknown). As of 31 March approximately 43% of the population has been confirmed in Wisconsin. The map below shows last known locations, so some birds who have begun migration but have not been confirmed farther north may still be shown on their wintering grounds.

March 2016 Update Map

Wild Chicks

W10_15’s parents 2_04/25_09 returned to Necedah NWR as of mid-March. W10_15 was photographed alone in Vernon County, Wisconsin on 26 March.

W18_15 is still with its parents (9_03/3_04) in Wayne Co, IL as of 21 March.

Parent-Reared Chicks

14_15 (F) associates with a pair of adult whooping cranes in LaPorte County, Indiana, but unfortunately appears to be injured (see below).

20_15 (M) is still alone in Louisiana but starting to move north, currently in Concordia Parish.

DAR 2015 Cohort

61_15 (F), 62_15 (M), 63_15 (M), and 67_15 (F) are still located together in Randolph Co, IL.

65_15 (F) has begun to travel north, currently located in Kosciusko Co, IN.

66_15 (F) is still located in Lake Co, FL.

68_15 (F) last located in January near Jasper-Pulaski Wildlife Area.

64_15 (F) was last seen leaving Horicon with a large group of sandhill cranes and has not been reported at a winter location.

UL 2015 Cohort

1_15 (F), 6_15 (F), 8_15 (F), 10_15 (F), and 11_15 (M) left St. Marks together 30 March and at last GPS reading were located in Elmore Co, AL.

2_15 (F) began migration with a group of older birds but split off and veered into eastern Indiana for several days. However, as of 31 March her GPS points put her in Iroquois Co, IL, back on the right track and hopefully headed towards Wisconsin.

New Pairs

1_11 (M) and 59_13 (F) have returned together from their wintering location at Wheeler NWR to 1_11’s summer territory in St. Croix County, WI.

3_14 (F) and 4_12 (M) have returned together to the White River Marsh area in Green Lake Co, WI.

14_12 (M) and 27_14 (F) have been seen associating frequently in LaPorte Co, IN in the past month. It remains to be seen whether they will continue to migrate together.


14_15 (F) was reported in LaPorte County, IN on 28 March with a bad limp. She was still able to fly at least short distance. We will continue to monitor the situation and determine the best course of action.


7_09 (F) found dead 12 March in Lawrence Co, IL. Cause of death has not yet been determined, although predation is suspected.

*Many thanks to Karis Ritenour/ICF for compiling this and preceding monthly reports 

Cranes Returning North

The five juvenile Whooping cranes departed the St. Marks NWR at 10:05 am yesterday. The group consists of cranes 1-15, 6-15, 8-15, 10-15 and 11-15. Of these, two do not have tracking devices: number 1-15’s new CTT device failed after only two weeks, and number 11-15 – a male, doesn’t get one, well, because we had a limited number of units available, and emphasis is put on the female future nester’s in the flock.

Four out of six isn’t terrible though and it should give us a good picture of their travels as they head north for the first time on their own.

CTT hits came in last evening for cranes 6 & 8-15 and indicate they covered just over 200 miles on their first day!

They roosted for the night in Elmore County, AL – approximately 30 miles northeast of our Lowndes County, AL migration stopover. The area is expecting thunderstorms throughout today and tomorrow so they’ll likely hunker down for a couple of days.

Yellow placemarkers indicate stops used on southward flight. Red dots indicate CTT hits and yellow bullseye is last known location (approximate).

Yellow place-markers indicate stops used on southward flight. Red dots indicate CTT hits and yellow bulls-eye is last known location (approximate).

It would appear that the female, number 2-15 stayed put in northwest Indiana yesterday.

Where the Cranes Are…

Let’s start with the juveniles and sub-adults as they were the ones we last left off with.

Four days ago we told you that the group consisting of 5-12, 4-13, 4-14, 7-14 and juvenile 2-15 had separated and we did not know at that time if the young female Whooping crane 2-15 was now traveling solo, or if one of the males had stayed with her.

We received visual confirmation yesterday morning that she is indeed on her own. At that time, she had been utilizing a closed area of the Muscatatuck NWR in Jackson County, Indiana – a bit east of course. Many thanks to Shane at Muscatatuck for checking on her!

She moved on midday and was last tracked flying north over Columbus, IN. PTT hits, which just arrived indicate she roosted in Jasper County, IN. This means she flew northwest (course correction) for approximately 160 miles.

The only other crane in that group of five was female 7-14. She arrived home in Marquette County, Wisconsin by Monday and is likely still with male 4-13.

The two other males do not have tracking devices so we’re awaiting visual or radio confirmation that they too, are back in Wisconsin.

The five juveniles in the Class of 2015 remain at St. Marks NWR but should be leaving any day now.

Wisconsin DNR pilot Bev Paulan flew an abbreviated survey yesterday – cut short as she had to return for fire duty but during the flight located the following cranes in Juneau, Wood and Adams Counties, Wisconsin:

5-10/28-08 on territory, 12-02/4-11 on territory, 6-11/15-11 on nest with a non-functional transmitter cranes very close, leading her to believe it was 38-08. Additionally, 32-09/8-10, 7-07/39-07 on territory, 29-09/12-03 on territory, 16-02/16-07, 1-04/8-05, 19-14, 14-08/24-08 Necedah NWR, 15-09 with another bird at site 3 Necedah NWR. 5-11/12-11 were near their nesting marsh in an ag field and 16-04 alone. Bev also heard the beeps of but did not see the following cranes during her flight: 23-14, 36-09, 17-07.

Here’s a screengrab showing the flight path 2-15 has taken so far:

The yellow placemarkers indicate our southward flight stopovers. The sunburts are where 2-15 has stopped on the way north.

The yellow placemarkers indicate our southward flight stopovers. The sunbursts are where 2-15 has stopped on the way north.

“Have a nice life”

Everyone has heard the story about the always troublesome, pot smoking, glue sniffing, light fingered kid named Jimmy who returned home from school one day to find his house completely vacant and a note on the front door from his parents saying “Have a nice life” with no forwarding address. Only the neighbors were witness to their leaving. I’m not sure if the story is true or if it simply falls under the category of urban legend. However, looking out from the blind into a pen where half the crane population has suddenly vanished as if in some old episode of “Twilight Zone” I think I know the answer.

“Have your birds left yet?” the dentist asked from behind the blinding light above the dental chair. “Today or tomorrow.” I replied through the gauze. “The adults anyway.  The chicks usually go later.” The question and answer flew out so quickly it took a few moments before I suddenly realized it was the first time this year that anyone had asked me the question. Usually, this time of year, I run and hide at the approach of even the smallest of children or animals knowing I am about to be assailed by this question for the gazillienth time. But I guess the complete absence of the question is just part of the natural course of a project once filled with so much hope and expectation but that is now relegated to the scrap heap of broken dreams and sad endings.

“The older birds just left with #2-15. The other five chicks flew back into the pen.” The migration sky above the parking lot hung crystal clear and blue as Colleen’s words came through the phone a half an hour later. (She arrived at the blind early so as not to miss the show) “It was awesome”!

The five remaining juvenile Whooping cranes at St. Marks NWR.

The five remaining juvenile Whooping cranes at St. Marks NWR.

Later that afternoon I was in the pen observing the remaining chicks but it was clear my presence was of little consolation. There simply wasn’t a hint of abandonment or sense of loss. Nor were there any “More Food for You, More Food for Me” touchdown victory dances. It was almost as though the older birds were voted off the island, as scripted as if on television. The chicks just poked around, not even noticing their absence. Not that there was ever any great sense of camaraderie between old and new.  Who likes getting bullied by the older kids anyway?

But it is interesting that in the end, Peanut, who was for most of the winter treated as a pariah by the older birds, went along in the first wave north.  And #2-15, surely dropped on her head at some point in her young life, followed also. She flew with the older birds on short flights now and then but never hung around with them. The question is, how long will she stay with them and will it be long enough to pass the migration legs she made in a box. Her satellite transmitter should give us a running log of her locations if the unit doesn’t fail, as did the one on #1-15 after just a couple of weeks or give periodic erratic readings like the one on 8-15. Time will tell.

And so the crane casino is open once again for business and let the betting begin. Will all the birds arrive in Wisconsin safely?  Will they arrive alone or in what combinations? When will the second group leave… and where will they arrive and how long will it take them to get back? Place your bets. And remember, this will be the last chapter in the very last ultralight led migration. Like with the Trump Casino in Atlantic City, it is all coming to an end.

I just wonder if Jimmy’s neighbors will be there to see it.

Return Flight Division

It would appear that the two female Whooping cranes, which had been traveling together have decided to split up. Satellite hits received moments ago indicate the juvenile, number 2-15 is in Morgan County, Indiana, while the 2 yr. old female, number 7-14 is northwest of her in Iroquois County, IL.

We have no way of knowing if perhaps one or more of the males in the group stayed with 2-15 but since last summer, 4-13 has been associating closely with 7-14 so it’s likely that pair decided to continue on together.

Here’s a Google Earth grab showing their approximate locations:


The five remaining juveniles in the Class of 2015 remain at St. Marks NWR.

Making Progress

This morning’s satellite hits just arrived and we can now confirm that females 2-15 and 7-14 ARE traveling together. The three males in the group do not have PTT devices so unless they’re spotted by someone, we’ll have no way of knowing if the group of five is still intact.

Just a reminder if you do see a Whooping crane, please report your sighting using this link:

It would appear 2-15 & 7-14 roosted last night in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky – roughly 500 miles north of the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Wakulla County, Florida.


The yellow place markers indicate our southward migration stopovers. The sunbursts mark the locations of the cranes on their unaided return flight.

With a storm system to their west rolling through today, they will likely stay put but they’re more than halfway home!

The remaining five Whooping cranes in the Class of 2015 are still at the winter release site.

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