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Lingering Fog

Yesterday’s fog was predicted to dissipate by 10am. In actuality, it hung around till noon and it reappeared quickly last evening and is still here this morning.

By the time it moves on, winds will have picked up to be too strong to attempt a flight today so we’ll be standing down for day 16.

*Note: last year on Day 16 we arrived in Columbia County, WI, (our next planned stopover) so we’re not too far off of last year’s pace.

Impressions of a Volunteer…

I’m Steve Schildwachter and I am fortunate to be one of the volunteers given the chance to help out as part of the ground crew for this year’s migration. As a long time investor in Operation Migration this has been an opportunity to experience how my financial investment is paying off in reintroducing a sustainable flock of whooping cranes to the eastern part of the continent.

Two weeks ago I drove from Florida to Wisconsin to start my two week detail with the migration. During my time with the crew I have come to appreciate the talent and dedication shown by all. A typical day starts around 5am when Joe heads out to check on weather conditions.  Heather is also up and sending out updates to everyone. If there is even the slightest chance the birds may fly, the rest of the crew preps the RV’s for the move to the next location.

The pilots move the trikes to the runway; the bird crew heads to the pen; the chase crew drives out in the tracking van to a location from which they can follow the birds as they fly south and the ground crew heads out with the webcams. Then we wait…  We wait for the wind to blow at just the right speed and from just the right direction and be stable enough to allow the birds to surf behind the wing.

Steve Schildwacht steps in to play the role of CraneCam operator.

Steve Schildwachter steps in to play the role of CraneCam operator.

We wait for the frost to melt off the wings of the trikes. We wait for the fog to lift.  Conditions have to be just right to give the cranes their best chance of getting to their next stop. The last two weeks the weather just hasn’t cooperated. You can hear the frustration and disappointment over the radios when the pilots are aloft and find fog or turbulence or a headwind, which will not allow the birds to fly today.

But you know that the conditions will, one morning, then another, then another, all come together and the cranes will fly south – getting closer and closer to their new winter home in St. Marks NWR in Wakulla County, Florida.

Then we’ll go online one morning next spring and read that the birds have left St. Marks and are following the migration route they learned – this migration route we are slowing teaching them right now, and flying back to Wisconsin.  Then we’ll learn from one of the WCEP partners that one of the cranes from this year’s migration has partnered up with another and is sitting on a nest in some marsh in Wisconsin.  Then we’ll see the picture of the chick and remember why we donate our money, contribute to the MileMaker campaigns, give a Whoop… why we have all invested in the future of this species.

So as I end my two week detail with the migration I’d like to thank the seven cranes, Joe, Heather, Brooke, Colleen, Geoff, Jo-Anne, Richard and Walter for putting up with me for the past two weeks. But more importantly I’d like to thank all of you who financially invest in the future of the whooping crane and enable this dedicated crew to continue their work.

Ed. Note: Steve, THANK YOU for the time, passion, interest and funds you have invested in the 2014 migration and in Whooping crane conservation. See you when we reach Florida!

Wind and Rain… AND a MileMaker Challenge!

Will keep us on the ground today on day 14 of the migration.


Babs from Washington emailed yesterday with word that she would like to issue a 5 mile MileMaker challenge and call it the “No more wind, fog, or rain Challenge – It’s the ‘let’s get this show in the air challenge”!! 

Here’s how it will work. Bab’s will DOUBLE your (MileMaker) donation to a combined total of 5 miles! Sponsor a 1/4 mile – it becomes a 1/2 mile. Sponsor a 1/2 – it becomes a full mile. Sponsor a full mile and Babs will make it two miles!

CLICK to visit the MileMaker Campaign page to take Babs up on her very generous challenge!

Class of 2013

Doug & Mako Pellerin went out today to check on a sighting of five of last year’s Whooping cranes in Fond du Lac County, Wisconsin.

Doug shared the following images with us to share. Pictured are 2-13, 4-13, 5-13, 7-13 and 8-13. We have no word on #9-13 who was previously with this group. UPDATE: Eva advises #9-13 is a bit further west with DAR #57-13 (Mork).



Whooping Cranes on the Move!

International Crane Foundation’s Eva Szyszkoski sent a note late yesterday advising that some of the older Whooping cranes in the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership flock were on their way south!

Eva said “Just a note to let you know that migration has officially begun! I received word today of up to seven whooping cranes in Greene County, Indiana, including wild-hatched chick W3-14 and her father 12-02 (who were still on territory in Wood County the afternoon of Bev Paulan’s last survey flight on October 16th).”

Eva is still awaiting leg band information on the others before she can determine which cranes they are.

If you spot a Whooping crane WCEP asks that you please report the information via this public sighting report form. WCEP_report_button_small

“Looks Promising”

… Is what Joe said a few minutes ago. It’s a crisp 29 degrees here at our current location in Marquette County, WI and with the dew point only a degree higher, fog has just formed. There is little cloud cover so the sun should take care of it fairly quickly once it pops above the horizon at 7:20 am CDT.

Surface winds are negligible and at 3,000 ft. aloft we’re supposed to have only 5 knots and from the southeast. We’ll be putting a trike up as soon as the fog clears to check conditions for ourselves and to see if we can’t make the next leg of 19 miles to our stop in Columbia County, WI.

Tune in to watch LIVE on our CraneCam and the FlightCam!

Tools of the Trade

Since aircraft-guided Whooping Crane reintroduction is a unique activity, you can’t just go to Walmart or Ace Hardware or even Wild Birds Unlimited to pick up all the necessary equipment. Some of it has to be fabricated. Literally.

Take the long white dresses that we call “costumes”. I’m sure you’ve already read about how volunteer Mary O’Brien lovingly sews each one, customizing the length as needed for wee crew members like Heather and tall pilots like Richard. But there’s more in our kit bags than costumes.

We also each need a Whooping Crane puppet head. This year, it was time to make up a new batch of puppets so we set up an arts & craft table at the Acorn Ridge Motel. Here’s the recipe:

1. Find a taxidermy supplier – that’s where you get crane head “plugs” made out of resin, but they are white with none of the necessary adornment such as eyes, red and white feathers, or mustache.


2. Glue on the eyes. Heather backed them with a round piece of cardboard so the puppets wouldn’t have that sunken-eye look that is common around camp at 5AM.

3. Apply felt. Oh, and it doesn’t come pre-cut – you have to cut out white crane cheeks and red crane “head tops” free-hand. Then you smear contact cement on each section of the head and attach the felt pieces. Bev and Jenny were willing to tackle this tricky maneuver… Rich, Sheba, Lori, Suz, and I simply watched and offered what I’m sure was unnecessary advice.


4. Paint the beak. This was easy, so of course I helped paint. First you paint the whole beak black, then you touch it up here and there with brown, to give it that fresh “poked in the mud” look.

5. Sew puppet dresses. This was my forte! At camp, the arts & craft table became a sewing table. Heather undressed an old puppet to get the dress pattern and cut out 6 blanks. Then I got to work sewing French seams all around, velcro at the top, seam binding at the bottom, and then close it up like a floppy cornucopia.




6. Construct PVC handles that dispense mealworms. Joe cut, drilled, notched, and screwed together the PVC pipe handles to which the puppet heads mount. You can take the cap off and load them full of mealworms, then twist the neck just behind the head to shake out the mealworms for the chicks. I’m wondering if this is why they poke at the heads, to try to self-dispense the worms – they’re pretty smart you know!

7. Attach the head and dress. Joe attached the head to the pipe handle with screws and then the dresses got velcro’d on, and VOILA! you have a puppet!


Helmets require another complicated process that involves a mylar-coated mask into which holes are drilled all around the perimeter so it can be sewed to the mesh fabric through which we breathe. Eric at the Acorn Ridge supplied us with drill bits and Rich painstakingly drilled about 60 holes all around each piece of plastic. Jenny and Lori sewed mesh to fabric hood, and then, back at camp, Joe and Heather riveted on snaps and completed the assembly.

And that’s all it takes to dress up a “tume”! Piece of cake!

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Still Windy

Today will mark 9 days since we arrived at this migration stop and with winds continuing to blow too strong and from the wrong direction, it looks like we’ll be here for another day.

Winds aloft are blowing between 15 - 20 knots.

Winds aloft are blowing between 15 – 20 knots.

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Flying in Formation

Flying is not like driving. Passing a few feet from a car, traveling at highway speed, going in the opposite direction is so common we are not even motivated enough to put two hands on the steering wheel, let alone stop texting. However, aircraft passing within a half mile of each other have the full attention of both pilots. Formation flying in air shows is an entirely different discipline requiring precision and talent.

Flying with birds has its own challenges but does not have the same consequences as a mid-air collision with another aircraft. In fact, we often bump each other without damage to the bird or the trike. It’s more like bumping shoulders with your walking partner as you navigate uneven ground. That proximity to another flying object is one of the most distressing challenges for first time pilots recruited onto the team.

Formation flying with birds is equal measures of art and science. The art is in reading the clues the birds provide and knowing how we can make their work easier. That requires subtle changes to speed and altitude and indicates when we can climb and when we need to glide. The science is not so intuitive.

An aircraft wing is shaped to produce low pressure on its upper surface and increased pressure below. The slightly compressed air below tries to move around the tip to fill the void above and it creates  vortices that rolls out past the wing tip and up, clockwise on the left and counter clockwise on the right. In smooth air, it produces a steady and dependable airflow that our cranes soon learn to use to their advantage. Find the right spot and they are carried along like a bicycle racer slipstreaming the leader who is using up his energy at a faster rate. In the right conditions, the birds close to our wings can glide effortlessly.

Flying in a 'V' or chevron with Whooping cranes.

Flying in a ‘V’ or chevron with Whooping cranes.

Many people still believe that the “V” formation flight of geese and cranes is a sign of nature’s wiser ways and that they take turns leading to share the workload. It is true that the lead bird is doing the most work. With every down stoke of his wings, he creates a swirl of air off his wing tips similar to the little eddy that is generated by a canoe paddle as you pull it through the water. The bird behind can feel the lift that swirl provides and it learns to follow at just the exact spot to take advantage. His wing beats add to the vortices like a well timed pump of the knees can make a swing carry you higher. Each successive bird down the line creates more free lift for the birds behind and each one pushes his way forward until he reaches a spot where he is not strong enough to overtake the bird ahead but stronger than the one behind. If that bird gets tired, it may drop back a few positions and ride on the stronger wake. Like a bicycle racer, it may regain its strength and bully its way forward again.

This ability to feel the lift created by the bird in front gives the flock a common endurance. Strong birds take the lead and weaker birds find their place in the order, all the way to the back of the line where the weakest bird is getting the most assistance. By this process, birds of different strengths can keep up with the leader and the flock can stay together.

Unlike our wings that produce a constant flow of air in our wake, wild birds produce a pulse with each wing beat. Not only must the bird behind find the right spot to take advantage of the wake, but it must also match the wing beat rate of the bird ahead, like stepping in the foot prints of the person you are following. It requires perfect timing and refined flying skills but it come as natural to them as walking does to us. The misconception in this theory is that this process is not based on workload sharing. The birds flying in a V formation are not helping each other with good intentions. Instead, it is based on dominance. The lead bird is the most aggressive and generally the strongest, but only until the extra effort takes its toll and it losses the lead. So maybe it is like driving after all.

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Migration Day 9

Will be spent on the ground in Marquette County, WI.

Sometimes you can tell before you even roll out of bed that it won’t be a migration day. Such was the case this morning when I heard the unmistakable sound of raindrops on the metal roof of the motorhome.

Rain will keep us grounded today.

Rain will keep us grounded today.

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