Part 3 – The Capture

Capture: Part Three

“Great!” Marianne replied into the phone.  We HAD our Capture Permit and it was “high five” smiles all around.  Now, all we had to do was catch the little boogers. But first there was another important call to answer. It was Nature’s and she just hates “Call Waiting.” Who doesn’t? So it was off to town for a potty break.  Next time I go on one of these expeditions, I’m towing a Porta Potty with a pen attached to its sides. Not only would it kill two birds with one stone, (Gosh! Did I really say that!”), it would provide seating for an additional crew member. “Buckle Up!”

The waitress at the coffee shop was the same one who waited on us the night before at a different restaurant in a different town.  There goes that “Twilight Zone” theme again. But it’s like that in small towns. Everyone does what they have to do. “Have any luck catching those cranes?” she asked. “Oh, those are the crane people you were telling me about,” the other waitress asked her.  Word does get around.

But potty breaks, or coffee breaks as they are sometimes called, are good opportunities for folks to get to know each other and catch up. I have known Marianne since I first began working on this project. Asking someone how long they have been working for ICF is like asking a woman her age. So, since I have to work with her for the rest of this story, I’ll just say she’s been at ICF between 20 and 30 years.  Marianne is married to Robert Doyle who works at Patuxent. They met and married while working on this project.  “With this crane, I thee wed.” It’s that connection thing again, as I well know.  She has been in charge of the DAR Project since it began in Necedah back in 2005 and is without a doubt one of the most knowledgeable crane people on the project.

And the last time I saw Hillary, it was at night in the marsh down at St Marks. I was coming out after locating our chicks that had unceremoniously flown out of the pen just as the world went dark when I came upon her and her fellow Clemson University graduate student, Sloan. Now, running into someone else in the out in the middle of nowhere marsh at night is like accidentally bumping into Big Foot. It’s not an experience you soon forget. They were in the area tracking WCEP birds from previous years as part of their Master’s Thesis.  She had been at ICF for two years prior to the two years of graduate school and had just returned to a full time position a few short weeks before. It was great to see her again… during the day.

It was the first time I’d worked with Andy, except for a brief banding session some years back. He has been at ICF nine years. He met his wife there, if I remember right. She went on to the University of Wisconsin and received her PhD. They have two young children, the youngest of whom was going to turn three the following Monday, but the Birthday Party was this coming Saturday, which meant we had better hurry up and catch those birds. Otherwise, the birds were going to be attending the party… as the main course!

From left: Andy Gossens, Hillary Thompson and Marianne Wellington-Doyle.

From left: Andy Gossens, Hillary Thompson and Marianne Wellington.

And so, for the rest of the day, we patiently worked our magic on the birds while they did the same to us.  The gusty, high winds and thick gray overcast plotted to dampen the spirit of our effort and increase the reluctance of the birds to cooperate.  The wind set the pen top netting to dancing and fueled their suspicion and reluctance to enter the pen. We were resigned to the fact that it was just going to take time.

But it was time well spent and in a way I would not have expected.  We were blessed with the wonderful opportunity to get to know the neighbors… and their dogs.  We became part of the daily ebb and flow of neighborhood activities as the residents stopped by to chat.  And little by little, I had the feeling that our capture team was growing. They were interested in and accepting of not only our efforts but of us, and soon I sensed we were becoming more than just in their community but part of it, if only temporarily. This little rural stretch of road was fast becoming a very special place at a very special time.

“Do you want to see the picture I took of the feral cow in my back yard?” Lloyd’s wife asked. It was like asking us if we’d like to see a picture of the Lock Ness Monster. “Sure would,” we answered.  She held up her smart phone and there it was… the feral cow. “Wow!” I said. “It really exists.” She looked at me, smiling good naturedly and the thought balloon lifted up above her head. “Of course it exists, Crane Boy!  Didn’t you believe me? Who would lie about a feral cow, anyway?” She had a point.

Then Mike pulled up in his truck to see how things were going. “I used to raise pigeons years ago”, he said. “Then I graduated to parrots.  I had a great time with them.” Mike was a retired injection molding machine operator and had been a Marine in Viet Nam. I had no doubt if we had handed him a costume and said, “Here. Put this on and come out and help us,” he would have been suited up and down at the pen before we even got our hoods on.  Whooping cranes are nothing, if not enthusiasm generators. We work very hard to insure they are part of our world, while they effortlessly make us want to be a part of theirs.

And so, for the rest of the day we continued our “Just come little bit closer… PLEASE” sessions and were encouraged at our slow but sure progress. I must admit my patience was, at times, truly tried when I was almost within grasp of one of them.  Just one quick lunge and desperate grasp and maybe we would have at least something on the score board. Fortunately, I was continually reminded by that voice of my invisible friend who always insists on coming with me on these trips. “Just remember,” Captain Crane Man.  White suited men can’t jump!” He was right. But some of us can do a mean HOP.

I got lost returning to the motel, so by the time arrived, the night manager was behind the counter. “Are you one of those bird people?” she asked. “I hope to be.” I answered.  Then she continued, “I had a pet rooster for about a year when I worked in Tennessee.  He lived up on the roof of the mobile home I was renting. And every morning when I got home from work, there he’d be, standing by the door waiting. I’d invite him in and have something to eat and drink. Then he’d go back out the door and back up onto the roof.  Funny thing was, he got kind of posssesive and didn’t like any of my friends coming to the house.  He’d start screaming and hollering and actually attack them if they didn’t get inside fast enough.  Do your birds act like that?” I laughed and shook my head, “Not that I know of.”  I asked her directions to the nearest hospital, just in case, and headed upstairs to my room.

Tomorrow would be another day and with any luck at all, it would be THE day.

Aerial Survey Results

Wisconsin DNR pilot Bev Paulan flew a survey Tuesday and found the following:

Chicks seen:

12-02/4-11 with W3-16 Juneau County, WI (photo below)
12/5-11 with W4-16 Juneau County, WI (photo below)
3/7-11 with W5-16 Juneau County, WI (photo below)

Could not locate 9-05/13-03 🙁

Pairs on nests:

7-07/39-07 Juneau County, WI
14-08/24-08 Juneau County, WI
15-09/11-02 Juneau County, WI
25-09/2-04 Juneau County, WI
W1-06/1-10 Juneau County, WI
27-06/26-09 Juneau County, WI
3-04/9-03 Juneau County, WI
4-08/34-09 Juneau County, WI
18-09/23-10 Juneau County, WI
18-03/36-09 Juneau County, WI
29-09/12-03 Juneau County, WI
16-02/16-07 Juneau County, WI
1-04/8-05 Juneau County, WI
10-10/41-09 Juneau County, WI

Other pairs seen:

5-10/28-08 Marathon County, WI (off nest)
6-11/15-11 Wood County, WI
8-10/32-09 Juneau County, WI
38-09 with unknown bird Juneau County, WI
24-09/42-09 Adams County, WI (off nest)
19-11/17-11 Juneau County, WI (off nest)
20-14/11-09 Juneau County, WI
18-02/13-02 Juneau County, WI
19-14/29-08 Juneau County, WI

Dad #12-02 and Mom 4-11 with their young Whooping crane chick.

Dad #12-02 and Mom 4-11 with their three week old Whooping crane chick #W3-16. Photo: Bev Paulan

Mom 12-11 and her young crane chick

Mom 12-11 and her young crane chick #W4-16. Photo: Bev Paulan

Mom 7-11 & Dad 3-11 with chick #W5-16. Photo: Bev Paulan

Mom 7-11 & Dad 3-11 with chick #W5-16. Photo: Bev Paulan

Female 25-09 with her two eggs. Photo: Bev Paulan

Female 25-09 with her two eggs. Photo: Bev Paulan

29_09 12_03_1

Dad 29-09 and Mom 12-3 switch incubation duties. Photo: Bev Paulan

36_09 18_03_1

Mom 36-09 and Dad 18-03 also switch duties incubating their two eggs. Photo: Bev Paulan

Another Hatch!

We have just learned that male #1-11 and his mate #59-13 (Latka) have successfully hatched a chick in St. Croix County, WI.

Regular readers will recall two days ago we reported “Bev was also able to check on the new pair consisting of male 1-11 and 59-13 (Latka) in St. Croix County, WI. We received word this pair was incubating on April 8 and When Bev flew over them Thursday, April 12 they were still sitting. It appears the egg(s) are infertile as they are well beyond the typical 29-31 day period.”

It turns out there was indeed a chick, which was likely brooding at the time of Bev’s flyover.

59-13 on the nest platform with her cinnamon chick to her right. Photo: Chris Trogen

59-13 on the nest platform with her cinnamon chick to her right. Photo: Chris Trogen

Special thanks to the local USFWS Wetland Management District for sharing this news and keeping a watch over the new family.

I Found a Baby Bird…

Now What – you’re likely asking yourself.

First, determine if it is a nesting or a fledgling. A nestling will have no feathers and is basically helpless. A fledgling will be feathered and mobile (walking, hopping and perhaps some flight capabilities).

Nestlings will need to be returned to the nest if at all possible. Contrary to popular belief, handling the tiny chick to place it back into a nest will not cause the parents to abandon it.

In the case of a fledgling, the parents are most likely nearby and you should return it to the location you found it.

In most cases, these birds do not need our help and intervening can make the situation worse.

Read these tips from All About Birds so you’re prepared this nesting season!

Foursome Photos

As we mentioned last week a foursome of ’15 cranes backtracked from Wisconsin and has been spending time at a flooded ag field in LaSalle County, IL since then.

As a refresher – this group consists of Whooping cranes 6-15, 8-15, 10-15 & 11-15.

Steve Patterson shared a few of the photos he captured yesterday with his full-frame, mega-zoom camera and we thought you’d enjoy.

Female Whooping crane 8-15.

Female Whooping crane 8-15.

On the wing...

On the wing…

On the right is the lone male from the group, #11-15.

On the right is the lone male from the group, #11-15.

Thanks for sharing Steve!

Aerial Survey Results

Wisconsin DNR’s Bev Paulan was able to squeeze in a flight last Thursday over the core reintroduction area.

In total she found four wild hatched Whooping crane chicks and eighteen nests/re-nests. She was also able to check on the pair consisting of male 1-11 and 59-13 (Latka) in St. Croix County, WI. We received word this pair was incubating on April 8 and When Bev flew over them Thursday, April 12 they were still sitting. It appears the egg(s) are infertile as they are well beyond the typical 29-31 day period.

The chicks Bev spotted are listed below:

12-02/4-11 Wood county – 1 chick

3-11/7-11 Adams County – 1 chick (photo below)

5-11/12-11 Juneau County – 1 chick (photo below)

13-03/9-05 NNWR (Juneau County) – 1 chick (photo below. Apparently, their second chick has been lost)

Mom (7-11) & Dad (3-11) provision for their small crane chick.

Mom (7-11) & Dad (3-11) provision for their small crane chick.

Mom #12-11 with ~10 day old chick.

Mom #12-11 with ~10 day old chick.

Dad (9-05) watches over his youngster.

Dad (9-05) watches over his youngster.

Very special thanks to Bev Paulan for providing us with the above information and great photos!

The Capture: Part Two

“They’re heeeeere!” Flambo said to Corky. “Wonder what took them so long”, Corky replied. “I told you we should have taken a left instead of a right back there at the bottom of Lake Michigan,” Mendota scolded. “Just remember the first rule when riding on the New York subway…. DON’T make eye contact!” Druid commanded.

“Wow!” I whispered to myself as we reached the end of the path and into view of the birds.


“How Big and White they are!”  Whoopers have a way of “Wowing” you no matter how much time you spend around them. Then back to reality, I held my breath fearing that just a single exhale would frighten them skyward and forever away. But they simply stood as still as if in a picture and appeared to be looking at something in the far distance only they could see. “I can’t believe they’re not looking at us!”  I whispered to Marianne. “They’re looking at us alright,” she replied, shaking her head. “They’re just doing their whooper chick thing.” The scene took on the tentative air of a “boys on one side of the gym, girls on the other” Junior High School dance. But finally the four chicks gave us the pleasure of their gaze and began walking haltingly towards us, curious but uncertain. It was certainly not the tears, bear hugs and wet kisses reunion I was hoping for, but it was a start.

They allowed us just so close but no closer as Corky asked in a thought balloon, “And what, may we ask, brought you folks to our little neighborhood?” We thought back, “We were just in the area and thought we’d stop in to say Hi.” Then they eyeballed the pen with more suspicion than a couple of newlyweds standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon who suddenly remembered the Life Insurance Policy they’d taken out on each other the day before they left on their honeymoon. “What kind of camper is that, anyway?” Flambo asked.  “You got me,” Corky replied, “but it sure don’t look like a Days Inn”!

It wasn’t hard to see this capture was going to be no walk in the park…. or into the pen. Rather, it was going to be a battle of trust vs. distrust, the diabolical and ruthless conniving of the costume people against the natural whooper distrust of all things human. To win, we would have to coax all four birds into the pen at one time. Doing the “Dirty” to just one or two or even three would almost certainly send the fourth away forever, and in this all or nothing game, close only counts in horse shoes and hand grenades. We had just one chance and one chance only to catch them all and if we blew it, it was going to be a long, sad, humiliating ride home for the Visiting Team. Our strategy was therefore clear and simple. We must establish trust, then betray that trust. And that surprises you?  Why? That’s been the Modus Operandi of us humans since we crawled out of the primordial ooze. “Ladies and Gentlemen… Place your bets and Let the Games Begin!”


However, the bell had already rung for the end of Round One as darkness was fast approaching. Even if we were lucky enough to coax them into the pen tonight, we were still awaiting a government Capture Permit and possibly Health Certificates which would hopefully arrive the next morning. And leaving them to stress out and rake their beaks on the sides of the pen all night was not an option. So we put our time to good use sizing up our opponents, being “Up Close and Personal”, while plying them with time tested opening lines like “What’s a nice whooper like you doing in a place like Michigan instead of Wisconsin?” and “What’s your favorite color besides white…. and “When was the last time you had your compass calibrated?” Then off we went for meals and a motel with a sign that said, “Free breakfast from 6-10.”  I could hardly sleep in anticipation…for the free breakfast, I mean.

Next morning began with a great big free “swallow a tasteless brick and wash it down with sawdust” motel breakfast. Then off to the site I headed when I suddenly remembered what it said on the first page of that big yellow book, “The Human Condition for Dummies.” It explained that each of us is the sum total of all the decisions we have made in our lives. That made my first decision of the day an especially important one. Should I proceed to the site where the birds were or should I drive to the local Emergency Room and have my stomach pumped! A hard swallow and a butt wiggle of uncertainty later, I headed for the birds as the ICF crew headed to the grocery store for bird treats.

I had just turned on to the pond road when a white pickup pulled up alongside and stopped. “They just left,” Steve said. “Looks like they were headed over to a nearby ag field.” Steve lived down the road and was an avid birder. “I keep a pair of binoculars in my car, another in my truck and another on my motorcycle.” He went on to tell me his daughter was finishing up her degree in Wildlife Biology at Michigan State University and had banded over 3000 birds last year. “She’d love to talk to you folks, but she’s in the middle of her finals.”

I turned on the tracking receiver as I neared the site. It was quiet… the kind of quiet that is so loud you can hardly stand the noise. Have they left the area? Did we miss our chance at capture? I madly began looking in the back seat for the novelty shop nose, eyeglasses and eyebrows disguise I brought along to wear back to Wisconsin just in case we failed to catch the birds. That’s when I began to hear the wonderful sound of those beeps over the pounding of my heart…. faint at first, then louder and louder until the four magnificent white spots made their final approach for landing. And that’s how you spell “RELIEF”!

About then, Marianne, Hillary and Andy arrived and we suited up for Round Two of the main event. The chicks seemed to be more comfortable with us but we still had a ways to go. This was clearly going to take some time… and patience. Lots of patience! But it was great fun just watching the chicks. They had such different personalities! One would think I would have had lots of time to just watch the birds during my years on the UL Project. But my time around the birds was mostly during training or while busy doing chores. In fact, the only time we really had to just hang out with them was when we were “hiding them” while the training runways were being mowed or during migration when we would skip a stop and have to hide them while the pen was being set up. This morning was pure pleasure!

Marianne began the introductions. “Each year we name our birds based on a theme.  Last year it was lakes in Wisconsin. So this one here is Corky. He’s the big male. He always picks on little Druid. That one is Flambo who is pretty easy going. Then there’s Mendota, the sometimes cranky female who also picks on Druid. And that independent one over there is Druid, the small female.” It has always amazed me at how important a name is to the connection process. I learned this long ago when I first started working with swans.  However, it has never been OM’s policy to name the birds. That’s why I have always secretly done it. Not to name the birds was a luxury I could never afford and it always made me laugh at the end of each season when other members of the crew would admit to naming them also. These four names provided me with the short cut I needed to quicken the process of connection. As Mother Teresa used to say, the better you know your opponents, the better your chances of winning. “Looks like Corky and Mendota are going to make it hard to get Druid in the pen,” I whispered to Marianne.  “You got it,” she answered.

After a while, we observed that the birds were becoming bored with us… or with me, at least. The novelty of our presence was wearing off as they wandered away to explore other areas of the property.  We decided our best course of action was to build their trust and enthusiasm by hitting the ON/OFF switch of our visits throughout the day in the hope that each visit would bring us closer to winning their confidence and springing the trap.

“Remember the last time we had to catch a bird?” Marianne asked on the way back to the road. “I sure do.” I replied.  It was on a very stormy night in 2007 when we caught whooper 5-01 at the Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park. Now, one might think that catching a bird in a zoo is as easy as catching a criminal in a prison, but things are not always as they seem. Our little avian version of “Romeo and Juliet” was a bit more complicated. You see, whooper 5-01 had lost his mate to predation and one day just happened to be flying over the Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park when he looked down and saw the whoopette of his dreams, Peepers. Peepers was a zoo resident in the process of being introduced to a new suiter from Patuxent, Rocky. Rocky had experienced a throat injury earlier in life and could not vocalize, which stunted his appeal. 5-01 had no such affliction. It was love at first flight.

What followed was the story of a bird willingly giving up his freedom for love. He flew into the zoo four times over a period or two, or was it three years. And each time he was captured and forcibly relocated, only to return later. What Hollywood or Disney could have done with this story!  Kind of makes you want to reach for the Pepto-Bismol instead of the popcorn.

Anyway, the story ended happily. 5-01 was finally permitted to stay in the zoo with Peepers. He was even given a name… Levi. Poor Rocky was shipped off to the National Zoo in Washington where he was scheduled to begin filming the sequel, “Rocky 2”. He was, in fact, last observed wooing a Panda bear, which prompted one of the zookeepers to inquire, “When do we start construction on that “WhooPan Exhibit”?” At least we know he wasn’t going to be singing the National Anthem.

Then, just as we reached the road, Marianne’s phone rang.  She frowned, staring hard at the phone.  “It’s about the Capture Permit.  Keep your fingers crossed.”  “Hello”? she answered.

…to be continued.

International Migratory Bird Day

Migratory_Bird_Centennial_LogoThis year is the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty signed on Aug. 16, 1916. International Migratory Bird Day (IMBD) is typically recognized on the second Saturday of May – tomorrow!

Through many events held throughout the Americas, IMBD celebrations will explore how birds have inspired some of the most significant environmental conservation actions. For generations, migratory birds have connected communities across continents, providing unique opportunities for international collaboration and inspiring people to improve conditions for birds, all wildlife, and for ourselves.

Head out tomorrow in your area to watch birds. Let us know in the comments section how many species you saw!

Patuxent Wildlife Refuge

PRCPatuxent Research Refuge will host Wildlife Loop Adventure Scavenger Hunt 9 a.m.-1 p.m. May 14 at the north tract, 230 Bald Eagle Drive, Laurel.

Using clues and locations, families and groups can drive the North Tract’s Wildlife Loop and trails to hunt for sculptured stones, mystery objects, plants and animals while learning about the history of North Tract and other recreational opportunities. A camera or cell phone that takes pictures is recommended.

All ages. Free program; donations appreciated. Registration required with approximate arrival time.

To register, call 301-497-5887. For more information, go to

Nat Geo Wild!

USofAnimals Logo_thWhooping cranes will be featured this Friday evening in the new series United States of Animals showing on National Geographic Wild channel (check local listings).

United States of Animals is a fast-paced and fun new series that takes you on a fascinating journey across the United States. Part travelogue, part wildlife adventure… United States of Animals is a fact-filled field guide driven by the wild, the weird and the “wow” of animals in our own backyard. This is not your grandfather’s natural history show. This is the United States of Animals.

Our episode will air on May 13th at 10:30/9:30c – in the “California Dreamin” segment during the second half of the 1 hour show.

Here’s the episode description:

Whooping Cranes, Episode Description:

Meanwhile in St. Marks Florida, Operation Migration is winding down. A flock of whooping cranes are landing for the winter after following their “Mom” all the way from Wisconsin. But this “Mom” is like no other. “Mom” is Joe Duff – the ultralight aircraft pilot who leads the flock dressed up in a whooping crane outfit. The crowds have gathered for the final leg of an epic journey stretching 1200 miles.

(Little did we know that 2014 was to be the final arrival flyover at St. Marks so we’re thrilled @USofAnimalsTV and @HalfYardTV were able to capture it)

For those that aren’t subscribers of the Nat Geo Wild channel, here’s a sneak preview of the crane segment.

Where the Cranes Are…

It’s been a couple weeks since we checked in with the comings and goings of some of the Whooping cranes in the Eastern Migratory Population so here’s a quick update for those that we know the locations of.

Keep in mind a number of cranes need transmitter replacements so there are some whose locations we’re not aware of.

2015 Cranes: As for the final aircraft-guided class – all have returned to Wisconsin and they’re still wandering somewhat. The foursome, which includes 6, 8, 10 & 11-15 have in fact, wandered back to LaSalle County, IL.

They spent quite a few days near their current location while they were making their way north to Wisconsin.

Number 2-15 remains in Door County currently, although her device indicates she hopped back and forth between Kewaunee and Door counties a few times over the past couple of weeks.

The tracking device on #1-15 continues to transmit sporadically. The last hit we had from her on May 3rd indicated she was in an area of great habitat in Columbia County, WI.

As for the Direct Autumn Release cranes from last year, we mentioned on Monday that four had been collected from eastern Michigan late last week. This foursome includes 61, 62, 63 & 67-15 and they wintered in southwest Illinois. For some unknown reason the group headed east this spring and then north into Michigan.

This led some to speculate perhaps their course diversion was due to northwest winds, however, the ultralight cranes were migrating north at the same time and in the same area of Illinois and they weren’t blown off course. Who knows exactly what goes through the minds of these birds…?

Once collected, the group was released in Marquette County, WI but a day or two later, it seems all of them have returned to their original release location in Dodge County, WI (Horicon Marsh).

There is another DAR crane from last year that also found her way on the wrong side of Lake Michigan. Number 65-15 spent a couple of weeks in central Indiana on her way north but instead of veering west, it seems she went straight north. She’s been moving north and south along the coast of Lake Michigan so maybe she’ll figure out how to get around it and into Wisconsin on her own.

DAR #66-15 is still in Lake County, Florida. DAR #64-15 has not been seen since departing Horicon with a large group of Sandhill cranes in November. DAR 68-15 was last located in January near Jasper-Pulaski Wildlife Area in Indiana.

Here’s a Google Earth grab, which illustrates the return paths for the two groups of cranes.

The orange path with red dots is the path used by the ultralight-led cranes. The green path is that used by the group of four DAR cranes, which was recently collected from Michigan and relocated to Wisconsin.

The orange path with red dots is the path used by the ultralight-led cranes. The green path is that used by the group of four DAR cranes, which was recently collected from Michigan and relocated to Wisconsin.

It seems not only have four of the UL cranes ventured south into IL, but so has male #10-11. We received word Sunday that this male – who was confirmed on his Marquette County, WI summer territory in April, has returned to Lawrence County, IL. You may recall very early this spring his mate female 7-09 had been found dead at their winter location. Necropsy results confirm cause of death to be predation.

The Capture

“In the beginning… there was an email.”  If the Bible was written today, that’s how it would begin. Anne from ICF emailed Joe to inquire as to the availability of one of our pen trailers for use in the capture of four 2015 DAR cranes that migrated to the great state of Michigan. She also asked if he thought I would be up for an adventure. Little did she know that for me, getting out of bed in the morning without hurting myself was an adventure.

To get to Michigan from central Wisconsin is like a mariner planning to sail around Cape Horn, except the Horn, in this case, is the city of Chicago. More specifically, Chicago traffic. So an early start was the order of the day. Trouble is, when you leave that early, you do so lacking sleep. And when you lack sleep, you get a little paranoid. For the entire trip, I was haunted by the strange feeling that I was being followed. When I arrived in Michigan that afternoon, I discovered I was.  It was the pen trailer!

Marianne, Hillary and Andy from ICF were also on the road… only they left from Baraboo. They, as it turned out, were also being followed… but by four cardboard bird boxes in the back of their van. “If you arrive there first,” I told Marianne, “you put up a stick. If I arrive there first, I’ll knock it down.” Very Zen, I thought. That’s when I heard the faint sound of one hand clapping. The plan was to lead or lure (in life it amounts to the same thing) the birds into the pen, then box them for transport back to a release site in Wisconsin. Sounds simple doesn’t it.  But then hope is what fuels this project.

As many of you know, each chick is equipped with what has been referred to as “crane jewelry” on their legs. Even the males… which often starts males from other avian species to wondering. Every bird gets a color coded VHF transmitter on one leg, each transmitting a different cut from “WCEP’s Greatest Hits” album.  And on the other legs of three of these four DAR birds were two color coded satellite and one cellular transmitters respectively, which periodically announced their locations and flight histories.

These transmissions are not always as frequent as stated in the brochure, so we had our fingers crossed that the birds were still in the area of the last transmission. If not, our efforts might turn out to resemble an episode of “Where’s Waldo” or worse, be reminiscent of sitting in a bar staring up at a sign that says, “Free Beer…Tomorrow”!

However, my worries were soon replaced by hopeful excitement as the beep beep chorus began singing ever louder from the receiver. A few dusty miles later, there they were. Four amazingly, incredibly beautiful whooping cranes. I felt like I had discovered the Holy Grail. Our four little wanderers were playing happily at the back end of a flooded cornfield, completely unaware that their very own “Crane Train” to Wisconsin was about to pull out of the station. I reported to the ICF crew that were not far behind and set about locating the owner of the property.

One of our two travel pen trailers.

One of our two travel pen trailers.

Lloyd was rider mowing his lawn and stopped to eyeball the pen trailer as I pulled up. “What kind of camper is that, anyway?” he asked, wearing that all too familiar “And I thought I’d seen it all” look. “It’s a pen trailer” I answered. “We’re going to use it to trap those new neighbors of yours’.”  “Funny thing” he said. “We have all kinds of wildlife around here. We even have a feral cow. My wife took a picture of it yesterday in our backyard.” I studied his face for sign of a follow up laugh. When there was none, I asked incredulously, “A feral cow?” Then, before he could answer, the voice in my head rang out, “And why not a feral cow?  I mean, wasn’t I the one that went to Lock Ness looking for the Monster all those years ago”!

“Do you know who owns the property where the birds are?” I continued. Lloyd’s head did a side-to-side shake. “Nope. They don’t live around here.” Since there was no one else around and no cars in the neighboring driveways, it was time for a trip to the Town Hall. Lloyd conveyed directions which, to my tired brain, consisted of such a barrage of rights, lefts and upper cuts that soon my eyes began to glaze over.  Kindly sensing this, he concluded mercifully, “Just follow me.” His white pickup soon appeared and off to the village we went.

The lady behind the counter was wonderfully gracious and helpful as they usually are in such places.  In fact, having visited many Town Halls through the years while working on various projects, I was struck by the feeling that Bonnie was, in fact, the very same lady that had helped me in every Town Hall I’d ever been in. The theme from “Twilight Zone” began playing softly in my ear as she wrestled the plate book onto the counter and quickly established the identity of the land owner and his contact information. It’s funny how good it makes you feel being helped by someone who really cares.

I returned to the birds to find Marianne, Hillary and Andy surveying the situation along with a small cadre of avian paparazzi, their tripods pawing the dirt beneath camera lenses so big they surely had to be lifted with a… crane. The world of birders is a small one and it is only the most seriously disabled of birders who cannot scope and text at the same time. But who can blame them? I mean, we just drove all the way from Wisconsin, didn’t we? They came to capture the birds digitally.  We came to capture them physically. “Doo…dah” Then Mike pulled up in his big red pickup, clearly irritated by what must have seemed like a small invasion. The normally quiet neighborhood had suddenly changed and not for the better.  And it was easy to see how the scene was beginning to take on a carnival like atmosphere. The pen trailer didn’t help either. Mike looked at it with suspicion, as if wanting to ask, “What kind of camper is that, anyway?” He went on to explain that he and his wife lived next door to the property in question and that he was the caretaker. Marianne, her big baby blue eyes at the ready, calmly and professionally explained our mission and soon Mike was enthusiastically offering to help us in any way he could.

Then, as if on cue, the birds leaped into the sky and flew off to a nearby ag field, allowing us the time to race down to the pond and put up the pen in anticipation of their return. Richard had done such a great job designing and constructing the pen way back when that we had it erected in no time and were soon back up on the road awaiting the birds’ return.

The enclosure - complete with Dummy Mummy was set up quickly.

The enclosure – complete with Dummy Mummy was set up quickly.

And return they did, splashing and chasing each other around in what could be described in no other way than a celebration of their freedom. How sad that our task was to end that freedom, if only temporarily. But it was “Show Time” as we costumed up and soon the photographers clicking away at the eerie sight of four strangely dressed figures trekking down the path to the birds… a line of thought balloons dancing above their heads, asking questions like, “Will they accept the costume after so long an absence?” and “Will they really follow us into the pen?” and “Could the capture really be that easy?” The answers awaited us at the end of the path.

….to be continued.

(Honest! Brooke promised to send the next update soon!)

Fort McMurray, AB Wildfire

We have received a number of inquiries about how this fire might affect the Wood Buffalo National Park, which as you all know, is the nesting grounds for the Wood Buffalo/Aransas flock of Whooping cranes.

I think most of the immediate concern stems from the fact that Fort McMurray is located within the Wood Buffalo Regional Municipality, which is a huge area. In fact, Fort McMurray is roughly 200 miles south of the National Park.

The latest news reports indicate the fire moved in a north-easterly direction – toward the Province of Saskatchewan and over the weekend, grew much more slowly than anticipated. As of late Sunday an estimated 161,000 hectares have been scorched.

Westerly winds continue to blow the fire east of the community of Fort McMurray.


So, for now, it appears that Wood Buffalo National Park is out of the line of fire.

Our thoughts and prayers go out to those affected by this fire…



Earlier this week Bev Paulan confirmed the first wild hatched chick of 2016 to pair 13-03 and Dad 9-05.

Today, Bev flew another survey and confirmed twins for this pair!

Pictured below is Mom 13-03 with both her offspring.


Photo courtesy Bev Paulan

Bev was also able to confirm a fresh hatch for the pair consisting of 5-11 & 12-11. Their fluff ball is picture below with Mom and Dad. Thanks Bev!

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