Date: November 25, 2014 Migration Day: 47
Dist. Traveled: 65 miles
Total Dist. 634 miles
Location: Hardin County, TN


When you work with Whooping cranes for a couple of years you are convinced you understand them intimately. A few years later, you realize how little you know.

I have been flying with various birds for some 20 years but still could not have predicted their performance this morning.

During the flight from the airport to the pen, we climbed to 500 feet where the gps told us we had a smooth push from the north. Although we were flying through the air at 32 mph, we were passing over the ground at 47.

I landed near the pen and gave the thumbs up signal to release the birds. They had a hundred feet or so to fly to where I was waiting and I lingered until they were just at my wing tip before starting my takeoff roll.

This morning's launch

This morning’s launch

It was a perfect launch but it wasn’t long before they turned back. We circled a time or two before they landed in the same cotton field they found so interesting last Thursday.

The harvested cotton stocks are too tall and coarse for me to land so I set the trike down on the same tractor road I used the last time. The birds were again on the far side of an irrigation ditch a quarter mile to the east. I hoped they would fly over but they didn’t so I took off and did a low pass over them. We circled the field once and this time they landed on my tractor road. They even left me enough room to land so there we sat. I had to get out to turn the aircraft around by hand and I fed them a few grapes. We talked (silently) for a minute or two and tried again.

This time they formed on the wing in perfect order and we made a sweeping turn onto course. I held my breath as we climbed to clear a treed ridge by 20 feet. This time that obstacle didn’t faze them. Instead we climbed slowly to 200 feet and kept right on going. I didn’t put my full weight in the seat until we reached 1000 feet.

I was afraid to push them too hard so I reduced our climb rate to 50 feet a minute. We slowly inched our way up a foot at a time. We flew by our first stop and then our second. Now it was decision time. Do we go on and risk losing them or stop short. We were almost at 3000 feet, the air was calm and none of the birds looked tired. Our next stop was another 35 miles so we pushed on.

Flying with the young Whooping cranes at 3000 ft.

Flying with the young Whooping cranes at 3000 ft.

The sun was up and began heating the earth creating thermals that were working their way up to our level so I kept climbing. We reached our destination at 3500 feet. I didn’t want to drop them down into the turbulent air below so I stayed high until we were right over the site. We made several sweeping turns, dropping at 200 feet per minute until we were down into the trash. We cleared the ridge and landed in a hay field next to the river. Five birds landed with me after 1 hour and 46 minutes. That was their longest and highest flight ever.

Twenty years of flying with birds and I still have no idea what caused them to stop landing in that cotton field and follow me for 65 miles at 3500 and I probably never will.

Such a look of determination on number 2-14

Such a look of determination on number 2-14


Two of the young cranes as they flew past Heather this morning.

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We just may be able to get another flight in tomorrow morning! At this point the weather forecast looks good.

If you’re in the Savannah, TN area and plan on coming out to watch please note we have a NEW flyover viewing area.

The new site is 1.25 miles south of the north gate entrance to our former viewing location. Look for a gate on the left side of highway 69 marked with address sign 12800. There is a large sign that says Rock House Lodge.

The entrance gate will be unlocked at 6:45 am so please don’t arrive until after this time as highway 69 can be busy and there is no room to pull over.

Leas pilot report coming soon!

Rock Lodge


At this point, the forecast for tomorrow morning looks as if we may be able to get a flight in. Winds on the surface are supposed to be 5mph from the northwest.

Sunrise occurs at 6:40 am CT and we should be airborne shortly thereafter – provided the weather presents as it’s predicted to. If you’d like to come out and cheer on the young cranes the viewing location is at the junction of Price Road and Long Rock Church Road outside the town of Huntingdon. Google Map

We’re Thankful for our Amazing Volunteers

Guest Author: John Gerend – Volunteer extraordinaire

My experience as a volunteer on migration started in Wisconsin and by the end of the two weeks we were in Tennessee.  Although I have followed the migration from my home, actually being a part of the team was eye opening.  Everyday the preparation includes: weather watching, preparing the ultra lights, food and water for the Whoopers, scoping-out the sight for the next pen location including obtaining permission from the land owner to set-up the pen on their land and also making sure no hunting is allowed on the land.  And then moving the pen from one location to the next and starting the preparation all over the again the following day.

Having completed my 2 week stay with the OM team, there are many memories I have taken home with me including:

  • Meeting the Whoopers for the first time in their pen, and feeding them grapes stuck on the beak of my crane puppet.
  • Fly Day! The excitement of seeing the OM team readying for the day’s adventure.
  • Wearing my crane costume.
  • Towing the pen trailer hitched to the Artic Fox (Brooke’s camper) with Colleen, from Wisconsin to Tennessee.
  • Helping to set-up and take down the pen in farm fields along the way.
  • Driving the tracking van on Fly Day and listening to the pilots in the air while Walt navigated and manned the radio.
  • All the generous people we met along the way providing us with meals, showers, and a place to sleep.
  • Saving the Whooping Cranes for our kids, grandkids, and generations to come.

I want to thank my wife, Barbara, for letting me experience the adventure of a lifetime. And heartfelt thanks to the OM team for letting me come along for the ride.  Led by Joe and his team – Heather, Walt, Brooke, Colleen, Jo-Anne and Geoff.  You guys are the best!

Fellow Craniacs, let’s continue to support the Whoopers and the OM team with our “Miles & Whoops”!


Western Flock Update

Wade Harrell, U.S. Whooping Crane Recovery Coordinator provided the following information update about the Wood Buffalo-Aransas population:

What a difference a couple weeks make! On our last update we noted a somewhat delayed migration with only a handful of whooping cranes having made their way to the Texas Coast. Now, it appears that the vast majority of the population has made their way to Texas. Most of the 25 marked whooping cranes we are tracking via GPS leg bands arrived on the wintering grounds by Nov. 14. We have recent reports and observations from all of the traditional wintering areas on and off the Refuge such as the Welder Flats area and San Jose & Matagorda Islands.

Undoubtedly, the unseasonably cool weather that much of the central plains states have experienced over the last couple weeks contributed to the movement of whooping cranes and other waterfowl to southern wintering areas. We plan to start our annual aerial whooping crane abundance survey on December 3. This coincides with the historical peak abundance of whooping cranes on the wintering grounds.

Additionally, we are already receiving reports of whooping cranes using coastal areas that lie beyond the core “traditional” wintering areas, indicative of an expanding population seeking out new habitat and resources. A few of these expansion areas that cranes have been noted this past week include the Myrtle-Foester Whitmire Unit of Aransas NWR near Indianola, TX (pair) and at The Nature Conservancy managed Mad Island Marsh Preserve near Collegeport, TX (4 adults). It is noteworthy that the whooping crane use of the Myrtle-Foester Whitmire Unit is directly across Powderhorn Lake from the recent Powderhorn Ranch conservation acquisition, highlighting the importance of acquiring and protecting habitat for the expanding whooping crane population.

Whooping Cranes on the Refuge

Whooping Cranes are now being regularly observed from both the Heron Flats observation deck and the Refuge observation tower, so bring your binoculars and come on out to get a first-hand look at North America’s tallest birds along with a wide variety of other wildlife species!.

New Facebook Page for Aransas National Wildlife Refuge!

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge now has an official Facebook page! We’ll be posting updates about whooping cranes and other wildlife observations, management activities, and refuge happenings. “Like” us for timely information!

Texas Whooper Watch

Texas Whooper Watch has done a great job in getting the word out on whooping crane migration to the public this year. Take some time to check out their website.

Be sure to report any Texas sightings beyond the known Aransas/Lamar area via email: whoopingcranes@tpwd.state.tx.us or phone: (512) 389-TXWW (8999).


The Whether of Weather

There are four weather stations in our area and every one of them are reporting winds less than 3 mph.

Forbess, Huntingdon, TN (KTNHUNTI2)

SW Huntingdon, Huntingdon, TN (KTNHUNTI3)

Hollow Rock, TN 38342, Hollow Rock, TN (KTNHOLLO1)

Bruceton, TN, Bruceton, TN (KTNBRUCE2)

Here, at Carroll County Airport the windsock is sticking straight out – just like someone flipping us the bird. Winds are much stronger than what the nearby weather stations are reporting. We’re standing down for the day.

Lead Pilot Report Nov. 20, 2014

Today my job was to lead the birds to the next stop but mostly I was inspecting crops. I think I landed in two corn fields, one soy bean field and a cotton patch. Luckily, all of them had been harvested.

The morning started with calm, cold air and lots of optimism. For the first time in what seems like months the conditions were perfect. It was 28 degrees, which is balmy compared to the last few nights when all of motor homes and trailers froze solid.

It was my lead and after I left Carroll County airport, I turned on course and picked up a nice little push from the smooth north wind. Our next stop is a little beyond the range of birds that have not flown in weeks so we have two interim stops at 15 miles and 35 miles. I landed in the corn stubble next to the pen, turned on the vocalize and gave the thumbs up to Geoff and Colleen to release the birds. With a 20 foot wide gap in the pen created when the gates are opened, they all came out together. I slowed and turned right allowing the ones at the end to catch up. We passed between two trees and circled back to gain altitude or least enough to clear the forest to the south. That effort to climb took three such circles.

Number 10-14 dropped out at the end of the field and as we passed by, the others followed one by one. I landed again and gave them a few moments of rest. When we launched this time I noticed my vocalizer was not working even though the light was on.

In this go around, they did clear the trees and we headed south. We began to climb but then one bird would fall back and around we would go.

Several times they collected on the wing and for moments, looked like experienced birds. I pushed them up to clear the next ridge and was almost there when one broke and the others followed.

You could see their loyalty to each other was stronger than the one to the aircraft. That is not surprising considering how seldom they get a chance to fly with it.

Number 4-14 dropped out in a large cotton field but this time the rest kept going. Each time they were on their own for even a few seconds, they would head for one open expanse or another. They would begin a descent and bleed off all the altitude we had just gained.

Once more we landed to regroup. I let them rest while Brooke talked the ground crew into where number 4 was way out in the cotton stubble. I worked to fix the vocalizer but could not find the problem.

We launched again and flew over our Jamboree motorhome. I realized that was our viewing site and Jo Bellemer was down there answering questions. They must have seen ten fly-by’s.

On one of the turn backs, we passed over Heather who had just begun a long trek out to get number 4-14. He took off with us to join his friends but it was not long before they landed again. I landed on the farm road which was slightly smoother and walked back to them. All but number 4 had landed on the other side of a deep ditch so we tossed grapes to get them over it.

All but number 4-14 landed on the far side of a deep ditch that separated the cotton field.

All but number 4-14 landed on the far side of a deep ditch that separated the cotton field.

By this time they had been flying for 47 minutes and we were still only a mile away. The wind was picking up and ambitions to go even 15 miles were fading fast. The plan was to attempt once more to launch but to lead them back to the original pen. That would save boxing them and re-teaching the lesson we were trying to avoid.

While Heather and Geoff coaxed the birds over the ditch, Brooke, Walter and I talked on the radio and weighed the options. The plan was to fly them back but we also talked about moving the pen to this site.

The problem was that it was open and in sight of the house and we didn’t have permission. Jo-Anne Bellemer knocked on doors and found very compliant and generous owners who didn’t mind that we were trespassing.

I walked west to the tree line to see if there was a place to hide the birds while we set up the pen. I found a perfect low field with trees hiding the sight line and a smooth surface from which to  take off. With the wind picking up and the birds still on the far side of the ditch a hundred yards from the aircraft, plan B turned to plan A.

Walter came out to see the location and agreed that launching the birds again into rough air would likely scatter them and force us to box at least some of them.

So Heather and Geoff held the birds were they were, Colleen began knocking down the pen, Brooke flew back to the airport and headed over to help with volunteer John Gerend, Walter plotted us a route into the new field and Jo Bellemer drove the Jamboree back to camp. I took off and landed once more in corn stalks to help with the move. The pen was packed, cleaned and on the road fairly quickly and it was only a short drive to the new site.

I flew back to the airport and pulled corn, beans and cotton husks from the prop guard. We only managed to get the birds a mile but they had 47 minutes of exercise and nobody had to be put into a box, not even me. They are now at a new site and tomorrow’s weather looks promising. Plus I know the the crops in four fields in rural Tennessee pass the bird’s inspection.

Ed. note: Geoff and I spent 2 hours in the cotton field with the cranes where I was able to capture the following images.

20141120_103831 20141120_101006 20141120_100153 20141120_094232 20141120_084324

Looking Good!

Sunrise occurs at 6:35am CT and with any luck our pilots will be in the air shortly thereafter and on their way to retrieve our young cranes.

Joe Duff is today’s lead pilot with Brooke Pennypacker flying in the chase position. Colleen and Geoff will release the cranes once Joe gives them the go ahead.

If you’d like to watch them fly overhead the viewing site is at the junction of Price Road and Long Rock Church Road outside the town of Huntingdon. Google Map


We should have a nice northwest tailwind in the morning, which we hope will allow us to advance south. If you’d like to come out to watch the Class of 2014 leave their current location, the public viewing site is at the junction of Price Road and Long Rock Church Road outside the town of Huntingdon, TN. Google Map

Jo-Anne Bellemer will be on hand with information and OM gear available for purchase.

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