Beauty Requires Maintenance

Despite their preferred wetland habitat, Whooping cranes somehow manage to stay stark white. It takes a lot of work to keep that many white feathers in tip-top shape and I read, on average, a crane spends roughly 80% of its time preening.

Cranes will nibble at the base of each feather and then ‘zip’ the entire length of the feather through their bill – much like a zipper. This process repairs any gaps in the vanes of the feather.

Brooke captured the following images of female whooping crane #7-14 as she was preening. Enjoy!

IMG_0528 IMG_0565IMG_0493


Solo at St. Marks NWR

Earlier this week Brooke’s dermatologist fried his face to a nice crispy lobster color to get rid of some precancerous spots. The one thing that no one EVER forgets after the Blue Light treatment is don’t go out in the sunshine. If you do forget, you are immediately reminded, because the first ray of light hitting your face causes spontaneous combustion. Every square millimeter of treated skin bursts into beautifully colored flame!

So, while he cuddled his fire extinguisher in his darkened RV at camp Tuesday evening, I checked the birds for the first time at St Marks. Alone.

You’ll be fine he said. You’ve been out before and know what to do and these are great birds. It’ll be a piece of cake, he said!

Well they were great birds, right up till 6:05 pm or so when all ten flew out to the marsh behind the pen. Right before the magic time of 6:20, seven flew back in and three stayed out. They came and went so much I don’t remember who was where and when! Did I mention? I. Was. Alone.

I played the brood call then went out to the pen just before dark and waved and flapped at the three that were far off in the marsh in the hopes they would come join us in the pen. At this point, I was almost sure all the chicks were in the pen. By some miracle I caught enough of a cell signal and called Brooke. He said he was almost certain that Peanut would be the adult in the pen with the chicks and the other adults would be fine roosting outside. So I played the brood call one last time with no results and locked up the blind and headed home.

Almost 2 yr. old male Whooping crane #4-14 (Peanut).

Almost 2 yr. old male Whooping crane #4-14 (Peanut).

You have read, I’m sure Brooke’s recent post about slowly turning blue at the morning check. Holding your breath till you count ten white or almost white birds? The chicks have gotten so white in the last three weeks!

Look in and around the pen. How many white birds do you see?

Look in and around the pen. How many white birds do you see?

This was complicated Wednesday morning by the fact that the pen and surrounding marsh has turned into a giant party for white birds of all species! I turned a lovely shade of blue… I found eight Whoopers, only eight. SOB – GASP…  I was getting a signal on all, but could only find eight. I started doing chores, getting a tad bluer all the while. Finally, after a half hour or so #’s 1-15 and 6-15 flew back from the direction of the Gulf and landed outside the pen. Finally I could breath!

When I got out to the pen that evening for roost check, I was really glad that ten Whooping cranes were not only present and accounted for, but very lazy. As I watched through the scope in the observation blind, I was thinking this is so peaceful and almost primordial… like having a window into the past, when I saw a ripple in the water near the pen gate, and watched a smallish alligator swim back and forth. Pretty soon three of the adults also noticed it and followed it, they were safe on the inside of the pen and it was on the outside so I was not worried. It was really interesting and concerning in the respect that this curiosity I was witnessing is probably the death of many Whoopers. They are curious when they should be alarmed.

It got later and all was calm, I could have headed back at 6:30 pm or so but I was fascinated and continued to watch, all the while thinking I was home free. It was too late for them to fly out now. HA! Fooled me! At quarter to 7 off they went. I played the brood call intermittently and I prayed. Around 7 pm all flew back, nine inside the pen but one chick landed outside. She walked around the pen, from front to back, but did not fly in.

I called Brooke who said go lead her in. I’ve lived in Florida most of my life and I’m not particularly afraid of alligators but I was terrified of that chick roosting outside of the pen with it. I headed out to the marsh, there was still a bit of light as I walked to the back of the pen where she was. She came toward me and I ran/splashed and flapped and into the pen she flew! YAY!

Ten birds in the pen! Well, now it was pretty dark and I was at the far back right side of the pen and the fastest way out of the marsh was to continue to the right… where my little gator friend had been patrolling.

He had been hugging the fence so I moved out a bit and kept walking. It was getting darker and darker, I just kept following the fence. Soon it was so dark that I had no idea what direction the viewing blind was, so my plan was to follow the fence till I reached the front gate and then head straight away from it. All I could think about by then was how embarrassed I was going to be if I got lost in the dark, in the marsh, and had to call Brooke to come lead me out. He’s already had to talk me out of the marsh from the aircraft at White River Marsh when I was lost – I’d never live this down! But eventually, I reached the front gate. I did not step on the alligator and I made it into the blind – Whew! So much for a peaceful evening…

I locked up and headed down the path feeling very grateful and a bit smug, knowing all ten cranes were in the pen, safe and sound. Till, halfway out to my vehicle, I heard them vocalizing. So much for smug. All night I worried about them, had some flown out and the others were calling for them? Were they ok? Lord, please don’t let any of them get predated on my watch was what I prayed all night. Brooke very kindly called at 7 Thursday morning to let me know he could see ten Whooping Cranes alive and well. Not in the pen so we don’t know if they flew out early yesterday morning or if they went late Wednesday evening but they are okay and now I am too. I think I’ll go take a nap now!


Female Whooping crane #2-15

Where the Cranes Are….

I thought you might like to see how juvenile Whooping crane 6-15 is continuing to explore the area surrounding the release pen at St. Marks.

Remember last week? This grab, showing the hits collected over the five day period from 28 February to 3 March indicated that she appeared to be spending the majority of her ‘out’ time at the small ponds to the north of the pensite.


Now let’s take a look at the period of 5 March to 10 March.


Number 6-15 has made a couple trips to the small ponds, but she’s also now exploring the areas to the east and south of the release pen. (Does anyone else think the pond to the left of the release pen resembles a bust shadow of a woman with a ponytail?)


Rowe Sanctuary Crane Cam

It’s that time of year when we’re receiving reports from the southeastern states of large groups of Sandhill cranes heading north.

Each spring, as many as a half million Sandhills will stop to rest and fuel up at Nebraska’s central Platte River at an 80-mile stretch of the river.

The most popular place to see the Sandhills on the Platte river is the National Audubon Society’s Rowe Sanctuary in Gibbon, just outside Fort Kearney. If you can’t make the trip, you can still watch the action via Rowe Sanctuary’s live video feed. You may even see a Whooping crane among the smaller gray cranes…

Since the cranes leave the river to feed during the day, the best times to view are near sunrise and sunset.

Thousands of sandhill cranes will stop at the Platte River in Nebraska at the height of their northward migration. Photo: Melissa Groo

Thousands of sandhill cranes will stop at the Platte River in Nebraska at the height of their northward migration. Photo: Melissa Groo

Whooping Crane vs. Bluecrab

When Brooke sent me his “Mack the Knife” entry this morning, it reminded me that I thought we had a video clip showing #4-13 eating a blue crab. I found it!

I believe this was captured very early in 2014 when the Class of 2013 was still at St. Marks NWR. It clearly shows that even with his slight mandible difference, he has no problems gaining access to the inside of a Blue crab.

Now would someone please remind me to thank Brooke for the ear-worm that has been in my head all day?

Mack the Knife

Oh, the shark, babe, has such teeth, dear – And it shows them pearly white…
(Bobby Darin singing the 1959 hit, “Mack the Knife”)

“And be careful not to turn your back on # 4-13 when you’re bent down cleaning up the spilled food from under those feeders. He’ll give your back a love tap with his beak that will leave one heck of a bruise. In fact, if you want, I’ll write the word “Mother” under it with red magic marker when we get back to the blind and you’ll have a “tramp stamp” tattoo that will be with you the rest of your life.”

“But how will I know which one is 4-13”? the Disney zoo keeper asked me.

“Easy,” I replied, smiling. “He’ll be the one humming, “Mack the Knife.”

“Mack the Who?”

“Never mind.”

“Just a jackknife has old MacHeath, babe. And he keeps it out of sight”

All of us have at some time in our lives met someone who just talks and talks and talks, but no matter how long they talk, they just never get to the point.  #4-13 is not one of those. To him, time is a precious commodity and a peck is worth a thousand words. He gets right to the point by pecking an unsuspecting you in the back so hard that you want to scream that scream you screamed as a baby when that mean white coated, be speckled doctor nailed you in your lily white bum with that giant stainless hypodermic needle he borrowed from his brother-in-law, the bovine veterinarian. “This hurts me more than it does you” echoes in my ear to this day.

Now, all this would not be a cause for mention if it were done by any other bird. I mean, as the poet said, “A peck is a peck is a peck.” No big deal, right. But not so for #4-13. A peck from him could result in a trip to the Emergency Room for the unsuspecting crane wrangler.  People who have experienced his talents often comment that his mother may have been a crane but that his father must have been a “lawn dart.” A sort of designer crane. Not so.

“You know when that shark bites with his teeth, babe. Scarlet billows start to spread”

In point of fact, it all began back at Patuxent when he was a chick. One night, he badly bruised his upper beak… probably against the pen fencing. As a result, his upper beak doesn’t grow as fast as his lower beak, which turned his lower beak into a stiletto-like instrument of communication. It has become to him what a sword is to Zorro.

“Fancy gloves, oh, wears old MacHeath, babe. So there’s never a trace of red.”  

4-13 and his not quite right upper mandible.

4-13 and his not quite right upper mandible.

Early on, we proposed to resolve the situation and make it as difficult for him to get to the point as it is for the rest of us by dremeling off his under bite, which was, in retrospect, about as compassionate as giving Samson a haircut. However, we were then assured by a higher authority that the daily wear and tear of probing the earth’s depths for food would take care of the rest. And it has. The beak has remained the same length though the years. But more to the point, the extra three sixteenth’s of an inch presents no problems for him at all. He beaks up the smallest speck of crane chow with delicate grace and aplomb. And besides, as Joe Botchagaloop, the Poet Lauriat of New Jersey, used to say, “It’s not the first six feet that makes a man tall, but the last few inches.”

“And that someone sneakin round the corner. Could that someone be Mack the Knife”

Interestingly enough, there is a beneficial biological side to all of this that even Charlie Darwin would appreciate. Chances are good that evolution will step in and pass this “getting right to the point” gene from #4-13 to his future generations and that besides improving their ability to communicate, this adaptation might allow them to better protect their young from predation.

In the predator rich environs of Wisconsin, what self-respecting raccoon, mink, otter, weasel, fisher, badger, coyote, wolf, bobcat, feral cat, snapping turtle, great horned owl, bald or golden eagle, hawk, crow, raven, black flies, etc. (are you starting to get the picture? Be glad they don’t have all of these predators at Wood Buffalo!) wants to get his or herself harpooned by a whooping crane “Captain Ahab” parent while predating a chick. It’s just bad karma. “Thar she blows!”

“Now d’ja hear about Louis Miller?  He disappeared, babe.  After drawin’ out all his hard earned cash. And now MacHeath spends just like a sailor. Could it be our boy’s done something rash”

Then there’s the advantage of enhanced ability to locate food – “to boldly probe where no beak has probed before.” And finally, perhaps the most important advantage of all; the ability to pole vault with acrobatic precision over obstacles to better recognition of reality from a standing start… always a potentially useful maneuver in an election year.

“And that line forms on the right, babe”

Which all goes to make the point that when Mother Nature smiles at you, you had best just shrug your shoulders and smile back… even if your bottom lip is bigger than your upper… and it hurts and makes you look funny doing it.

So…“Bring it on home, Bobby.”

“Now that Mackey’s… back in town.”

Expanding (Crane) Horizons

The six Whooping cranes in the Class of ’15 arrived at their winter release site at St. Marks NWR on February 6. They received their tracking devices and permanent legbands on the 9th and were released on the 13th.

Thanks to your generosity in responding to a GivingGrid crowd-funding campaign last summer, three of the young cranes are sporting new GSM CTT units and the information we’re getting from these newer tracking technology devices is pretty darned cool!

Take a look at the following screengrabs from Google Earth. I’ve included details below each grab in the caption to explain what you’re seeing.

The red dots are 'hits' for one crane only (#6-15) and show all hits from Feb 11. There is no doubt that 6-15 is in the top-netted section of the release enclosure at this point!

The red dots are ‘hits’ for one crane only (#6-15) and show all hits from Feb 10 & 11. There is no doubt that 6-15 is in the top-netted section of the release enclosure at this point!

Here’s a grab showing all hits for the same crane (#6-15) for the period of February 12 – 16.

Three days after being released from the top-netted area, we can see that #6-15 is moving around the winter pen - specifically spending time at the feeding station and in and around the two ponds.

Three days after being released from the top-netted area, we can see that #6-15 is moving around the winter pen – specifically spending time at the feeding station (large yellow bulls-eye) and in and around the two ponds.

The following image shows all hits for #6-15 beginning February 28 and up to yesterday, March 3. There is no doubt that she is now quite comfortable flying out of the enclosure to spend time exploring the salt-marsh!


Juvenile Whooping crane 6-15 has been exploring the marsh surrounding the winter release pen!

Since the release enclosure is located in an area of the Refuge, which is closed to the public, it is acceptable to share this information. Please keep in mind as they begin their northward, return flight we will release location information at County/State level only.

HUGE thanks to everyone who contributed to funding these new CTT tracking devices! We’ll be running another campaign very soon for the 2016 cohort!

The Port Aransas Whooping Crane Festival

It’s kind of embarrassing to admit, but my biggest fear in accepting a position with Operation Migration was event planning. I knew going into it that if the Board of Directors decided they needed to meet face-to-face, it would be my responsibility to make that happen. It’s one thing to plan your own trip, but to be responsible for flights, rental cars, meal planning, and lodging for up to 15 people was a project I feared. What if I booked flights on the wrong days? What if the lodging turned out to be a dump? What if a local constable backed into a rental car? Oh wait… that DID happen!

Heather and Joe were the advance scouts – they arrived on Wednesday, checked us into our giant condo-like clubhouse that housed 13 of us in 9 bedrooms and then headed to the Chamber office to retrieve some parcels we had shipped there. A few of us arrived on Thursday, and then everyone else came in on Friday.

Our first Festival event on Saturday was a boat tour to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge where we were delighted by sights of wintering Whooping Cranes of the Western Migratory Population. In fact, we actually got pretty good views (and photos) of a couple of families, each with one colt still sporting some cinnamonny feathers. Heather and Colleen kept count – we saw a total of 49 Whooping Cranes on the tour! We also saw plenty of dolphins, ducks, and other birds on the trip, and had an opportunity to chat with Dr. George Archibald who happened to be aboard.

Colleen Chase and Dale Richter on the lookout for Whooping Cranes

Colleen Chase and Dale Richter on the lookout for Whooping Cranes

A family of Western population Whooping Cranes

A family of Western population Whooping Cranes

Hope, the ICF’s giant Whooping Crane mascot, was on the dock to greet us when we got back, but we had no time to spare as we had to hoof it a few blocks to our next event.

Hope, the ICF Whooping Crane mascot, greets us as we dock

Hope, the ICF Whooping Crane mascot, greets us as we dock

This was a luncheon that included a talk by Dr. Tom Stehn, retired Whooping Crane coordinator. He gave an informative and at times humorous talk about the 30 years he spent as a FWS biologist at the Aransas Refuge.

As much as I was starting to think a nap would feel really good, we continued on to our next event – the Whooping Crane Experts Round Table. With George Archibald as the mediator, the rest of the panel included Dr. Wade Harrell (FWS, WC Recovery Team Coordinator), Dr. Liz Smith (ICF), Dr. Sammy King (Louisiana Cooperative), Dr. Felipe Chavez-Rameriz (Gulf Coast Bird Observatory), and our very own Joe Duff. Some of you might have caught the discussion as it was broadcast on the CraneCam.

The Whooping Crane Expert Panel looks on as Joe Duff explains WCEP's 2016 plans

The Whooping Crane Expert Panel looks on as Joe Duff explains WCEP’s 2016 plans

We had time to “freshen up” at the clubhouse and then we headed out for a delicious dinner at The Venetian Hotplate restaurant.

Fortunately, I hadn’t booked anything for Sunday morning so we had much needed time for extra sleep and some R&R that included walks on the beach (where Heather found some very cool shells!), birding on the Leonabelle Turnbull boardwalk (can you say Wilson’s Snipe?), and shopping at the Festival Trade Show.

A Northern Shoveler, just one of the many cool birds at the boardwalk

A Northern Shoveler, just one of the many cool birds at the boardwalk

Back at the clubhouse a kitchen crew formed and put out a great “make your own sandwich” lunch buffet and then we got down to the business of the Board Meeting. So that we could meet all afternoon and then continue informal discussions on into the evening, we didn’t go out for dinner – we had a Texas BBQ catered by Mark Admire of Coastal Catering, complete with beef brisket, cowboy beans, potato salad, and coleslaw. Delish!

Our meeting continued all Monday morning and we finally wrapped up just in time for a lunch of leftovers. We had the afternoon free for biking, walking, resting, and even some laundry while Heather searched for a restaurant that could seat 11 for dinner. We just about took over a tiny restaurant called Roosevelts where we had a wonderful meal and were joined by Ann Vaughan, Executive Director of the Port Aransas Chamber of Commerce. We couldn’t tell her enough what a great job they had done with their Festival and how much we were enjoying Port Aransas!

So, in the end I had nothing to fear – our Board and staff family is the nicest, most easy-going and helpful band of travelers you can imagine! We had such fun attending the festival together, we worked hard at our meetings, and in the end came away with an appreciation for how much more can be accomplished spending time together instead of just talking on conference calls. Next face-to-face Board meeting, I’m thinking the Hawaii Nene Festival!!! 😉

St. Marks Update!

“Just the facts, Ma’am” (Sgt. Joe Friday on “Dragnet”)

“All present and accounted for, Sir” (Anonymous) that’s not as easy as it sounds. Counting birds, I mean. You would think counting to ten would be easy what with ten fingers and toes and all. But, for some of us more “digitally challenged” types, it’s not. Missing a finger can throw off the entire universe and turn the earth’s spin into a wobble. So attempting to count all ten birds in the pen first thing every morning can be a real challenge, especially when paranoia has got you involuntarily holding your breath.

Nights can be longer than long and the walk out to the blind longer that Miss Google tells you it is. So by the time you trek all the way out there, climb that “stairway to heaven” up into the blind, attempt to unlock the padlock with that duplicate key made at the hardware store by the new “bring it back if it doesn’t work” guy, lift open the two window shutters that weight 500 pounds each and that turn the simple act of sunshine acquisition into an Olympic Event, which is almost always preceded by a drug test for human or perhaps not so human migration growth hormones, then stare into the rising sun that holds the pen’s contents somewhere in its blinding carpet of harsh light, well, it ain’t as easy as it sounds, I can tell you.

“Only eight birds” you announce to yourself as panic begins to rise. “No, wait a minute. There’s one over at the bubbler.  That’s nine. No wait! I miscounted. Try again. OK…..there’s one over at the feed shed…that makes eleven! But there are only ten birds!” And so it goes… and goes, until an older than dirt Vanna White suddenly appears in a dress stolen from an Academy Award Nominee, turns around all the squares, and voila! all ten whoopers magically appear. “Roll Call” complete.

Adding to the drama is the ever haunting knowledge of just how valuable this small collection of birds really is and what each bird represents to the project. As we look out at these ten birds, we suddenly realize that we are looking at 50% of the surviving birds from the Class of 2012 (5-12), 50% of the surviving birds from the Class of 2013 (4-13) and 50% of the surviving birds from the Class of 2014 (4-14 aka “Peanut”, and 7-14). Sitting there in the blind, considering the incredible amount of resources… the time, money, collective effort by so many hard working people that these four birds represent is emotionally almost overwhelming… mind-boggling even. If we were to divide WCEP’s total project cost for those three years by 4, the cost of each bird would be…. well, like I said, mind-boggling. Is it any wonder that each morning’s count to ten “Role Call” is filled with so much nervous drama?

“So what’s been happening out there?” you ask. Well let’s see. The six chicks have been out of the top-netted pen just over two weeks now and they are slowly transitioning from full incarceration to the halfway house in the marsh and the ankle bracelet life known as soft release. As the days pass, they become more and more active, making longer and more frequent flights out of the pen, sometimes only to immediately return and other times to land out in the marsh to explore and forage.

The 2015 cohort on a flight over the pen pond.

The 2015 cohort, accompanied by 4-14 (Peanut) on a flight over the pen pond.

And they don’t always fly as a group. Sometimes it’s all six that go, but other times it’s just two or three. Peanut (4-14) goes with them on occasion to chaperon, but mainly I think he goes just to get away from the other older birds that so often harass him. At times you think he must be wearing a t-shirt that says, “Chase Me” that only they can see.

Juveniles 8-15 (front) and 11-15.

Juveniles 8-15 (front) and 11-15.

Meanwhile, the older birds, 5-12, 4-13 and 7-14 just stand and watch. And guard. They are very territorial and as far as they are concerned, the pen belongs to them. They pretty much stay in the pen most, if not all of the day, preferring their “Shangri-La” of unlimited food, fresh water and hot-wired fenced security to the rigors of wild bird life in that wasteland called Nature.

5-12, 4-13 and 7-14

5-12, 4-13 and 7-14

They flew in from their former digs at a nearby cattle ranch after #9-14 and 10-14 were predated near the pen and 4-12 and 3-14 “Left the building” for the safer climes of Georgia. The pen was, after all, the territory of 4-12 and he had spent the previous two winters establishing and solidifying his claim on it. Whooper “No Trespassing” signs hung everywhere. Time after time he chased his old buddy, 5-12 into next week only to have him soon return for another round. Serious drama, indeed.  But as Mother Nature likes to say, “The worm will turn” and now the territory belongs to 5-12.

He has learned that great life lesson that the world belongs to those who wait. He and his newly appointed V.P. in charge of Harassment, 4-13, who last winter was 4-12’s VP in that department, and 7-14 pretty much rule the roost. They chase the chicks at will and refuse any olive branches the chicks might offer. So, the chicks have learned to stay away from them, except on very occasional forays into the marsh and on the oyster bar at night. Then, the hormones subside with the sunlight, things quiet down and pen life becomes civil, which just goes to show, there aren’t many more important things than sleep. Just ask a person who spends every night in bed hooked up to a CPAP machine.

Another page just flew off the calendar and our thoughts now are on migration, which by all signs and prognostications will be early this year. Swallow tail kites have arrived early, white pelicans share their skies and spring vegetation is creeping in. The Tallahassee Southwood whooper, 11-09, left town over a week ago and word has it that 16-11, the DAR bird that has a thing for sandhill cranes and produced a crowd pleasing “Whoophill” chick last year at Horicon, has returned to his territory on Dr. Morrow’s Island, Wisconsin. But I’ll leave the subject of migration for another update because the sun is getting ready to pop and it’s time for that daily trip to the blind and the day’s “Role Call.” The temperature is thirty-something degrees but I’m already beginning to sweat.

Let’s see. One, two, three………. “Fingers, don’t fail me now!”

“Book ’em Dano”!

St. Marks NWR Release Pen

I thought it might be a good opportunity to provide some additional information regarding the soft-release enclosure area at St. Marks NWR where the Class of 2015 is currently. The enclosure is in an area of the refuge, which is closed to the public.


This is to protect the young cranes as they undergo a soft-release into the wild. Another reason is that it’s not that easy to get to the pen as one has to slog through some pretty serious mud and water depending on tide and the amount of recent rain.

I captured this photo the morning of February 6th as we made our way into the site. It had rained overnight February 3rd.

I captured this photo the morning of February 6th as we made our way along the path leading into the site. It had rained overnight February 3rd.

You can see by the labeled screengrab from Google Earth (below) that the large enclosure itself isn’t really an “enclosure” so to speak. The main difference is that it is not top-netted and the cranes can come an go as they please.

The surrounding fence is 8 feet high and has two strands of electric fence: the first is about 8 to 10 inches off the ground and the second is closer to the top of the fence.

Within the pen is a smaller top-netted section which is used to temporarily house the young cranes when they arrived. This gives them time to acclimate to their new surroundings and holds them until they receive their permanent legbands and transmitters.

The 4-acre pen has two ponds – both, teeming with tasty things to investigate and consume. The pond closest to the top-netted section has an ‘oyster bar’, and no, this isn’t meant to be a gathering place to gossip about all the other wildlife in the area. Instead, it provides a graduated ‘slope’ so that it’s suitable for roosting at night, no matter what the tidal fluctuations are in the area.

There are two roofed feed stations to provide supplemental crane chow, but for the most part, at this point, the cranes are foraging and finding their own food items in and around the site.


Approximately 170 yards away is the observation blind. This allows Brooke and others to quietly observe the young birds to see what’s going on and how they’re interacting with the older Whooping cranes also in the area.

The observation blind is elevated roughly 12 feet and is covered in camouflage netting.

The observation blind is elevated roughly 12 feet and is covered in camouflage netting.

From the inside of the blind looking out.

From the inside of the blind looking out.

So there you have it… An overview of the St. Marks NWR release site!

Rocky Horror Whooper Show

It has been said that watching life at the crane pen is like watching a soap opera. A kind of “As the Pen Turns.” But the more time we spend observing it, the louder it all seems to get and soon it morphs into something resembling a musical; “The hills are alive…” or even a Rocky Horror-Picture-Show-like rock opera, where crowds of leftover hippies with bumper stickers on their cars that say, “I Stop For Hallucinations” line up on the path to the blind at midnight to see it, while conversing with each other using only lines from the opera. It is on such days that we worry we might be channeling Walt Disney when the whole pen scene begins to resemble a crane version of “Dumbo” – ”But I done seen about everything when I seen a crane decoy fly.”

I mean, it only takes a pinch of imagination or a morning after a big night on the town to look out and see it happen. And it does happen! Like this morning – There’s Peanut standing outside the pen in his kingdom of exile crooning mournfully, “I’m On The Outside Looking In,” while just inside the pen 5-12 is moon walking back and forth singing, “I Hear Ya Knockin’ But Ya Can’t Come In,” with 7-14 pointing her toe disdainfully at Peanut, wiggling her butt, and belting out, “Hit The Road Jack.”

Male Whooping crane 4-14 (Peanut) outside looking in.

Male Whooping crane 4-14 (Peanut) outside looking in.

Then, over at the end of the oyster bar, #1-15 is doing her whirling dervish routine for a very much alive crane decoy, singing “Born Free” at the top of her lungs, followed by 6-15 chiming in with her Johnny Cash-like baritone describing life in the pen, singing “The Ring of Fire” as 10-15 harmonizes with a background vocal of a perfectly synced version of Disney’s “It’s A Small World After All.”

Whooping crane 6-15.

Whooping crane 6-15.

Before I knew it, my toes were involuntarily tapping out backup rhythms on the floor of the blind when out of the blue, the director unexpectedly yelled, “Stage Left”! and two volunteers suddenly appeared at the feed shed in the all too familiar Casper the Friendly Ghost costumes high stepping in a mini chorus line while singing “Gonna Fill ‘em on UP.” The whole show got downright overwhelming at times. Then, almost as soon as it began, it was over.

The cranes were going about their crane business as if it all had never happened… and we finished our chores in silence. But after a while, worry began to set in as we grabbed our smart phones and dialed up “Craniacs Anonymous” for the Twelve Step Program Group Rate App to deal with our disturbing case of what could only be diagnosed as “Whooper Withdrawal.”

Still, there are not many things in life as fun and rejuvenating as fantasy. And anything that begins, “Once Upon A Time….” has just got to end in a good place, even if that place turns out to exist only in our minds. But who knows. Maybe… just maybe… that world of fantasy is every bit as real and meaningful as the one we usually inhabit… an oasis, existing always just on the other side of that portal… the one that lies in that grey corner of our periphery. Maybe.

As we walked the trail back to the parking lot, Bev turned to me and asked quietly, “Did you happen to notice anything strange going on in the pen this morning?”

“Nope. Not a thing. Why?”

And that’s when the sky opened up and the thundering voice rang out across the marsh, “And now a word from our sponsor.”

From left: 4-14, 7-14 & 5-12 spend time foraging in one of the ponds inside the release pen.

From left: 4-14, 7-14 & 5-12 spend time foraging in one of the ponds inside the release pen.

Male crane 4-13 gets fresh water from the bubbler.

Male crane 4-13 gets fresh water from the bubbler.

Port Aransas Whooping Crane Festival

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Port Aransas Whooping Crane Festival, which takes place next week!

This year’s festival will feature keynote speaker Carter Smith, Executive Director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Twentieth anniversary special events include a luncheon presentation by Tom Stehn, retired U.S.Whooping Crane Coordinator; a photography exhibit and reception with photographer Zhongjie Zheng from China; an evening painting and wine pairing class; and a family birding field trip.

World renowned crane expert, Dr. George Archibald, will be one of the featured speakers at The University of Texas Marine Science Institute, along with representatives from the different Whooping Crane populations across North America, including OM’s own Joe Duff.

Additional festival events include boat tours to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge to observe Whooping Cranes, guided field trips, interactive workshops and seminars, and a nature-related trade show.

Visit the Festival page to learn more – we hope to see you there!

Download Festival Program

Amazon Smile

Amazon_smileAt the beginning of 2014 launched a program titled AmazonSmile. The program is a simple and automatic way for you to support your favorite charitable organization every time you shop, at no cost to you.

The added bonus is that Amazon will donate a portion of the purchase price to your favorite charitable organization. You can choose from nearly one million organizations to support but naturally, we’re grateful that a number of you have designated Operation Migration!

In fact, since the program launched, OM has received $2015.07 from AmazonSmile!

If you do shop through Amazon and you’ve not yet designated OM as your favorite charity, you can do so by clicking the AmazonSmile graphic above!

For those that already have – thank you!


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