Lessons Learned

You only have to attend a few meetings as a new member of any committee or club before you understand where you fit into their social order. It doesn’t take long before you learn who the workers are, who is leading them — and who wants to be. That same hierarchy exist in avian societies just as it does in our human groups, otherwise we wouldn’t call it a “pecking order.” I wish we had the same quick insight into the dominance structure that exists in any cohort of Whooping cranes, but in bird culture, the leaders and the followers are a lot harder to identify when communication is limited to postures and displays. The strut in their walk, the ruffle of their feathers and the position of their head all convey clear messages to their flock mates but only vague signals to even the most expert human interpreter.

Every flock of birds we have raised from eggs to releasable sub-adults has had its own personality. Some were calm and sociable, while others were aggressive and independent — like the costume-reared class of 2017. From the beginning, our seven chicks were a tight group always sticking together even when they ventured out of the pen. We promoted that unity because there was a time when it was beneficial. When we led our birds south, they needed to be dedicated to the flock. If they didn’t have that allegiance to their peers, they were less likely to follow the birds that were following our aircraft and more likely to drop out or turn back. Those characteristics aren’t necessary anymore and this year, they proved to be a disadvantage.

The 2017 costume-reared birds are inexperienced and every day is a new learning opportunity. But rather than us being their teachers, they must now learn from other cranes, preferably Whoopers — although Sandhills are better than no mentors at all. Unfortunately, this naïve gang of innocents is too self-sufficient to submit to more seasoned cranes. They don’t know what they don’t know and they have yet to learn consequences of their baby bravado.

For more than six weeks, they spent most of their time with Henry (5-12) and 30-16. They foraged together and roosted in the same ponds, but if you watched closely, you could see the subtle delineation in the two groups. The seven would wander through fields poking in the mud while the other two would follow behind. They often broke into two factions in the air, even if only temporarily.

Adults 5-12 (Henry) and 30-16 in flight with the seven costume-reared juvenile whooping cranes. Photo: Doug Pellerin

And when the air turned cold and the ponds froze, Henry and his young friend left. They circled a few times and called to the chicks but left them behind when they wouldn’t heed. Even the Royal Couple tried to get them to follow but gave up. (Read Colleen’s update for more details on those fascinating interactions).

The winds have been blowing to the south lately and most of the Sandhills have read the signs and headed south. If they don’t take the hint soon the chicks will be on their own. In 2013, another close knit cohort of costume-reared chicks failed to migrate. Mind you, it was much later in the season. Rather than cold nights and a skiff of snow in the mornings, winter had set in for the long run. So, in order to prevent these seven from learning the hard way the penalties of not migrating, we decided to be proactive. We raised our concern on the WCEP Monitoring and Management Team call and developed a plan to break up this little autonomous gang. The first part of Plan A took place on Wednesday. Brooke and Colleen captured cranes 3-17 and 7-17 and took them down to the Wisconsin River in Sauk County to meet Anne Lacy and Hillary Thompson from ICF. The two were released near hundreds of Sandhills and they flew right to them. We hope that without their allies, they’ll be a little less insolent and soon learn what they didn’t know.

In the interim, the weather is predicted to turn a little warmer, which we hope will give the remaining five a chance to figure it out. With two of their group absent, the dynamic may change and we have time to see if that happens. If not, and the weather starts to become a critical factor, Plan B is to collect them all and relocate them to Goose Pond in southern Indiana. That Fish and Wildlife Area was in fact, established, in part, because of the Whooping cranes that began using it in the first years of this reintroduction.

It’s far enough south that our birds have wintered there and it’s now a common stopover during both legs of the migration with birds there at most times of the year. If we have to relocate them, they are bound to meet other cranes moving north or south later this year or next spring and with their familiarity of White River, we are confident, they will be back.

All of this is an opportunity for us to learn too. If we have another tight-knit cohort next year, we will act sooner, now that we have seen the consequences. We could divide the pen to separate groups or let them out in different orders and different times. When we raised 18 to 20 cranes in a season, we had to train them in up to three cohorts based on age and their ability to fly. At the end of those seasons, we had to manipulate their dominance structure to integrate three independent groups into one cohesive flock. We know how to bring them together so we will figure out how to keep them just independent enough to accept a little guidance when it’s needed. 

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Black Friday/Amazon Smile

Why not support Operation Migration today as you make your Black Friday purchases on Amazon.com?

Go to smile.amazon.com/ch/16-1560518 and Amazon donates a portion of your purchase to Operation Migration-USA Inc.

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Following Beeps

Early Saturday morning, I headed out to check whooping cranes, I heard 3-14’s beeps telling me the Royal Couple roosted in a familiar spot. Next, I checked on the costume-reared chicks. They flew off roost at 6:50 am to what is becoming a new favorite field; spent about a half hour there and went to another usual morning spot. I followed, then went down the road listening for the female of the royal couple, number 3-14. They too were in a frequently used field. I went back to camp for a refill of coffee and to warm up. It was 27° – I love it, but still, brrrrrrrr.

At 9:30-ish I headed out again. I could hear 3-14 beeping away, but they (assuming 4-12 is with her) were not in the usual places. I kept following beeps south, by now we are well south of their territory. Hmmm.

Next, I rounded a corner and the beeps got louder and sounded like they were coming from Henry’s Pond. I stopped in the middle of the road and adjusted the gain on the receiver. Sure enough they were in Henry’s Pond! They never go there! It was 27°, I never opened the window. Later I would wish I had!

I went a bit further to the chick’s favorite roosting wetland and did a head count. All present and accounted for. The rest of the day held no more surprises. Business as usual.

Sunday at 6:30am, as usual I turned on the receiver in camp as the van warmed, rather than putz with it as I drive on curvy County Road D. Usually, I never get a beep for #3-14 till I am a mile or two down the road. – Not that morning. The loud beeps told me they had either roosted in the back of the van or were in the air nearby. They were to the SE, and as I drove south they faded. Then I got them again more to the SW. Then straight South and they got softer and softer. I waved bye-bye and wished them safe travels. Off on migration they go.

The chicks had beat me to the field, I could hear they were all there but could not get a visual from any surrounding road.

It was a good migration day so at 7am I found a safe place to snug in for the morning and listen to beeps. At 7:20am I could still hear faint beeps from our Royal Couple. At 7:55 I switched to 3-14’s frequency wondering how many miles they would have traveled in the almost hour, which had passed, and would I still hear them. And OMG…They were in the field with the chicks! OMG!

Now, remember I can’t see any birds so I drive the perimeters of the field again hoping for a glimpse of white. Not from anywhere can I see a bird. So, I went back to my safe parking spot and listened. Then at 8:07am 9 Whooping cranes and 14 Sandhill cranes took off. The Sandhill’s broke off right away to the left. The 9 whoopers did a circle and flew SOUTH! I followed them into Princeton. Through Princeton. I got a visual and the crappiest picture ever.

Yes, those white specs really are whooping cranes.

I headed south on Hwy 23, which veers to the SW. They were going SE. I doubled back and headed south listening to strong beeps, flipping through each of the frequencies rhythmically to make sure each was there. They were, for about 4-5 miles. Then the chicks’ signals got softer. 3-14’s still strong. Back to #3’s and it’s fading, so I swung the antenna to the North and sure enough they were heading back. With a heavy heart, so did I.

At 8:45am they were back in their wetland. Sigh. I settled in on the top of the hill listening to the chick’s beeps. Just for the fun if it I switch to 3-14’s signal and still can hear it faintly to the SE. I turn it back to the chicks.

At 9:34am I turn it to 3-14 again… They are in the wetland with the chicks. Oh my heart! I am old, ya know!

They stayed 20 min and at 9:55am they took off for good. I listened to the beeps till they disappeared. The chicks were in a safe field and the show over for the day. I headed back to camp with tears streaming down my face.

What a remarkable thing I had just witnessed. Two adults that had only associated with the chicks one other time did their best to take them south. How gut-wrenchingly sad the chicks would not listen.

The rest of the day was same ol’ same ol’. At dusk a truck pulled up. With its tinted windows I could not tell if it was hunters or someone I knew. The driver put the window down and asked if he could park down here in camp and before I could answer he said if I tell you I know all about your birds will you let us? I replied he would get major brownie points if he loved Whooping cranes!

He introduced himself as Eric and said the day before, (Saturday) he was hunting at Henry’s Pond. (How cool is that? He called it Henry’s Pond!) He said Henry and 30-16 were in it, at which point I interrupted to tell him Henry and 30-16 had headed south last Thursday and it was probably 4-12 and 3-14 he saw. He replied, Oh! The Royal Couple! Now I was REALLY impressed!

He said for 45 minutes one of those birds called and called and cried. The chicks were in the wetland well within hearing distance. How I wished I had opened the windows Saturday morning when I was listening to the beeps at Henry’s Pond! It turns out Eric had met Brooke out at the North Pond during the summer. He educated Brooke about hunting and Brooke got him interested in the birds!

It sounds to me like the Royal Couple started trying to persuade the chicks Saturday morning to head south.

What do you think?

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Social Circles

Doug Pellerin managed to capture this photo showing Parent-reared whooping crane #38-17 (left) along with two adult whoopers near Horicon Marsh in Dodge County, WI last week. In the middle is female #71-16 and on the right is male 63-15.

Three whooping cranes among Sandhill cranes. Photo: Doug Pellerin

Since this photo was taken, 63-15 and 38-17 are still at Horicon but 71-16 has begun migration and currently in Jasper County, Indiana – BUT WAIT! It’s gets even more interesting!

I pulled up the GSM hit for 71-16 just now and realized the field she is in looked familiar. Now how many times does that happen to you? You’re boppin along, traveling on Google Earth and you come across a random field in Indiana and say to yourself “Self, that field looks familiar”! Never, right?

That’s why I figured I needed to find out WHY it looked familiar. I checked back through the PTT hits, which arrive faithfully at 7am each day and low and behold, another other Parent-reared crane I had been monitoring in southern Dodge County, WI, number 24-17 was in the SAME FIELD as 71-16!

The red and yellow dots are from the GSM device worn by 71-16. The blue dots are from 24-17’s PTT device.

How on earth do these birds manage to find each other like that?


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Where are they now?

This fall season, eleven young Parent-Reared Whooping cranes were released in central Wisconsin. All were released at known roost locations of adult whoopers in hopes they would form a bond with the older and wiser cranes and eventually follow them south.

All but two have begun heading south. One is even in central Florida already!

Here’s a map grab showing their known locations as of November 21st:

Locations of PR whooping cranes on November 21, 2017. Source: Google Earth

As you can see, cranes 30-17 and 72-17 are already well south. These are the two birds Jo-Anne Bellemer was monitoring in Winnebago County, WI.

Female crane 26-17 is now in Gibson County, IN and we think she is with #’s 4-14 (Peanut) and 11-15 but the are they are in is very isolated so we’ve not been able to get visual confirmation.

Number 28-17 does not have a remote tracking device but he was positively ID’d in Walworth County, WI over the weekend. 

Male whooping crane 28-17 in Walworth County, WI. Photo: B. Martin

19-17 (and likely 25-17) are in Warren County, IN. A PTT hit for adult female #2-15 places her at the same location so we believe these two migrated south with 2-15 and 28-05 from Marathon County, WI.

24-17 is the young male crane I was monitoring in southern Dodge County, WI. PTT hits indicate he was still in Wisconsin on the 16th and then by the 19th he was in Jasper County, IN. He is very likely traveling with Sandhill cranes.

36-17 and 37-17 left Marathon County, WI on Nov. 12th. Sadly, the following day, number 37-17 was found dead beneath a powerline in Necedah, WI. Her remains were collected by Necedah Refuge Biologist Brad Strobel. 36-17 continued migrating and is currently in Jasper County, IN.

Female cranes 38-17 & 39-17 are the two birds released at Horicon National Wildlife Refuge. As of Nov. 21st they are both still at the refuge, although not together. Both have been associating with Sandhill cranes.

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Groom of Doom

“It is better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.” Or at least that’s what our little whooper 4-13, aka. “Mack the Knife” will tell you. But in his case, there is a slight twist… for we’re not talking unrequited love here. No. It’s more a case of “Until death do us part” followed by, “Parting is such sweet sorrow,” without a whole lot time in between. And when the old boy stands in the front of the church and says, ”I Do” when he really means, “Goodbye,” the whole story really does get a little Alfred Hitchcockian. You see, Mack is on his third bride in less than twelve months. His first two are no longer among the living… which is why Colleen rechristened him, the “Groom of Doom.” And it does explain why, when Mack and 10-15 walked down the aisle this spring at White River Marsh, instead of playing “Here Comes the Bride,” the organist played, “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You.” But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Male 4-13 in the background and female 10-15.

Last Thursday morning was dark and cold as most Thursday mornings are these days. A low layer of thick overcast blanketed the countryside, thwarting all hope of a warming morning light. We followed our headlights south to Princeton to check the sloughs for sandhill cranes or “sandies” with the thought that they might participate in leading our chicks south now that Henry and Johnny have flown the coop. The winds would be out of the north all day and birds would almost certainly be moving south. On the way, we checked for the beeps of the chicks, the Royal Couple, and Mack and 10-15. All were present and accounted for, though still hidden in the darkness of their roosting sites.

We parked the tracking van and hiked through the woods to the slough, hoping to see it still occupied by a large flock of sandies. No such luck. Only a couple stragglers remained along with a pile of Canada geese and a lone seagull, painted into the picture as if for comic effect. The Atlantic Ocean must be close by, we thought. Or perhaps a garbage dump! Or perhaps the Fates were messing with our heads again… and it was a Laughing Gull.

Back in the van, the tracking receiver dutifully scanned through the bird frequencies as we began our return north. Suddenly it came alive with the sound Mack and 10-15 nearing us, in flight. They haven’t come this far south all season! They were MIGRATING! Like a dog chasing a stick, we turned around and instinctually commenced chase, following them in hot pursuit as the excitement grew and the speedometer climbed. That was until reality set in and we recognized the folly of our endeavor. Mack and 10-15 were not our priority. The chicks were. With luck, we would see them again at St Marks in couple of weeks anyway. Besides, my imagination suddenly flashed the sight of us being pulled over for speeding by the local sheriff and my response, “Well Officer, I was just chasing the Beeps”!

As we headed back north, I thought about good old 4-13, aka. Mack the Knife. His name was the result of an incident which occurred when he was a little chick back at Patuxent. One morning, he appeared for roll call with a bad bruise on his upper beak, probably the result with an encounter with the pen the previous night. As he grew, his top beak did not grow as fast as his bottom beak, which stuck out sharp as a stiletto. His pecks soon became near lethal so that by the end of the day, you felt like you had been playing goalie for the local dart team.

This accidental Darwinistic adaptation was certainly not to our benefit (note the shark bruises on my arms and back) but it may have been to his, because he is, as it turned out, the only surviving whooper of the Ultralight Class of 2013. Perhaps his motto is, “Walk softly and carry a sharp… beak” And it makes us wonder if intentionally bruising the upper beak of every whooper chick should become mandatory protocol. But as Confucius was fond of saying, “Who knows.”

So, let’s give this a closer look. Mack returned from St Marks last year with 7-14. They enjoyed a great season together and the relationship looked as though it was made in heaven. Then she disappeared. Meanwhile, Henry was showing off the very first love of his life, 8-14, and just in time too. We were beginning to wonder about the old boy. It was nubile bliss until the newly “separated” Mack flew in and snaked Henry’s bride for his own. “Bummer”! After all, Mack had been single for all of about… five minutes!

Mack and 8-14 spent their honeymoon at St Marks while Henry and Peanut watched from the nearby marsh. You just had to wonder what was going through their minds. But as married couples well know, honeymoons are not forever. Mack and 8-14 left on migration and not long thereafter we were driving to Alabama to recover the bride’s remains while Mack continued back to White River Marsh for a “new beginning.” He no doubt landed, fluffed himself up to advantage and called out over the reawakening spring country side, “Next”! This time, it was 10-15 that answered the call. Soon, Mack had himself a new mate…. and a new name — the “Groom of Doom” thanks to Colleen.

And so Thursday morning, we thought of the “lovely newlyweds” as their beeps faded into the southern distance. However, the beeps were soon replaced by the muffled, far away sound of a church organ, eerily surging towards us as sure as an incoming tide, until it infected our Invisible Friend in the back seat with a hum that quickly morphed into raucous, ear-shattering song. My foot instinctively floored the accelerator as we leaned forward hard against the windshield in a desperate effort to escape the malicious onslaught. But escape was not to be. And soon the insidious melody body snatched us into involuntary song, which began in our toes and crawled alien-like up our bodies until to poured out our mouths in Vesuvian eruption,

“So long, it’s been good to know you…….”

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Wood Buffalo National Park Threatened

One of the world’s largest groups of conservation scientists says Canada’s biggest national park is among the most threatened World Heritage Sites in North America.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature says Wood Buffalo National Park, which straddles the Alberta-Northwest Territories boundary, is significantly threatened by hydroelectric and oilsands development.

Buffalo bull at Wood Buffalo National Park, taken in this 2007 file photo. Mike Drew/Postmedia Network

“This is quite embarrassing,” said Melody Lepine of the Mikisew Cree First Nation, many of whose members live alongside the park.

“It’s not looking good for Canada avoiding an endangered listing for Wood Buffalo.”

Wood Buffalo is a vast stretch of grassland, forest, wetland and lakes. Its 45,000 square kilometres contain one of the world’s largest freshwater deltas, uncountable flocks of waterfowl and songbirds, as well as ecological cycles and relationships that remain in their natural state.

It’s also the nesting site for the last (naturally occurring) flock of endangered whooping cranes.

Continue Reading

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Aerial Survey

Yesterday, Wisconsin DNR Pilot, Bev Paulan flew over the western portion of the state to count Whooping cranes.

Bev reports she saw only seven whoopers during her flight. They include: 65-15 & 7-07 in Sauk County, 14-15, 5-11/12-11, and 6-15/16-04, all in Juneau County.

There are still whoopers in the eastern half and we’re hopeful Matthew Brandt will be able to get a flight in today to let us know who they are.

Have You Selected Your Scarf Yet?

Thanks to a very generous supporter, we have a pledge of $25,000 which is to be used as MATCHING dollars for all contributions made before the end of the year!

The way this works is quite simple – Donate $50 and it’s automatically doubled to $100. Donate $500 and it turns into $1,000… You get the idea.

BUT WAIT! There’s more! 

ALL contributions of $50 or more will receive a limited edition Duff Doodle Crane Scarf in your choice of Ivory with black cranes or Charcoal with white cranes. 

We have a limited number available and want to make sure nobody misses out so we must place a limit of 2 scarves/household with a qualifying donation of $100 (which will be doubled to $200!)

Which scarf will be yours?


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The Sound of Silence – Part II

Part I

We sped off to chase more beeps and soon our Royal Couple, 4-12 and 3-14 came into view atop a hill that passes for a mountain in Wisconsin. (It’s all relative) They stared longingly aloft in tentative posture as if sniffing the air for permission to alight. But after a time, the announcement came loud and clear over the airport loudspeaker… ”Your flight has been cancelled.”

We U’ied the van and headed for Mack (4-13) and 10-15, a mile and a half away. They were foraging delightedly in an ag field with no obvious intention of an imminent departure. Then it was off to check one of Jo-Ann’s parent reared chicks, 72-17, a couple of dozen miles away and soon her very lonely beeps filled the van.

After lunch, it was back on the circuit. Growing wind gusts buffeted the van, their invisible arms reaching in to jerk on the steering wheel. Familiar miles passed beneath while the morning’s chick observations began to repeat in my mind’s eye. And as they looped, a very subtle, Rorschach Chart-like picture began to emerge, carrying with it a sudden sense of quiet surprise and uneasiness. It was the morning’s usual picture of Henry, but tilted and skewed a degree or two from horizontal. His posture was slightly more erect, his tail feathers pointing towards the vertical with a bit more conviction, and his orientation weather-vaned uncharacteristically away from the chicks and more into the wind. This was the very earliest suggestion of the far more pronounced pre-migration posture I had seen so many times over the years at St Marks. But surely the old boy wouldn’t be leaving today! Or would he? My foot involuntarily pressed down against the accelerator with increased urgency.

As we neared the wetland area, all seven chick beeps sang sweetly from the receiver. Then we toggled Henry’s frequency. That’s when things got really loud. A squadron of Air Force fighter jets came screaming out of nowhere and passed just over our heads just as our engine threw a connecting rod, blasting the piston through the engine compartment and up through the roof. And that’s when I heard the words of Mr. Adams, my high school math teacher, informing me I had just flunked algebra.

“Turn it down!” my invisible friend hollered in sudden pain. “You’re hurting my ears”!

But I didn’t even try… because I already knew what he obviously did not: there is no volume control for silence… or disappointment.

Henry and Johnny had “left the building.” It wasn’t hard to imagine them winging their way south, freed at last from the grip of winter’s advance and from the responsibility of taking the chicks with them. But why did they leave the chicks now, after all of these weeks? Perhaps it’s the very same answer the guy gave when asked why he left his home and family one evening to go to Seven Eleven for a pack of cigarettes… and never returned… ”When you got to go, you got to go.” (In my travels, I have met two of these guys.)

“So… what do we do now?” my invisible friend asked.

“Pray for sandhills,” I replied. During their long days of post-release, our chicks had also been associating with sandhill cranes. Not a lot of them, mind you, but usually three or four. The first wave of migrating sandhills had already blown through the area, but surely there will be more coming. And hooking up with a large flock of sandhills would not be such a bad thing… safety in numbers and all of that.

“It ain’t over ‘til the fat lady sings,” my invisible friend confidently announced, quoting the great Yogi Berra.

“You got a point,” I replied. “I just hope she does it… quietly”

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The Sound of Silence

Who could ever forget that 1960’s Simon and Garfunkel ear worm? But silence really is a sound. A very loud one. In fact, the loudest sound I ever heard was the silence my ultralight engine made when it suddenly quit in flight. That was until Thursday afternoon, when the bright and clear transmitter beeps from Henry and Johnny (30-16) that had given us so much hope and reassurance just a few short hours before were…. silent. Had they left on migration? Without our seven chicks!? When the ear-shattering roar finally abated, it was replaced with the mind-numbing sound of that place on the record with the big scratch in it. But I digress.

Thursday morning began crispy cold as most mornings do these days. Camp had become magically transformed into a dark kingdom of doom; a near single digit land of frozen water pipes and tripped off electricity… a place where the morning trip to the porta-potty resembles a near death experience followed by a serious discussion of the possibility of getting a Group Rate at Skin Grafts R Us. A siege mentality was quietly growing where cheerful optimism once flourished and it soon becomes obvious that this is how you spell the word “Migration.”

Not that we are the only ones with migration on our minds. Mother Nature’s “Don’t let the door hit you in the butt” conditions have sent lots of birds heading for the Exits. Most of the Sandhill’s are gone. Most of the geese are gone. Even Joe, Heather and Jo-Anne are gone. “And not many whoopers left.” Bev announced after Tuesday’s crane flight. Some whoopers have not only gone, but they have already arrived. Goose Pond in Indiana is filling up with whoopers. And five birds, including one of only two of this year’s surviving chicks, have already arrived in Kentucky.

“So…when are the chicks going to leave?” my invisible friends keeps asking. Well, we’re hoping Henry has the answer because our hopes have been resting on him to lead them south. The chicks have been spending almost all their time with him and Johnny since their release. And Henry has a special history of mentoring chicks. At St Marks, back in the spring of 2015, he remained behind with the chicks long after adults 4-12, 4-13 and chick 7-14 had headed north on migration. The chicks had missed half the migration route south that year and we were hoping he would help them fill in the blanks north.

And he did… almost. His efforts to encourage the chicks to leave were nothing short of amazing… supernatural even. Twice he took off north on migration only to return later. It would take a very long chapter in a book to chronicle his efforts but suffice it to say that observing his efforts day after day was a “mind blowing” experience. But finally he succeeded. One morning they all left together as Colleen and I gave chase. Day after day, Henry led the chicks all the way to southern Illinois until a large storm system stopped their progress. Next morning, we observed them all together making the usual short pre-migration warm up flight. However, by afternoon, it was Henry that continued the migration north. The chicks did not. It was a heartbreaker.

The chicks instead spent the next few weeks making attempt after futile attempt to fly north. They did all the right things: the excited, pre-migration calling, the short warm up flights, the launch and spiral to altitude and the departure heading north. But soon, in almost Monty Pythonesque fashion, their journey would come to an abrupt halt as they hit an invisible wall in the sky through which they could not pass. It blocked any and all hope of northward progress, allowing only flight east or west. Very sad and frustrating to watch. Finally, we were forced to capture and transport them back up to Wisconsin. It was a very sad ending to a year of very hard work. Meanwhile, Henry arrived in White River Marsh late… but right on time.

That all seems like it happened a million years ago. Or was it yesterday?

We made our escape to the usual morning place of observation and were soon enjoying the ever-magical sight of our 9 little white spots making their now familiar flight across the dark face of the far tree line, then higher into the first suggestion of cold, morning light and finally landing in the harvested ag field across from us where they began their morning forage. Henry, in ever vigilant and protective mode, took up his usual position a short distance away.

An hour or so passed as light erased dark shadow… revealing life as usual in “Whooper-land.” But the skies soon became a blanket of cold, gray turbulence as the wind speed quickly increased. It came from the right direction for migration… but fierce! In fact, a group of four sandhills soon crossed above in a flight mode which could only be described as “Katywhompus.” Then, as if rising to the challenge, our birds took off to join the fray and soon found themselves roller-coastering in barely controlled flight over to their favorite wetland area just beyond the trees, where only their “beeps” disclosed their presence. We left to check on the other birds in the area and get some lunch. So far, things were progressing as usual and we were glad.

We should have known better.

                                      (…to be continued)

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The RV Life – Not for the Faint of Heart

This year I thought I avoided the cold by at least a week, but nooooo. I hoped to get our big trailer back to Canada and winterized ahead of the freezing temperatures but nothing seemed to work as planned. I left last Monday after spending the weekend storing the aircraft trailer, hooking up Colleen’s trailer, getting her started on her trip south and preparing our 34 foot Elkridge RV.

Because I didn’t miss the snow last year a good part of the underside was covered in salt from the long trip home. That meant that after five months of use at White River, the gears for the four slide-outs were rusted up and stuck. Lots of grease, penetrating oil and expletives later, I found that I could alternate between a pipe wrench on the drive gear and a quick press of the remote control button would move them an inch at a time.

Last year I tried winterizing it myself but had to replace the shower taps, two stop valves and one toilet so I opted for a professional job on the trip home this year. However, the RV season is over in the north and most places have a skeleton staff with appointments a week into the future. I made three stops but decided finally to have it done once I got home. I booked an appointment online for Friday, also the day I have to be at the airport by 3 pm. Still time in the morning if it all went as planned.

For two days I had to shuffle it around as my driveway is only twenty feet long and there is strict parking enforcement on all the local streets. Finding a legal street space for a truck and trailer with an overall length near fifty feet is not easy, but managed. I emptied the fridge and dumped the waste. I booked the storage facility where I would drop it as soon as it was winterized, then head to the airport. A good plan, tight but good, until I heard the weather forecast predict Thursday night temperatures of -13C.

The only place to plug the trailer in was the office, which happens to be on a short, busy, commercial, dead end street. I pulled in midday and instantly knew it was a mistake. Cars were parked everywhere so the chances of turning in around were zero. Backing out into a very busy street was also impossible. So I waited until the other shops closed and their staff left. Then I made a thirty point turn to back it up to the office door, ran out the slider so the furnace would work and plugged it in.

That’s when I found out the the full propane bottles were all left for Brooke, who is still in Wisconsin. I had two bottles with only a few inches in each.

I used one bottle, then switched to the other at 2 am. At 6 am, I walked the mile to the office in four inches of snow and freezing temperatures. The propane was gone, the furnace out and the trailer as cold as a witch’s heart. I climbed to the roof so I could sweep off the snow above the slide-out and pushed it back into place. I tried to roll up the power cords but they were too stiff so I tossed them into my office. (Sorry about the mess Chris).

From there, I raced home, as best you can race in a fifty foot rig in ice and snow. I found a parking space, packed for my trip and headed for the RV place. I was hoping to just drop it off there and collect it next week when I get back but their lot was full. With the thaw-out in needed, the job would take all day so we agree to try again next week when the weather is supposed to get warmer. I’ll just have to deal with the plumbing damage.

So I was off to the storage facility to slip it into the last tight spot. That’s when I discovered that the electric switch for the front risers on our fifth wheel no longer work, so I hand-cranked it off the truck. On about the three hundredth turn, the crank slipped, hit the door, spun back and hit me in the face and simultaneously flipped snow into my eyes. When I reached up, my glasses flew over my head and landed in the snow. Warm as they were, they sank immediately, so I spent twenty precious minutes gently poking without stepping for fear of crushing them.

It could have been worse. I was dangerously low on diesel fuel, which I had neglected to get the day before. Or I could have blown two tires like I did on the way home last year.

I have learned on good lesson in all of this. RVing is strictly a summer activity and don’t let anyone tell you different.

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First Aid for the Whooping Crane Pen at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge

St Marks National Wildlife Refuge is a wonderful place to visit and that’s true whether you are a nature lover or a bird.  The habitat is pristine, the marshes are beautiful and the staff are all generous, congenial and seem genuinely happy to work there. Personally, I think that has a lot to do with the trickle-down effect from Refuge Manager Terry Peacock. She brings experience, authority and a big smile to every encounter and makes you feel like you have just arrived home. And for many of our birds that’s exactly what St Marks is, at least for the winter.

Brooke will spend his winter season in Florida. He will monitor any birds that spend time in St Marks and check on others in the vicinity. He may even help with re-banding some of the birds that have non-functioning transmitters. The following is a great story about the managers, staff, friends and supporters of the refuge and how they all got together to fix the winters’ storm damage to the release pen they built in early 2009.

The pen is open-topped and covers four acres with good roosting inside. No food will be provided to the winter visitors but most of them are familiar and may choose to roost where it’s safe. In fact, they likely don’t even know it’s a pen. Terry’s team also repaired the small top-netted section but that would only be used to protect an injured bird while awaiting care from a vet. Let’s hope it’s never used.

Thanks to Terry and her indefatigable team.

— Joe Duff

Written by a St. Marks NWR Volunteer

Every year since 2008, St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge Manager Terry Peacock has invited the public for a work day in autumn to help Refuge staff prepare a 3-acre fenced pen to be a safe winter roost for migratory whooping cranes.

One never knows exactly how many of these endangered birds will visit St. Marks. Eight whoopers
visited or stayed on or near the Refuge during the winter of 2016-2017. Among these was adult male 5-12 who has faithfully returned to St. Marks every winter of his life.

So, when the 7 young whooping cranes costume-reared by Operation Migration this summer began associating with 5-12 and his subadult buddy PR30-16 on White River Marsh Wildlife Area in Wisconsin, hopes rose that 5-12 might guide the 7 chicks to winter at St. Marks NWR. If any other cranes joined them, it could get very busy indeed on the Refuge!

With this in mind, the decision was made to maintain the crane pen for another year. Our 2017 public work day was then scheduled for Saturday, October 14.

Meanwhile, Hurricanes Irma and Nate blew through in September and early October, driving the fury of the Gulf of Mexico onto coastal communities. The crane pen fence was torn and sections were doubled over where PVC support posts had snapped. On October 5th, the Refuge Facebook page said “the job is going to be a lot bigger… We need lots of able-bodied volunteers who don’t mind hard work in the muck.”

About 28 hardy U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff, Refuge Friends and Photo Club, community volunteers, and FSU Environmental Service Program students showed up bright and early on October 14 unfazed by muck and eager to tackle the repairs.

Refuge Manager Terry Peacock warmly welcomed her 2017 Whooping Crane Pen crew and shared some history. She highlighted how, in this 10th year of whooping crane restoration at St. Marks, volunteers’ work on the pen and facilities would aid migratory whooping crane recovery in North America.

Terry recounted how it all began in 2008 when she gave an emphatic yes!!! to FWS endangered species specialist Billy Brooks who had asked her if St. Marks NWR would participate in the historic whooping crane recovery project. With strong local support encouraged by Terry, the “Whooper Hilton” was completed by January, 2009 before the St. Marks Class of 2008 flew in guided by the ultralight aircraft of Operation Migration.

CLICK to view a slideshow on Journey North about the St. Marks site

As to our workday – – Terry was frank, the pen had taken a whacking. She assigned most of the crew to repair fencing, the last line of defense for the whooping cranes we expected might arrive within the coming month. So much to do, so little time!

We loaded up for the rustic 2-mile ride to the trail head, then a half-mile hike out through the coastal forested wetlands to the edge of the salt marsh. As the winter caretakers can attest, it takes a long time just to go to and come from the pen each day. But oh, what sights, sounds, scents, and scenery! Crossing the salt marsh, we approached the pen under the watchful eyes of a trio of great egrets to our north and a bald eagle in a snag half a mile to our southeast. You could almost hear their thoughts: “There goes the neighborhood…again!”

First, there was an orientation about fence components and the art of fence layering, tying, and testing to assure that even a slender arm cannot pass through the layers. As Terry predicted, the cohort of cable ties placed 3 or 4 years ago was now aging out. Volunteers split into teams, removed crumbling old ties, and strategically placed new ties and reinforcements to exclude predators. Gradually this “first aid” patched and healed vulnerable sections of the fence.

Nearby in the north pond of the pen, Sophia led the FSU oyster rakers in arranging shells where the whooping cranes can walk and safely roost at night to avoid predators. This team had the gooiest job, but we think they also had the most fun!

Tom Darragh and his Photo Club crew recruited the tallest fence tiers to help restore the small topnetted pen inside the large pen. The small pen can protect an ill or injured crane, should the need arise. Due to the severe damage, this job will require more workdays to complete – – twisted and damaged supports are visible in the upper left corner of the photo above,.

Perched atop a ladder, Dan Frisk, who manages the North Florida Refuge Complex, worked with others to reinforce and restore the heavily damaged top half of the fence to its original height. Terry Peacock and Ranger Scott Davis led crews with varied tasks and shuttled supplies to other teams. Ed the electrician and helpers circled the pen examining and collecting electric-fence posts that were damaged or rusted – – a common problem in a salt marsh subject to broad tidal fluctuations.

As temperatures rose into the 80s and the breeze dropped, the morning crew prepared to head back to town. They left the fence much stronger for their efforts, and hundreds of old cable ties departed the marsh in their trash sacs. Well done!

When a volunteer took a fall on the way out, everyone stepped forward to help. Special kudos go to Wilderness First Aid-trained Travis Pollard (Fire Crew), who took quick and effective action with others to organize a safe recovery.

This was a timely reminder for others to take a break in the shade of the observation blind, evaluate the morning’s progress, and tell some tall tales. A favorite story was that of Joe Bonislawski, a beloved photographer, volunteer and friend to all, who worked tirelessly on the pen for many years. He passed away on the same day in March 2013 when the yearling cranes departed north on migration. Joe’s tale of dedication is a lasting inspiration to all volunteers.

It takes a village up and down the flyway to give whooping cranes a chance to survive and thrive in the changing world they share with us. As our team hiked out, we discussed the many challenges facing these birds, and the hope inspired by efforts of WCEP members and other public and private organizations, donors, and landowners who have supported this reintroduction project since its inception. It is an honor and a privilege to work with those who are willing to put skin in the game to help an endangered species.

In the words of Refuge Manager Terry Peacock:
“There is no doubt that Volunteers definitely make a difference in the amount of work for wildlife we are able to accomplish. Thank you!”

And ,Terry, thank you for inviting us to help!!! Whoop-Whoop-Whoop!

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Whooping Crane #26-17 is Progressing South

Female Whooping crane #26-17 seems to be the first parent-reared bird to start the migration this fall. Based on her last known accomplices and the route she is taking south, we think she is following Peanut (4-14) and his friend, 11-15.

Monday, they left Grand River Marsh in Marquette County, Wisconsin and flew about 170 miles to LaSalle County, Illinois. By yesterday they made over 200 miles and are just north of where Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky meet.

But the last GSM data we got was from 2 pm and it reported her at an altitude of 974 meters, doing 33 knots airspeed on a heading of 174 degrees. They still had three hours to go before the thermals stopped working so who knows where they will end up.

This is a good indication of how much better birds are at migration than we were. Imagine us covering all of Illinois in only two days. Sometimes it took us two months.

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