Please Consider a Year End Gift

In just three short days we can rip December off the calendar and begin another year. That is, if you still use a wall calendar… 

365 days. 52 weeks. 12 months. Gone. On January 1st the end of the year seems so far away yet here we are in the final days of 2016 and it feels to me that it zipped by – too fast.

It was definitely a year of change for everyone at Operation Migration as well as our supporters. In the end we, along with our project partners and supporters, succeeded in adding nine young-of-year whooping cranes to the Eastern Migratory Population. 

All nine are currently wintering in suitable locations and in just 12-15 weeks, they’ll begin heading back to central Wisconsin. 

For 2017, we remain committed to growing the Eastern Migratory Population and will need your continued support. 

We hope you will consider a year end gift in support of whooping crane conservation.

Dinner Guests

The list of ‘dinner guests’ (aka whooping cranes) at the winter pen site increased to five on Christmas eve when female whooping crane number 2-15 made a brief appearance. 

According to Brooke, upon seeing the new arrival, cranes 4-13 and 8-14 promptly chased her away.

We received PTT hits for her yesterday morning and it appears she retreated to Thomas County in south Georgia.

Whooping crane 2-15 is officially the first 2015 crane to return to the winter pen location.

Parent Reared Release Wrap

I thought it would be a good idea to provide an overall wrap report for this year’s Whooping cranes released under the Parent Reared method.

You will see from the chart below that we began with twelve cranes. Unfortunately, three were lost: two were predated shortly after release and one became ill and subsequently predated.

Eight of the remaining nine Whooping cranes did migrate south – either with Sandhills, alone, or in the case of number 30-16, with two adult whooping cranes. The ninth, number 70-16 was recaptured and transported for release at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Morgan County, Alabama.

The map below the chart shows the release area in Wisconsin and then the current locations for the young cranes. They’ve been at these locations just over a week now so they may stay or they may move further south. Stay tuned…


Whether you lead a migration of birds — or you follow it, the logistics are never easy.  

A prolonged Indian summer made tracking birds this fall almost enjoyable. The weather was warm and dry and the colors were spectacular. We watched nature run the spectrum from green through red and orange, then slowly fading it all to a million shades of brown. Then one night it all changed. Despite the solstices, winter began for the birds when snow covered the food in their favorite foraging field and the ponds where they liked to roost, froze over. That morning they knew they had stayed too long but their departure was delayed by blustery conditions and strong winds out of the south. One more cold night and they were on their way south, no bags to pack or long goodbyes, they simply left. 

Not so, for our crew and all the cumbersome stuff that makes life in the marsh possible. We use hoses to bring water to our RV’s. They froze a few nights in November but thawed out by mid-morning. But when winter hit, that ended any possibility of showering, or washing dishes. The RV winterizing we normally do in sunny Florida before heading home, was awkward and miserable in the cold. 

In a feat of expert timing, Brooke headed to St. Marks a day or two before the cold hit. Still he had to pack up all the collectables he accumulated over the summer and move an RV that had been stationary since June. Pipes to drain, cords to coil and miles to put behind him. 

The aircraft engines had to be fogged for winter, the wings folded and all things aviation, had to be packed into our trailer and tied down for transport. Colleen had to pack a summer’s worth of living into her SUV and head south on a circuitous trip to Florida. Like the straight line of a sewing machine on the zigzag setting, she stitched her way south, checking on birds as she went. Heather fed her data from the remote tracking devices and told her where to go each morning. 

One cold day I made four trips to our hangar, each time with something else I had forgotten. I refitted the fifth-wheel hitch to the truck bed, emptied all the cupboards of perishables, pulled in the RV slide-outs, hand cranked the front jacks, pulled the chocks and hit the road, pulling our 40 foot trailer. After 15 hours of driving, I was within ten miles of home, when the dash light blinked a warning that the trailer brakes had been disconnected. As I looked for a place to pull over, I hoped it was simply the plug that connects the trailer to the truck. As I eased onto the snow-covered shoulder, a courteous driver flashed his lights and pointed to the RV tire. 

The trailer has two axles to spread out the eight tons of weight, so when one of the four tires blow, the others take the load, at least for a while. That means it is hard to tell immediately that you have had a blowout, especially on the curbside, and after dark. In a matter of seconds, the deflated tire shreds itself while shards of rubber and steel belts, flail wildly, ripping off plastic fenders and lower body panels. In this case, a three-foot section of tire wrapped itself around the axle and tore off the electric brake cable. That prompted the early warning I got from the dash light and likely saved the other tire from another mile or two at twice its weight limit. In those cases, both tires on one side usually blow causing all manner of damage, including a possible rollover. NOT FUN. Thank god for little warning lights and courteous drivers. 

After so many hour on the road, I thought I would call CAA (our version of triple A) but the snowstorm delayed their response time to a few hours so I tackled the job myself. I had to crawl underneath the trailer to retrieve the spare tire. I jacked up the rear axle only to find that I couldn’t get it high enough. Luckily, we had two bottle jacks and some sturdy blocks of wood we use for chocks. A stack of blocks and another jack brought the axle to within an inch of its necessary height. That’s harder than coaxing birds up to altitude. More blocks under the first jack and we were in business. I had pre-loosened all the wheel lugs except the one I couldn’t reach while the tire rim was on the ground. Now that it was clear, I found that last lug was bent from all the stress. So I had to rotate it to the top and drop the whole trailer back down to the road so I could jump on the wrench without the rim spinning in the air. 

Next, I had to unwind the section of tire that wrapped around the axle.  It’s amazing how tightly 16,000 pounds of momentum can secure rubber to a wheel hub. 

Vice grips are my favorite tool. They’re not precise instruments like wrenches or sockets; kind of a one-size-fits-all device, more for hack jobs than precision craftsmanship. You would never find a pair of vise grips in the toolbox of a race car mechanic but I have several pair lying around like spare reading glasses. It says something about my approach to life. Clamp a pair of vise grips onto the end of the rubber wrap. Use another pair to support the tire iron and pry whole thing over the wheel hub. An hour later, it was done. 

Two hours of cold hands and wet pants and I was home. Sometimes I wish I was a bird.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner – Part 2

Part 1

“Peanut! Is it really you? I thought you were dead”! Then, shocked by the sound of my own costumed voice, my hand jerked up to cover my mouth in surprise and embarrassment.

“That sounds like the opening line at your last High School Reunion, Bucko.” Peanut replied.  “And you can take your hand away from your mouth. You’re not allowed to talk AROUND the birds, but you CAN talk TO the birds.”

“But we haven’t seen you since you left here on migration last spring. We looked all over for you. Not a single beep anywhere. Where have you been?”

“That’s the trouble with you costumed people. You’re all about the Beeps. Too many “Road Runner” cartoons when you were kids. My transmitter’s “Eveready Battery Bunny” stopped beating its drum a long time ago. They don’t make ‘em like they used to.  And you never gave me one of those fancy satellite or GSM cellular transmitters like you gave the girls. If that’s not sex discrimination, I don’t know what is.”

“If you had learned how to lay eggs, you might have gotten you one.”

“See here, Bucko.  I’ve watched you lay your share of eggs and I don’t see one on your leg”!

“I see you haven’t changed a bit.”

“Either have you. Your costume is just as dirty as it always was. Run out of laundry detergent or what”?

Meanwhile, 5-12, aka “Henry” stood passively… listening. 

“And what about you”? I asked him. “What have you got to say for yourself?  I haven’t seen you since we replaced your transmitter last summer in White River Marsh.”

“Don’t waste your time.” Peanut said. “He doesn’t talk much. The not so strong silent type, I guess. He’s still smarting over his old buddy “Mack the Knife” (4-13) stealing his “babe” 8-14, back in Wisconsin.  And wouldn’t you just know it?  He flies all the way down here to get away from it all… to forget and heal… and here they are. Right over there… fat, dumb and happy… fishing up a storm. Probably don’t even have a license”!

Foreground left #8-14. Right 4-13. Background 4-14 and 5-12. Photo: B. Pennypacker.

“Yea. Life’s not fair. But like they say, All’s fair in love and war.” I replied, shaking my costumed head.

“Easy for you to say. From what I’ve been seeing in the news lately, you costumed people are a lot better at war than you are at love.”

“It’s a jungle out there.” I said.

“You got that right. And “Mack” over there just happens to have the sharpest beak in the universe. A regular weapon of mass destruction. Man… that thing really hurts”!

“Don’t I know it! He doesn’t give you a bruise. He gives you a tattoo”!

The conversation was suddenly interrupted by the raucous sound of “Mack” and 8-14 alarm calling.  They had finally diverted their attentions from their pursuit of pond things long enough to notice Peanut and Henry. With agitation and threat, they began their slow and hostile advance to our position across the marsh. 

“Just look at those two, will you.” Peanut said in disgust. “They think they own the place. Who died and made them King and Queen anyway? Why can’t we all just get along?” Then he turned to Henry, “Come on, Henry.  Let’s blow this pop stand.” And to me “See you later, alligator.” Peanut always did have a way with words.

“Chow,” I replied as I watched my two old friends take to the air and wing their way west, over the horizon, while “Mack” and 8-14 joined together in a triumphant unison call so loud that it probably could be heard all the way back in Wisconsin.

Back in the blind, I sat looking out over the marsh, thinking of what a difference a year makes. Sure.  Things change. But this was really different. I felt like I had just watched the first episode of some “All New” reality TV show. It was all so “Character Driven” and “Real” and it had everything…. love, hate, egos… crabs, snails, fish… mud. And, of course, there was the most essential reality show ingredient of all… conflict. This was going to be a loooooong season.

Now if I could just figure out how those actors squeezed into those whooping crane costumes!

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

Thomas Wolfe wrote “You Can’t Go Home Again” back in the 1930’s. Were he to write it today, it would be titled, “You Can’t Go Home Again… Unless Your Name Is Peanut.” Yes, our little Lazarus has returned. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We arrived back at St. Marks Wednesday night; Colleen in the tracking van and me in the Jamboree motor-home affectionately known as the “Jambo.” Next morning, Colleen flew back to Wisconsin and I headed out to the blind. It was great to be back as always, though very strange to arrive without a cohort of young whoopers trailing behind the ultralight. Something was seriously missing. But as Confucius used to say “Things change.” The walk out to the blind was its usual calming experience. The path was as deliciously familiar and welcoming as it had always been – the perfect journey of transition between the tame and the wild. The frustration of the previous months melted away and was replaced by that old excitement of renewal.

I pulled open the blind shutters and was treated to the soothing magic of the marsh. The pen stood proud and in perfect shape thanks to the heroic efforts of Refuge Manager Terry Peacock and her willing and enthusiastic staff of regulars and volunteers. Wrestling the pen back from the grasping tongs of Mother Nature every year is no mean feat to be sure. And there, just outside the pen loafing, preening and doing crane things were 4-13 and 8-14… waiting. No matter how many times I have witnessed it, I can never quite get my head around the phenomenon of birds returning from so very far away on their own. Guess that’s because I used to work for UPS.

But arrivals are always fraught with the baggage of “Whooper Do Lists” and because my annual efforts to “hit the ground running” usually result in more than the occasional face plant, I put on my hockey goalie’s helmet and launched into the fray.  Between dirty jobs, I did out and back trips to the blind to observe the two little wanderers and try to get a sense of what was going on with them before costuming up for some closer observation. To put it in avian, aviculture, highly scientific and technical terms, they appeared to be as happy as clams at high tide. That evening, it was a relief to see them roosting out on the oyster bar inside the pen just like old times.

Next day, Bryce from the Refuge came out with the marsh master and did a fantastic job of mashing down the needle rush around the bird’s two favorite ponds, thereby depriving our arch nemesis, the predatory bobcat, of possible ambush opportunities. The birds flew off to a nearby marsh until the work was completed, then flew back in to resume their oh so important activities. I walked back out to the parking lot to collect up the foam from the four wheeler seat that had provided the local bear with so much entertainment the night before.

Later in the afternoon, it was time. I wiggled into the costume and headed out to reconnect with our little dynamic duo. They observed me from their happy spot at the north pond, but I just couldn’t compete with the pond’s menu of little fish and crabs for their attention. “Him again”! I could hear 8-14 say in disgust. “I thought we left him in Wisconsin.” They had enjoyed a couple of costume free weeks reconnecting with the area, but again… things change.

It was then that a couple of white spots suddenly appeared out of the corner of my eye. Egrets, I thought at first. What else could they be? After all, 4-13 and 8-14 would have vocalized up a storm if they were whoopers, right? The two white spots stood inanimate as a painting when I continued my approach while my heart audibly increased its cadence. Had my wishful thinking escaped the quiet cell of its imprisonment, shed its shroud of amyloid plague in revolt and completely overtaken the kingdom of my senses? Or had my age ambushed me with yet another “Gotcha”!? They continued their stare, completely motionless. 

Then, as if having returned from the abyss of some netherworld, I regained focus and certainty. This was no dream, or stroke or out of body experience. They were really there! Two whoopers… right in front of me, their forms so white and red against the black needle rush.

It was our old friend 5-12. I guess I had expected him. But who was this other one? I stared down at the leg bands, my mind racing in a desperate effort to discern his or her identity. Two colors on one leg, three on the other. So many color combinations… so few brain cells. Like a shipwrecked sailor chasing a floating life ring, my mind swam through the veritable Rubix Cube of color combinations until one and only one computed. “No! It can’t be! No way! It’s impossible”!

The bird looked up at me and calmly replied, “It’s me… PEANUT”! 

            (to be continued) 

Laughing Not Advised

I just finished reading Jo-Anne’s post about bleeping beeps and laughed and laughed. Which, while usually a good thing, is not right now. 

On Monday the we got a PTT hit on 3-14, (3-14 & 4-12 are the only adult whoopers to adopt a chick #30-16) and she was about 6 hours south of me. I left Goose Pond in Indiana at noon and spent the afternoon heading toward their direction. When I got near the location yesterday morning, I heard no bleeping beeps. I met the landowner, gave him my phone number, told him what a whooping crane looks like and asked him to call me if he saw them. Heather and I thought perhaps they were on their way to south Georgia or St Mark’s NWR so I headed 3 hours west to Wheeler NWR near Decatur, Alabama. 
It rained and was very foggy the entire 3 hour drive. I dropped into the refuge and said hi, went out to the best blind in the world even though it was late in the afternoon, where one lone whooping crane was foraging. My receiver would not pick up its signal through the glass or it had a nonfunctional transmitter. At this point I had been traveling for a week and went to find a hotel. I was tired.
At 7:30 pm Heather got another hit on 3-14, right where I had been that morning!
I was determined to hear a bleeping beep this time so I got on the road at 3am CT to be there before light and catch them before they came off roost – And I did! They were the two best bleeping beeps ever, telling me 3-14 and 30-16 are still together! Hopefully 4-12 is with them. The property owner won’t let me on his land so I can’t see them, but I can hear the bleeping beeps!
The weather report tells us it will probably be a good migration day so I am sitting on the side of the road, in sight of a house, hoping to get a glimpse of them if they take off. 

Sunroof’s come in handy to stick the antenna out of.

That’s why laughing is not good right now! There is NO where to pee! And In not leaving my bleeping beeps!

More Catching Up

Colleen has just confirmed that parent reared whooping crane colt #30-16 IS STILL WITH his adoptive parent 3-14 (and presumably 4-12). The male, 4-12 does not have a functioning VHF transmitter but she was able to get beeps on both the female 3-14 AND the colt 30-16.

This young crane is the one that was released at White River Marsh in mid-September. He was the only one to be adopted by adult Whooping cranes and he was the only crane without a remote tracking device… figures, right?

In any event Colleen was able to catch up with 3-14 who does have a PTT device and was beyond thrilled just now to also detect the signal of 30-16.

They are currently in the Floyd County, Georgia area and weather conditions this afternoon will be favorable for continued southward journey should they choose to carry on. 

In other news, we’re happy to report that the only remaining parent reared colt in Wisconsin was successfully captured by a crew from ICF late Monday. Number 70-16 was held overnight at the Baraboo, WI facility where he received a physical examination yesterday morning before being relocated to Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge near Decatur, Alabama. 

ICF’s Hillary Thompson made the long drive yesterday and arrived late in the day so 70-16 will be released this morning in the vicinity of a female parent reared chick number 69-16, whom he is familiar with. 

Those Bleeping Beeps!

Ever heard of orienteering? It’s where you use a map and compass to locate pre-determined sites marked on the map, usually in the woods or other natural terrain. About 30 years ago I took a class and then participated in a few events, however I didn’t race against the clock like you’re supposed to – I took my time and enjoyed nature while applying logic and geometry to chart my course and navigate on foot from control point to control point.  

My first day back in Wisconsin I headed out to track 31 and 38-16 in Marquette County. It reminded me of orienteering as I picked likely spots on Google Maps and then plotted my routes to them. 200 miles later, I was feeling pretty inadequate. All day I kept wondering if I really knew how to use the radio that receives the beeps (they soon became “bleeping beeps”!) from the birds’ transmitters. At one point I drove farther south in the county to see if my two “target cranes” had flown down to join 71-16. Hearing 71-16’s beeps restored my confidence in using the radio, but it still didn’t yield any beeps from 31 and 38. Quite honestly, at this point I can’t remember if I found the beepers that day or simply returned to camp dragging my tail.

Heather, of course, had just spent several weeks tracking these two around Marquette County, so she gave me lots of advice on the parking spots that would yield the best chances to hear beeps. You see, the trees and hills block the transmissions so you have to sit at just the right locations where the tree line might be a little less dense, or you’re up on a rise, or you’re just lucky. For the next few days, I was much savvier and managed to narrow my bleeping beep searches down to just three locations. Savvier, but not luckier in that I never actually got eyes on the birds.

There was one particular field that 31 and 38 seemed to visit nearly every morning. It’s wide open and flat with a great view from the road. Once I’d lose their beeps at the roosting spot I’d race down there hoping to get a glimpse and photo of them. More than once I’d get there and hear very loud beeps which usually means they’re flying. In all cases they were flying away because I never saw them land. Once I determined they had left, I’d head back to the roosting location and, sure enough, they’d be back there, totally out of sight with nothing but bleeping beeps to confirm their presence. Click the recording below to hear a strong signal – typically they are not this strong! 

On Thursday, Dec. 8th, the Wiley Coyote in me came up with a new plan. I decided instead of going to the road near the roost area and then racing down to the open field when their beeps disappeared, I’d go right to the open field and wait for them to arrive. I waited and waited and waited. No bleeping beeps. Joe texted me that he couldn’t locate 30-16 either so how about meeting for breakfast. After breakfast I went back out for one more spin by all the known locations but found nothing.

That afternoon, the satellite data arrived telling us that “my birds” had vacated the premises – at the time of the data point, they were in flight over Chicago!

The next day I also vacated the premises – I took off on my two day drive home. As much as I have grown to love Wisconsin, I was very happy to be able to leave before the predicted snowstorm and deep freeze hit. I got home safe and sound and am happy to report that, as I write this, 31 and 38-16 have made it all the way to Kentucky and are in a really nice spot in Crittendon County. It remains to be seen if they will fly farther south or stay here for the winter. As for me, I’m staying put and will monitor those bleeping beeps from here!

Catching Up

Parent reared Whooping crane youngsters 31 & 38-16 left Wisconsin’s Marquette County on 8 December. I thought it would be interesting to take a look at where they were – where they are now and the points in between.

According to the GSM device on 31-16 the two are now in Crittenden County, KY. It appears they arrived at this location late in the afternoon of 10 December and will likely going to stay put until the rain stops and winds shift around from a northerly direction.


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