MileMaker Campaign REALLY Close to Goal!

It’s been just over 2 weeks since our seven young Whooping cranes in the Class of 2014 arrived at their new winter home at St. Marks NWR in Florida on December 11.

Unfortunately, we still have not reached our MileMaker goal needed to ensure we have the funding in place to cover their southward journey.

Each year we launch the MileMaker fundraising campaign – This very important campaign raises the funds necessary to carry out the aircraft-guided Whooping crane migration from Wisconsin to Florida.

The way it works is quite simple — We have determined that each mile of the southward migration has a cost of $200 associated with it. This covers insurance, fuel and maintenance costs for the ground vehicles and aircraft, food for the cranes and the crew, any repairs or maintenance required for the crane enclosures, etc.

By far, the MileMaker Campaign funds the largest portion of our annual budget and is critical to the success of our annual Whooping crane migration.

Currently, the campaign is sitting at 94% – SO close to being fully funded! Please consider becoming a MileMaker sponsor today. It’s also that time of year when you can make a first time, or additional gift to take advantage of a tax-receipt as tax time is just around the corner.

You have the choice of sponsoring a full mile ($200), a half mile ($100) or even a quarter mile ($50). In addition to helping these young Whooping cranes, your name will be entered into a draw for an incredible thank you gift, which will be held at the end of the campaign on December 31st. 

If your name is drawn you will receive a two-week stay at a private home in beautiful Costa Rica!

Sponsor a full mile and you get four entries into the Costa Rica trip – sponsor a half mile and you get two – and quarter mile sponsors receive one entry into the draw.

We’ll also list your support on the MileMaker recognition page so everyone will see that YOU CARE about a future with Whooping cranes.

Will you help?

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The Week After Christmas

Tis the week after Christmas, I sit here alone
thinking Heather needs updates, I must send her one.
It’s been so darned busy since the end of migration
and I haven’t been lazy or gone on vacation!

I’ve barely unpacked and the laundry’s not done,
But I made it through Christmas and wow it was FUN!

December was speedy, it passed like a blur.
It seems just like yesterday we were in Alabamer!
(In tiny RI we mess up our R’s
we mis-insert them and we pahk our cahs)

So how did we get to the end of the year?
I’ll try to recap how we got here from there…

At first the birds stuttered, they forgot all they learned.
They actually flew northward! They tried to return!
Two of the youngsters were pulled from the flights
and rode in the Jambo with me. “This ain’t right!!!”
Was what they were yelling as they stood in their crates,
“Give us more chances! Open the gates!”

But once in the south, those whoopers they flew!
A five-some, a two-some, against the sky so blue.

To Hardin, to Winston, to Chilton, to Lowndes,
the young-of-year whoopers cried “we’re no clowns!”.
We know how to do it, we know how to fly.
But we wanted to spend quality time in Lodi.

Pike County, Alabama, was our home for a week.
But that was ok, we needed a break.
We must get to Georgia, we must travel on.
And travel we did, with no moss a growin’!

Peanut healed nicely, he’s no longer lame.
And together with Marsha, they got in the game!
They flew behind Brooke like peas in a pod,
each time the gate opened when he gave the nod.

And Joe led the others, his harem of colts.
Number 7 was trouble, his wing she gave jolts.
Under and over and even out front,
she caused some distractions and even some bumps.

One cold night in Georgia, and then one night more
We’re ready to finish, we’re ready to ROAR!
Oops, that’s Helen Reddy and Peanut is mad.
He says he’s no woman – he’s just a young lad.

Hundreds of Craniacs gathered to see
your fly-in finale and heard you cry “WHEEEEEE!”
As you flew overhead to your target down yonder
the two-year old boyz were wide-eyed with wonder.

They hoped and they prayed that you all made the trip,
and when they counted seven, they really did flip.
They felt like they knew you from White River Marsh,
where they supervised training last summer, B’Gosh.

Despite early trials the birds finished well
and they laughed at Colleen each time she fell.
Her costume was muddy, her face rather red.
Her boots were long gone and her socks? They were dead!

Come spring you’ll get antsy, you’ll want to head north.
You’ll soar on a thermal and then you’ll go forth,
to White River Marsh where the boyz will be waitin’.
That trip will go smoother, it’ll require no cratin’!

The wild world awaits you, young whoopers all,
go grow out your feathers and deepen your call.

On Marsha, on Peanut, on Seven and Eight!
And Two, Three, and Five, you’re doing great!
The blue crabs are ready and so are the frogs,
so find them and eat them (but watch out for hogs!).

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Homosassa Springs Park Presentation

Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park will be presenting a fascinating and informative Whooping Crane program featuring the work of Operation Migration this Saturday, December 27, 2014 at 1:00 p.m. The program will be held in the Florida Room at the Park’s Visitor Center located on US 19 in Homosassa Springs. Wanda Easton of Tampa, Florida, will discuss Operation Migration and their partnership with several government and non-profit organizations to form the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP).  Under this WCEP umbrella these organizations work together to safeguard the rarest crane in the world.  Easton has been a supporter of Operation Migration for many years and has worked with Whooping Cranes as a docent at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo. There is no charge to attend this presentation in the Florida Room. Regular admission applies for entrance into the Wildlife Park.

News From St. Marks NWR Release Pen

“Pssssst… Marsha… over here.”

“What is it this time, Peanut?  Aren’t you getting just a little bit tired of trying to impress me?”

“Just listen a minute.  I think we’re getting out today!”

“But they haven’t given us our health checks or new bands yet.”

“That’s just it.  They’re not doing health checks this year.  Turns out health checks are “Optional.”  And ICF can’t come down to do the banding till January 5th.  So… they’re letting us out of the top-netted pen  TODAY!”

“Where did you hear this?  The Costumed People never talk and the “Bad Boys”, #4 and #5-12, just stand outside the pen giving us the evil eye.”

“Remember when we were at Patuxent and I was so small compared to the rest of you?  Well… I had my ear to the ground… and I heard things… things I wasn’t supposed to hear. I still do.”


“Look!  Here they come now.”


“The Costumed People!  That one on the right is that idiot pilot of ours who couldn’t find his backside with both hands.  And the other one is the very same Costumed Person who did that butt plant in the mud and walked out of her boots while singing “The Hills Are Alive… With The Sound of … Mud” as she tried to chase you into the pen that day we landed here.  Remember?”

“You’re right, Peanut!”

“Quiet now, Marsha.  Pretend you don’t see them!”

As the “Bad Boys” looked on in rapt anticipation, Colleen pulled open the pen gates and out the chicks marched into their new world of freedom.

Opening the gates to the top-netted section.

Opening the gates to the top-netted section.


While most of them headed directly for the pond, Peanut and #3-14 went after the Bad Boys, chasing them willy-nilly around the pond. Obviously not the greeting the older birds had anticipated, but then you can never trust youthful exuberance. Just too much energy and surprise for measured prediction.

After this initial burst of freedom – the most intoxicating of intoxicants, Colleen began the “Tour.” First to the feed shed and the familiar feeders, the hanging fruit of crane chow.

Touring to the feed shelter

Touring to the feed shelter


Whooping cranes 4 & 5-12 keep a watchful eye


Then to the water bubbler where a few splashing three pointer grape shots drew poolside a collection of frenzied, exploring beaks.  Then out to the second feed shed and more hanging feeders.

Exploring the fresh water bubbler

Exploring the fresh water bubbler

Finally, the oyster bar… the causeway of oyster shells covered by a few inches of water reaching a third of the way across the pond.  At its end stood the familiar plastic crane decoy – Ground Zero for the evening roosting site and reinforcement of Crane Commandment number something or other…”Though shalt roost at night in the water where the predators aren’t.”

The oyster bar - roosting location

The oyster bar – roosting location


A few exploratory flights followed as five chicks took to the air and pounded their wings against the cool marsh air as if to sense for the first time the true boundaries of their new home.  Afterwards, it was all beak.  Beak this and beak that.  As Jimmy Durante used to say, “Only the nose knows!” The Google Earth of a whooper’s world is drawn with its beak.

After a while, Colleen and I quietly exited the pen and headed for the blind, leaving the chicks to their new beginning.  The magical experience elevated our spirits so high that the mud lost its malicious suck on our every step, transforming the usual labored trudge into the ghostly glide of an apparition.

“So Marsha.  What do you think now?”

“Well, Peanut. Why don’t you text me sometime. We’ll do lunch.”

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Western Flock Winter Update

Wade Harrell, U.S. Whooping Crane Recovery Coordinator sent along the following update about the Wood Buffalo/Aransas Whooping crane population.

We successfully completed our annual whooping crane abundance survey last week, flying surveys on a record six consecutive days, beginning on Monday, December 8 and ending this past Saturday, December 13, 2014. Rarely do we get that many consecutive days of suitable weather for surveys, so we feel extremely fortunate that we were able to complete the 6 survey flights that our whooping crane  abundance survey protocol requires. Once again, Terry Liddick, pilot/biologist from our migratory birds program, served as pilot, flying a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Cessna 206. Observers were Wade Harrell, Beau Beau Hardegree (Coastal Program biologist, Corpus Christi FWS office) and Diana Iriarte (Aransas NWR biologist).

Data management and analysis once the actual survey is complete is a significant effort conducted by multiple staff members, so we won’t have the final results to present for a few months. But, I will share some general post-survey observations:

  • We consistently observed whooping cranes using every unit of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge (Blackjack, Matagorda, Tatton, Lamar and Myrtle-Foester Whitmire).
  • We observed larger than average group sizes (>8) of whooping cranes in several of our primary survey blocks, with these groups consistently observed in the Blackjack and Welder Flats primary survey These large groups often contained more than 1 family group.
  • We consistently observed 3 family groups that included 2 juveniles (i.e. commonly referred to as “twins”).
  • One pair of whooping cranes was consistently detected from each of 3 of our secondary survey areas (Holiday Beach, Powderhorn Lake (Myrtle-Foester Whitmire Unit) and Matagorda Island North)
  • We detected whooping crane pairs both further south on San Jose Island (southern portion of primary survey area) and Matagorda Island (northern portion of primary survey area) than in the past few
  • While coastal salt marsh was the most common habitat type that we observed whooping cranes using during the survey, we observed whooping cranes using a wide variety of other habitat types as well including freshwater wetlands, upland prairies and shrublands and open-water bay
  • Overall, habitat appeared to be in better condition than the past few We observed a significant amount of freshwater and green, lush vegetation in upland areas.

Several of the observations noted from last week’s survey point to an expanding whooping crane population that is exhibiting a wider range of behaviors than we have observed in the past. This “change” is to be expected as larger populations tend to have greater genetic and behavioral variability than  smaller populations do. This wider range of behavior is a positive step in the long road to recovery for this endangered species, as larger populations with more behavioral and genetic variation tend to be more resilient to environmental changes than small populations. While the Aransas-Wood Buffalo population is still relatively small (about 300), it has roughly tripled in size over the last 30 years.

This year we were also able to capture some survey video footage with GoPro cameras mounted to the outside of the plane. These are wide-angle cameras that we are hoping will help us continually improve our survey methods as well as have some video of annual changes in habitat. Over the next few weeks, we will be sorting through some of the survey video and will work to share some clips in future updates.

I want to note that the annual whooping crane abundance survey is a collective effort, with the pilot and observers in the plane only serving one small role within the overall survey. I want to personally thank Greg Birkenfeld, acting Aransas NWR project leader, for serving as overall manager of the effort, Diana Iriarte, Aransas NWR biologist, for serving as our go-to data collection technology and data management specialist, Susie Perez and Josie Farias, administrative staff at Aransas NWR, for assisting with logistics and Grant Harris and Matthew Butler from our Refuge Regional Office Inventory & Monitoring Team for survey protocol development and data analysis.

We will be flying some additional training surveys in early January in order to get 2-3 new observers up to speed and ready to start collecting data for next year’s survey.

Habitat Management on Aransas NWR: 

Unfortunately, weather conditions haven’t allowed us to conduct any planned prescribed burns on the Refuge yet, but our fire crew continues to look for the right weather window. We have plans in place to implement prescribed burns on both the Blackjack Unit and Matagorda Unit of Aransas NWR this winter.

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Winter Distribution of Whooping Cranes

As you can well imagine, keeping track of close to 100 Whooping cranes is no easy task but that’s exactly what ICF’s Eva Szyszkoski has been doing over the week. A huge THANK YOU to Windway Aviation for the use of their aircraft and for the funding they provided for this trip and to pilot Jerry Burns for volunteering his time!

Eva is the Field Tracking Manager for the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership and she just submitted the following tracking report. (Thank you Eva!)

The map below shows the Whooping Crane distribution for mid-December along with a brief summary, including one big highlight of my flight late last week. I would consider this the late migration/early wintering period with potential for movement within the next couple of weeks. Also attached are some photos from my flight.

Maximum size of the eastern migratory population was 97 birds (54 males, 43 females). Estimated distribution included 47 whooping cranes in Indiana, 7 in Illinois, 7 in Kentucky, 7 in Tennessee, 11 in Alabama, 3 in Georgia, 7 in Florida, 5 at unknown locations, 1 not recently reported, 1 long term missing and 1 suspected dead.

Highlights and flight info
Female no. 14-09, the bird that frequented Volk Field with then-mate no. 1-01, was confirmed with her new male associate, no. 12-09, in Knox County, Indiana. She had regularly been wintering in a neighborhood in Citrus County, Florida, prior to no. 1-01’s removal from the population in spring of 2014.

This is an encouraging sign that no. 12-09 could be influencing her enough for her to change her habits and possibly her final wintering location. If this carries over into next spring, there is potential that this pair may abandon Volk Field for no. 12-09’s previous summering locations just west of the Necedah NWR.

Visuals were obtained on 74 individual cranes and signals were heard for 2 others.

Total flight time for the three day trip was ~17.2 hours and covered about 2,000 miles.

Distribution of wintering cranes in the Eastern Migratory Population.

Distribution of wintering cranes in the Eastern Migratory Population.

5-10 & 28-08, Meigs Co., TN

5-10 & 28-08, Meigs Co., TN

12 & 14-09, 19-09 & 25-10 in Gibson Co., IN

12 & 14-09, 19-09 & 25-10 in Gibson Co., IN

12-02 with wild hatched chick W3-14, 29-09 & 4-11 with an unidentified crane (non-funtional transmitter) in Green Co., IN

12-02 with wild hatched chick W3-14, 29-09 & 4-11 with an unidentified crane (non-functional transmitter) in Green Co., IN

18 & 38-09, 6-09, 23-10, 7-12, 3-11, 29-08 W3-10, 24-13, Greene Co., IN

18 & 39-08, 6-09, 23-10, 7-12, 3-11, 29-08 W3-10, 24-13, Greene Co., IN

28-05 in Meigs Co., TN

28-05 in Meigs Co., TN

Parent reared Whooping crane 57-13 in Jackson Co., IN

Parent reared Whooping crane 57-13 in Jackson Co., IN

Class of ’14 Whooping Cranes RELEASED!

Timing is always an issue. Especially over the holidays… We arrived at St. Marks with our seven young cranes on December 11 and they’ve been in the top-netted section, within the large pen, until about 3 hours ago.

Unfortunately, the holidays have created a fly in the ointment and the necessary people from the International Crane Foundation and Disney cannot head to St. Marks until the first week of January.

Instead of holding the cranes in the top-netted section until then, the decision was made to release them now and then recapture them a day or two prior to the day the health checks and final leg-banding will take place, which we anticipate will be January 5 (with the 6th as a back-up in case of poor weather).

Colleen snapped the following photos this morning as the cranes explored their new surroundings.

2014-12-19_release 2014-12-19_released 2014-12-19_released2

“She Walked Out of Her Boot”

This migration was a unique one, there is no doubt. ‘Stressed’ was our middle name. Issues with the weather never giving the birds, and us a break to recover from the backpack experiment, we got nowhere fast.

Then trucking the birds, a new experiment! We would still be freezing in Lodi if we had not gone for it. 2015’s Spring is going to be an interesting one. Maybe we will learn things we never knew. I hope so.

If you read Geoff’s post, you know how relieved and happy the whole crew was when on that wonderful day in Carroll County, TN when the five good girl cranes followed Joe to the next stop. The rest of the migration was a whirl, our double releases worked well with 2, 3, 7, 8 and 9-14 following Joe and 4-14 and 10-14 following Brooke, the weather was great more than not, and we are now in St Marks.

The highlight of this migration was getting to call the birds down with Heather at the St Marks winter pen. This was the only time I saw them fly. Geoff and I run for the trailer when they take off with the pilots each morning, so this was a treat. But, the coolest part for me was seeing the technique Brooke and Richard used to shake them loose from the trike.

They came in low over the pen while Heather and I are flapping our costume sleeves and holding our puppets high. Then they push out the bar and gain altitude fast. The birds looked confused for a few seconds then circled down to us.  Well, six birds did.

Then there was #10-14, aka ‘Marsha.’ She was the only one to land outside the pen, so off I went to get her. At the main gate of the 3 acre pen is a large muddy wallow. My boot sunk and I fell on the way in earlier so I had been wet and muddy from the get go. I got around to her and herded her back to the main gate where she needed to make a left to go in. Instead, she made a right and as I scurried to block and turn her around, I fell again.

"She walked out of her boot" - Photo credit: Lyndsie Parks

“She walked out of her boot” – Photo credit: Lyndsie Parks

Back she went, right to our starting place. Once more I herded her and we repeated the scene, only this time when my boot sunk and I fell, I took the other boot off and left them both there in the mud. Finally out came Tom Darragh, refuge volunteer and member of the St Marks photo club, in costume and Heather, who by now, had the other six cranes safely in the top netted pen.

Between the 3 of us she had no choice but to make the left into the main pen and followed like a little angel to join the rest of the class in the top netted pen. From what I hear, the folks in the blind enjoyed my show as much as they enjoyed watching the young cranes arrive.

I received this text from Tom a few days later:  “Hey Colleen, we were going through the video last night and have decided the photo club is going to start writing rap songs. Our first one is:  

Stuck in a muud!”
I only hope Heather has the video to share with you  :-)
Ed. Note: You bet I have video… Watch at :45 when Colleen’s aircraft radio drops into the mud. Then note at :50 when she attempts to put it in her pocket but misses and down it goes – into the mud. Again.
*CORRECTION – Video shot and narrated by Ed Sinnott*

And now you know why we need new costumes each year…

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Meanwhile Back at St. Marks…

Now that the humans from the migration team have arrived back at their respective winter habitats, we’ll provide tidbits of information and updates as we receive them.

Colleen reports that the four 2013 Whooping cranes flew past the St. Marks winter release pen yesterday, only to be chased off by males 4 & 5-12.

Here are a couple images Colleen captured during a morning pen check, which show Brooke tending to the youngsters.

IMG_20141212_085736873 IMG_20141212_085833402

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Wrap up report From Geoff Tarbox

This migration has had its share of ups and downs.  We first left Princeton with a perk in our step when all but one of the birds made it to Stop 1.  But the next time we flew, all the birds would rather they migrate back to the White River Marsh pen.  In order to move them ahead, we had to box them and move them to Stop 2, just to get them away from familiar territory.  From there, it sort of went downhill. 

There’s always the long down days from all the unfavorable weather.  But even when we got a break in the weather, the birds wouldn’t play ball with us.  They’d land in fields and marshes a couple miles away from the pen…  If we could get them that far.  It felt like the migration of 2011 all over again, where there was always a bird on the ground somewhere.  And if you were lucky, it was someplace that was accessible. 

Things took a turn for the surreal when we tried to set up the (what turned out to be the first) pen at Lodi and there was a hunting blind right smack dab in the middle of where we needed to be.  All we could do is unhitch the pen and leave the hunter to his business and hope we didn’t disturb any prowling dear in the area too much with our coming and going.  And once we were in Lodi, it seemed like we were never meant to leave.

Even with good flying weather, we didn’t get much further than the outskirts of town.  That was also the harrowing time when 2-14 and I re-enacted the Blair Witch Project, which I’m not so glum about anymore, but still would not consider my finest hour. 

When the words “interim stop” was used, I almost thought that was our migration’s swan song, even when we got the birds there successfully.  Last time we used those words, it was January of 2012, and we couldn’t get the birds to Walker County, Alabama to save our souls.  That was the migration that was ultimately scrubbed when we relocated the cranes to the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge.

Even though the birds made it there successfully, it seemed destined that we would never leave Columbia County, Wisconsin, as one polar vortex after another kept shutting us down.  Up until we moved the birds to Tennessee, I’ve never seen spirits so low.

Even after we arrived at Tennessee, our bad luck stayed right on our heels.  The weather wasn’t as favorable as it was supposed to be and our birds brought their bad attitudes with them, and would not lock onto the wings or climb for all of King Midas’s gold.  We ended looking for a few more interim stops, and ideal locations were far and few in between thanks to the Natchez Trace Forest nearby.  Though eventually, we dug up two of them. 

Only the next time we flew, our birds wouldn’t fly that far.  We only got them a half a mile and that was only because we couldn’t get them to climb over the trees back to the pen.  The birds just happened to land at a spot that turned out to be an ideal place to hide them and we settled for that.  By then, I was going out of my skull. 

Next time we flew the birds out of their mini hiding spot, I was at wit’s end.  The birds kept landing, and the pilots kept “resting” them (I didn’t know how much rest they needed after not even flying a mile, which to me was yet another bad sign (though I’m sure I was hardly the only person who thought that).  After the second or third rest, I did something I don’t do very often.  I prayed.  I just didn’t know what else to do.  I just knelt down in the back of the pen trailer, and just asked my friend upstairs to just do what was best for these birds. I didn’t have to wait long for an answer. Not more than a few seconds after that, the birds all locked onto the wing and we got them not to the first interim stop, or even the second.  We got them all the way to Hardin County!  That wasn’t a slam dunk. That was a world record as far as we were concerned.

I wish you could’ve seen the hugs and tears of joy and the grins on Colleen’s, Heather’s, Jo-Anne’s and my faces as we packed up the pen.  If there was ever a crowning moment of heartwarming for all of this year, or any year for that matter, this was it.

And from there, it was nothing but smooth sailing.  There was never any doubt as to whether or not the birds could make the next stop.  Aside from a few down days at Winston, Chilton and Pike counties, we were moving by leaps and bounds.  The migration I foresaw as dragging on well into the New Year, is now over and done before Christmas, which is always a treat for me. 

I was disappointed that we had to keep boxing 4-14 and 10-14 so they could be flown separately.  They certainly got more and more leery of me as time went on.  But on the other hand, we couldn’t afford to have those two decoying the other five cranes down.  And ultimately, it was what the flock needed, especially when we left Georgia.

I can’t remember a time I was so proud of my birds. The flock that went from zeroes to heroes. The flock that brought us to the brink of insanity and despair all the way back to tears of joy. 
If there was ever a tale of inspiration and dreams coming true on any migration, this would be the year for it.  And even though I’m not a religious man who likes keeping his work and his faith separate (I can’t emphasize that enough) it’s nice to know that prayers do get answered when you need them the most. 

Despite all of ups and downs this year had to offer, I will always be glad that I was part of it, and that I’ve been part of this wonderful organization for six years.

Flyover Photos

Craniac Karen Willes sent us the following images, which she captured at Thursday’s arrival at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.

Lead pilot Richard van Heuvelen passes overhead with his five Whooping cranes.

Lead pilot Richard van Heuvelen passes overhead with his five Whooping cranes. Note that number 8-14 (missing primary feathers) is in the lead position.

seconds later, Brooke Pennypacker arrives with cranes 4 & 10-14. One on each wingtip...

Seconds later, Brooke Pennypacker arrives with cranes 4 & 10-14. One on each wingtip…

Off to the pensite...

Off to the pensite…

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