Day 86 – No Go

We’re not sure if it’s the fact we’ve been here since December 15th or the lure of the new pond at the end of the runway but something kept the cranes from wanting to leave.


The launch looked picture perfect.

Joe and Brooke did their best rodeo-ing in the air and Colleen and I did our best swamp-monstering on the ground.

After 49 minutes of south/north trips the conditions started to deteriorate and Joe made the call to let them land – which they did. In the pond.


Eventually we convinced them to follow us back to the pen. We’ll try again tomorrow.

Day 86 – Looking Positive

Winds are currently light – on the surface and aloft. They’re also from the north, which means we’ll be getting into position and ready to attempt a departure from our Winston County, AL migration stop.

If you’d like to take a chance and head to the flyover location the viewing site is at the Winston Memorial Cemetery at the intersection of highway 195 and County Rd. 36 barely northeast of Haleyville, AL.

Sunrise occurs at 6:56 am CT so the pilots should be airborne very shortly thereafter.

As those that have been attempting to watch the CraneCam know, there is very little cellular signal at our current location but we’ll try to have the FlightCam operational.

Day 85 – Right Direction, Wrong Speed

On this, the first day of 2016, the winds are from the north. Unfortunately, they’re quite strong even on the surface.

Tomorrow, conditions are shaping up to be quite nice for a flight.

Don’t forget to vote for Brooke in the Eagle Rare Life Award. He still has the lead and there are only 6 days left to vote daily!

Happy New Year!


The winds are currently from the north and expected to remain so overnight and into tomorrow. The big IF is whether they’ll be calm enough for us to depart Winston County, Alabama.

We’ll be putting an aircraft up at sunrise to check conditions.

If you’d like to take a chance and head to the flyover location the viewing site is at the Winston Memorial Cemetery at the intersection of highway 195 and County Rd. 36 barely northeast of Haleyville, AL.

Check the map at the bottom of the Public Flyover page.

Day 82 – Resuming the Journey

The crew has returned from the Christmas break and we’re ready to go… Now if only the winds would give us a break.

This morning their light on the surface but from the southwest. At 3000 ft they’re also from the southwest – it’s what is in between the surface and 3000 ft that we’re wondering about.

We’ll be putting an aircraft up shortly after sunrise to check conditions firsthand. If the decision is made to stand down, Colleen and I will still release the young cranes to allow them to spend some time with the aircraft to re-connect.

The “Cowpond” Cranes

Many people in the Tallahassee, FL area have emailed to inquire about the ‘cowpond’ pair consisting of male 11-09 and female 15-09.

This pair had consistently wintered in the Southwood neighborhood bordering Tallahassee since 2010.

Unfortunately, the pair separated in late summer and the last report we have for 15-09 was November 2 when Wisconsin DNR pilot Bev Paulan spotted her on Necedah NWR along with 11-02 and 19-10.

Much to the delight of Craniacs, the male 11-09 finally arrived at the cowpond on Christmas day at 4pm.

Many thanks to Karen Willes for letting us know!

Here’s a photo that Karen was able to digiscope.

Male Whooping crane #11-09 at his winter home near Tallahassee, FL.

Male Whooping crane #11-09 at his winter home near Tallahassee, FL.

It Was a Dark & Stormy Night…

Last year Richard Van Heuvelen started several field journal posts with these words. I’m borrowing them for this one.

On Monday, December 21st the local news stations started forecasting probable tornadic weather for Wednesday the 23rd. Warm tropical air from the Gulf of Mexico was flooding north and would meet a cold front. Never a good combination!

Jeff and I conferred with Brooke, and followed his instructions for securing the pen trailer Tuesday morning.

Jeff and I conferred with Brooke, and followed his instructions for securing the pen trailer Tuesday morning.

As the day went on, the forecast got worse. Brooke and Bev followed the deteriorating forecast from the beach near St Marks, where they are spending Christmas. By 2pm he decided to come back and be here for the storm. I felt horrible his vacation was being interrupted as he does not get much down time, but I must say I was glad to see him.

Wednesday morning showed no improvement and after hearing about the  risk of golf ball sized hail, we decided that boxing the birds and putting them in a safe secure building was the best thing to do. The airport where the Elkridge and the Jambo are camped has a fire department that opens as a shelter, and Brian, the airport manager said we could put the birds in the pump house, which was perfect! A concrete building right next to the RVs! He also allowed us to put the trucks and the Fox in the hanger to keep them safe from hail damage.

At 4:30 pm Brooke, Jeff and his wife Mary and I started boxing birds. By 5:30 they were tucked into their safe place.

We spent most of the night under a tornado watch, had a really strong thunderstorm and high winds.

We were lucky. Seven people died last night in northern  Mississippi and southwestern Tennessee. People are still missing as I write this so that figure could climb.

This morning Brooke dropped me off at the pen with two seven gallon jugs of water. I dumped the food buckets and cloroxed them, the water buckets and the foot baths, while he went to load the boxed birds with Jeff and Mary. By the time they got to the pen everything was disinfected, clean and shining, and the camera was on. Craniacs got to watch the birds be unloaded and released. I’m glad the signal held for that!

The birds did great after their dark and stormy night. I had sprinkled mealworms in every muddy spot in the pen, put out a watermelon and an eggplant. They foraged and explored with their usual curiosity. The pumpkin crop this year has been weird. They are good gourds but not meaty, so we have had a blast giving them new fruits and veggies to forage on.

The crane colts were returned to their travel enclosure to enjoy some watermelon, eggplant and mealworms.

The crane colts were returned to their travel enclosure to enjoy some watermelon, eggplant and mealworms.


The last few days has been team work at its finest. I’m thankful we had a happy ending and Brooke is on his way back south for his holiday, but my heart aches for those who were not so lucky. It sure puts things in perspective.

We are so grateful for Brian Crumpton the Haleyville airport manager and Dan, our stopover host, and can never thank either of them enough!

Merry Christmas!

Wood Buffalo/Aransas Whooping Crane Pop. Update

Wintering Whooping Crane Update, December 2015

Wade Harrell, U.S. Whooping Crane Recovery Coordinator

We successfully completed our annual whooping crane abundance survey last week. We flew 6 surveys, beginning on Monday, December 7 and ending this past Thursday, December 17, 2015. We did have several weather-related delays such as lingering fog, so we feel extremely fortunate that we were able to complete the 6 survey flights that our whooping crane abundance survey protocol requires. Once again, Terry Liddick, pilot/biologist from our migratory birds program, served as pilot, flying a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Cessna 206. Observers were Wade Harrell and Beau Hardegree (Coastal Program Biologist, Corpus Christi FWS office). Doug Head (Refuge Inventory &
Management biologist) served as ground survey coordinator and Diane Iriarte (Refuge biologist) served as data manager.

Data management and analysis once the actual survey is complete is a significant effort conducted by multiple staff members, so we won’t have the final results to present for a few months. However, here are some general postsurvey observations:

  • We consistently observed whooping cranes using 4 units of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge (Blackjack, Matagorda, Tatton and Lamar) and 3 Texas coastal counties (Aransas, Calhoun and Matagorda).
  • Overall, habitat appeared to be in excellent condition compared to the past few years. We observed a significant amount of freshwater and green, lush vegetation in upland areas. Coastal marshes had higher than normal water levels due to high tides.
  • Linear distance from the southernmost whooping crane group observation to the northernmost crane group observation was 63 miles (101 km). Note that Stehn and Prieto (2010) reported that the linear distance between crane groups in 2007 was 43 miles (69 km).
  • Similar to last year, we observed larger than average group sizes (>8) of whooping cranes in several of our primary survey blocks, with these groups consistently observed in the Blackjack and Welder Flats primary survey blocks.
  • We did not observe any family groups that included 2 juveniles (i.e. commonly referred to as “twins”).
  • Whooping cranes were detected in 4 of our secondary survey areas (Holiday Beach, Powderhorn Lake, Matagorda Island North and Mad Island).
  • While coastal salt marsh was the most common habitat type that we observed whooping cranes using during the survey, we observed whooping cranes using a wide variety of other habitat types as well including freshwater wetlands, upland prairies and shrublands and open-water bay edges.

There are several opportunities for visitors to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge to view whooping cranes in publicly accessible areas this winter. Whooping cranes have been consistently sighted from the Heron Flats viewing deck, the observation tower and the tour loop near Mustang Slough (recent prescribed burn).

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

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

Habitat Management on Aransas NWR:
Refuge staff completed one 654 acre burn on the Blackjack Unit of the Refuge in early December. We have plans in place to implement additional prescribed burns on the Blackjack Unit, Tatton Unit and Matagorda Island Unit of Aransas NWR this winter.

Recent Precipitation/Salinity around Aransas NWR:
November precipitation: 1.23” @ Aransas HQ
December precipitation (as of 12/20): 0.64” @ Aransas HQ
Salinity at GBRA 1: averaging around 13 ppt

Literature Cited: Stehn and Prieto. 2010. Changes in winter whooping Crane territories and range 1950-2006. Proc. North Am Crane Workshop 11, 40-56.

Stormy weather

If there is one thing we have learned about predicting the weather, it’s that you can always count on it to do exactly what you would rather it didn’t.

After sitting for weeks in high winds out of the south, we picked a day to break camp and head home for a short Christmas break. That very morning was perfect for flying!

The only problem was that the next stopover does not provide ideal conditions for the birds – but the one after that does.  So we had a choice to make. Risk getting the birds over 100 miles in one go or be forced to leave them for a week at a sub-optimal location. We had to balance that against their current location which is safe, secluded and secure from most predators.

We chose the last option which was to leave the birds where they are but it was very difficult to ignore the calm morning air. It’s like the weather wanted to give us one more poke, just for fun! But it wasn’t finished with us yet.

We left two experienced crew members with the birds and headed home, arriving just in time to hear that tornadoes were predicted for the Alabama county we just left.

There is not much you can do if 200 mph winds whip through the area except evacuate ahead of time. We can’t tie down the RVs or secure the hangar. In fact the hangar is large and strong enough that we could park our trailers and motorhomes inside and we may do just that.

The pen has been staked down with extra ropes and multiple pegs so it looks like it’s been captured by a monster spider. Crates have been set up and if there is time, the birds will be boxed and moved to a shelter. If not, they will be released to hunker down as they would in the wild but without the hazard of a pen blowing around them

Brooke headed to Florida when the rest of us headed north but he is back to sit out the storm and help if needed. If it passes uneventfully, he will head back down in time for Christmas.

I have been very fortunate to work with such dedicated people but sometime they amaze even me.

Cross your fingers and hope the weather is just screwing with us for fun.

MileMaker Perk Available…

Saved_WHCRAuthor Kathleen Kaska approached us with a unique idea yesterday and we know you’ll love it!

Kathleen has generously offered to send one copy of her wonderful book The Man Who Saved the Whooping Crane to the first 10 MileMaker sponsors who contribute a 1/2 or a full mile beginning now.

Be sure to complete your full mailing address when making your donation so that we can forward along to Kathleen. Again, only the first 10 people will receive a copy and the time stamp on your contribution will be used to determine who the recipients are.

CLICK to head to the MileMaker page.

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