OM Recognized

Operation Migration is honored to have been among members of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership awarded a 2018 Special Recognition Award from the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology at their annual convention held last weekend.

Accepting on behalf of the partnership were:

Joe Duff & Heather Ray, Operation Migration
Anne Lacy, International Crane Foundation
Davin Lopez, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
Brad Strobel, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and 
Robert Doyle, U.S.G.S Patuxent Wildlife Research Center

The Wisconsin Society for Ornithology Awards Program recognizes individuals or organizations that have made outstanding achievements in advancing bird conservation, promoting the field of ornithology, and contributing to the Society.


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Life at the OM Office and Raising a Brood

Having recently been tasked with the job of producing an occasional journal entry, I’m always on the lookout for articles pertaining to birds or the environment that I think our readers might find interesting and informative. I could certainly write a journal entry about my daily life at OM but it really isn’t as exciting as the life the rest of the team leads. My drive to work takes me about 15 minutes, with hopefully a “quick” stop at the local Tim Hortons for my coffee.

I sit down, turn on my computer, answer emails, return phone calls if there are any messages on the answering machine and do all the bookkeeping/office work, which varies from day to day. Then I go home. Not very exciting when you compare it to slogging through a marsh looking for nests. Or stories about port-a-potty; although we have had our plumbing issues at the office but you don’t want to hear about that!

Don’t misunderstand, I love my job and other than wishing I could join the team for exactly ONE day of slogging in the marsh just to see what it’s like, I’m happy to sit here on dry land, minus bugs and other hazards to go home to my own bed at the end of the day. One of the benefits I have been gifted is, I’m learning a lot more about the bird world than I used to know. Articles that I might have skimmed in the past because of time constraints, I now get to fully read. Soon I’m going to be a walking encyclopedia that I’m sure will drive my family nuts. But if I choose the science category in Trivial Pursuit (remember that game?) they’d better watch out!

Enough about me. The most recent article I read about robins raising their brood, armed me with new knowledge I didn’t know before. Such as they often raise more than one clutch a year and have an assembly line process to their parenting skills…

READ more…

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Catching Cranes

Last week we tasked you with finding a tiny Sandhill crane chick in a photograph and mentioned we were going to attempt to capture it to place a transmitter on it.

Well, you accomplished your task and I’m pleased to say so did we!

This feisty 3-week old Sandhill crane chick appears to want to eat Jeff. Photo: H. Ray

Jeff, Brooke, Joe and I planned our approach: Brooke and I walked into the field from the south, while Jeff and Joe approached from the road to the east. There was a marsh near the road and we didn’t want the parents to lead the chick into the marsh when they spotted us.

As we drew near, the two adults flew off and we began searching for the chick in the vegetation. After about 20 minutes Brooke spotted it hunkered down in the grasses and scooped it up.

The first order of business is to place it in a clean pillowcase to get a weight on it. This little critter weighed in at 665 grams. By comparison, the first chick we captured and radio-marked was 110 grams – waaaay smaller.

Next Brooke held the chick while Jeff and Joe prepared and placed the 2.2 gram transmitter on the chicks’ back. It will be held in place by eyelash glue until it eventually falls off. The battery life on these tiny transmitters is 115 days – plenty of time to learn if it survives to fledge.

The fabric patch containing the tiny transmitter has been colored to be the same color as the chick. Photo: H. Ray

Once the transmitter is in place, we measured the tarsus, which, along with the mass, will give us a good idea of the age of this chick. This guy had a tarsus measurement of 11 centimeters, making him/her approximately 3 weeks of age. This also means its parents continued to incubate during the mid-April storm. Impressive!

In total, we had this little fluffball in hand for less than 6 minutes. Once he was ready to be released, Brooke carried him about 15 feet away and placed his feet on the ground.

It didn’t take long before he ran away from the four of us scary humans. 

Off he goes! 

We’re happy to report both mom and dad returned to join him after approximately 15 minutes!

How Birds-To-Be Get Oxygen Inside Eggs

As we begin our new season watching and waiting for Whooper and Sandhill chicks to hatch a timely article came across my desk. The following article and amazing video explains how birds get oxygen inside their egg.

Two Sandhill crane eggs. Photo: J. Duff

Watch this video and prepare to be amazed!

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Camp Whatdaheckyadoin

When we moved to the White River Marsh State Wildlife Area, the Wisconsin DNR had just purchased an old farmstead on County Road D. Their plan was to knock down the worn out buildings and restore the tall grass prairie, but they agreed to keep some of the amenities and let us camp there temporarily.

One of the many artesian wells in the area happened to be at the end of the long driveway so water was free. The electrical service was still intact so we took over the payments and installed some 50 amp breakers for our RVs. They had not yet demolished the concrete silo but readily agreed to leave it standing when we asked if we could use it to elevate our receiving antenna for our live camera. Pushing over a fifty foot tall cement silo is daunting and I think they were happy for the postponement.

County Rd. D must have been an old homesteader’s trail that zig-zagged from farm to farm. Eventually, it was widened to accommodate wagons and then cars. It is now paved but it still meanders in unexplained curves and bends across open and flat terrain.

The family that owned this property still lives in the area. In fact, they rent a few of the surrounding fields from the DNR and plant crops every year. Periodically, one or the other drops in to say hi and share local background. We know the history of record floods and late snow storms and where to find morels in the spring. Alvin, one of the family patriarchs passed away last winter and we are sorry for their loss.

We start our early mornings just around sunrise by pulling on chest waders and we generally don’t take them off until it is time for dinner. Jeff Fox has been studying Sandhill productivity for many years and coached us through what type to get. His experience helped because the waders he suggested are surprisingly comfortable. Over the waders we wear nylon pants to save them from thorn perforations and then we pull on marsh boots for better footing. It’s easy to tell we are working near a large wetland complex in central Wisconsin. We can walk into Walmart in full waders and wet to the waist and no one blinks an eye. At home we would be ushered to the plumbing department under the assumption that our basement was flooded.

Our Amazon Wish List generated a lot of interest and we are forever grateful to all our supporters who purchased everything we need. We have new backpacks filled with all the essentials like eyelash glue, beard trimmers and little spray bottles of alcohol. The glue is gentle and non-toxic for attaching a transmitter to the down feathers on the back of the chicks. The beard trimmers are used if we ever need to take it off. If a chick gets too hot while we are holding them, isopropyl alcohol sprayed on its legs will help with cooling. Other pack items are Ziploc bags for collecting samples, a collapsible net in case the chick is just too fast and bug spray for the annoying type, plus bug jackets for when they get more serious.

It has been amazing to watch the marsh come alive. Our first trips into the wetland were aided by a layer of ice under the cattails. Insulated by the dried reeds from the seventy degree temperatures, that hard layer made walking possible where later travel would be a tiresome struggle. Even now after the ice is gone, we can navigate more easily than later in the summer.

In this photo you can see the hummocks of grass just starting to sprout. Over the years they have formed a root ball that will support your weight if you place your foot just right. The water between each plant is a foot and a half deep, plus another foot or more of mud before you hit something you could approximate as solid. We use ski poles for balance as we jump from one hummock to the next in a bizarre game of hop-scotch played with waders – and consequences. Later in the season when all those grasses get tall enough, their tops will overlap until they form a closed, waist-high landscape. The game will become more entertaining when you can’t see your feet.

That inaccessibility is ideal for nesting birds. In fact, being too low to drain and too hard to reach is likely why some wetlands have remained relatively untouched.

Bogbean (Menyanthes trifoliata) now dot the marsh in some of the small open areas.

Each day that we wander through the marsh brings an incremental change. We started when it was patched with snow and we watched as the shoots of grass slowly turned green and little marsh flowers began to bloom to the chorus of frogs and the singing of birds.

One of the hundreds of Bobolinks in the marsh.

The bobolinks have arrived and are so raucous, it’s hard to hear the faint beep of our transmitters. Heather says it reminds her of jazz – no words and no rhythm. Just a collection of random sounds played at high volume. I think she likes bobolinks – but jazz – not so much.

Moving through the marsh in isolation from almost everything human is an incredible experience. We are accustomed to flying over it but there is much more to see at ground level and a slower pace. One major factor that adds to the inaccessibility of the marsh has not yet emerged and we are very grateful.

Despite the warm temperatures we have had for the last three weeks, the mosquitoes still haven’t hatched. There is plenty of water for breeding and I suspect it’s going to be a horrible year. Or maybe the last snow and hard freeze killed off their eggs. Somehow, I don’t think we will be that lucky.

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Did You Spot the Chick?

This little fluff ball turned up on Tuesday this week with Mom and Dad Sandhill and we hope to tag him/her today.

See its little head poking out of the dandelions? (Click photo to enlarge)

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Can You Spot the Crane Chick?

Tune in tomorrow to see if you have eagle eyes!

Can you see it? (Click on photo to enlarge)

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Birds are the Original Ultralights

Humans have been fascinated by flight since their earliest writings, and accounts of attempts to master the airways are scattered throughout history. Using kites and gliders, early pilots (sort of) conquered the air. Budding engineers watched birds and tried to emulate them, all the while missing two critical elements — a powerful engine and an extremely lightweight design.

Read more

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Aerial Survey Results

Bev Paulan was able to get a flight in on Tuesday this week and reports one chick remains with adults 5-11 & 12-11 in Juneau cty. W1-18 hatched approximately two weeks ago.

Additionally Bev located the following (11) active nests:

3-14/4-12 with 2 eggs in Green Lake Cty
3/7-11 in Adams Cty
24-09/42-09 Adams Cty
5-10/28-08 Marathon Cty
32-09/19-10 Juneau Cty
W3-10/8-04 Juneau Cty
16-07/1-04 with 2 eggs Juneau Cty
36-09/18-03 Juneau Cty
2-04/25-09 Juneau Cty
9-03/3-04 Juneau Cty
14/24-08 Juneau Cty

Chick W1-18 with 5-11 & 12-11 in Juneau County, WI. Photo: Bev Paulan

Female #3-14 with two eggs at White River Marsh. Photo: Bev Paulan

16-07 with two eggs in Juneau County, WI. Photo: Bev Paulan

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Here’s Johnny!

Occasionally, while driving through White River Marsh area we come across some old friends.

Over the weekend, I spied #30-16 (Johnny) – one of the first Parent-reared Whooping cranes released in this area. He was foraging in a wetland where one of our Sandhill crane study nests is located. In fact, as Joe approached the nest area to erect a trail camera, the incubating crane very nonchalantly walked over to where Johnny was foraging and began searching for tasty treats just in front of him.

Whooping crane #30-16 and two Sandhills. Photo: H. Ray

Once Joe was finished, the two Sandhills headed back to the nest, while Johnny took off. It was incredible to watch him lazily circle the marsh and catch a thermal. With each circuit, he climbed higher and higher till her was a mere white dot way up high in the sky.

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Shhhh! Keep the Noise Down

It is impossible to be quiet when moving through the marsh. With every step you’re brushing again dried grasses or cattails and splodging (Thanks Sheba!) through knee-deep water. 

Hey, that’s probably why cranes are smart and build their nests in marsh areas! They can hear potential predators approaching…

Yesterday Joe and I tried to sneak out to install a trailcam on nest BP01N. We could see the adult on the nest and as we approached she flushed. 

Note the Sandhill crane leaving the nest as Joe approaches. Photo: H. Ray (Click to enlarge)

We can only do this early in the morning but not on really cool days. Eggs exposed to cool conditions won’t be viable for long. Alternatively, if it’s too warm, exposed eggs could cook so we must check conditions and make the call.

Once the call is made, we move in, line up the trailcam/mounting post, which has been camouflaged with grasses… Push that into the ground so that it faces north (less sunlight/glare), take a photo of the setup then retreat as quickly as possible. Yesterday’s time was 3 minutes – a new record!

Here’s a photo showing the camera/nest with 2 eggs on it. 

The camera is placed approx. 15 ft. away from the nest. Photo: H. Ray

This Sandhill returned after only 13 minutes – Whew!

And here’s a photo from the Trail Camera which was placed on nest JD02N. Thanks to these images captured every 5 minutes we can tell you their first chick hatched in the late afternoon hours of May 6th and their second chick hatched on May 8th. 

Mom and Dad Sandhill are close to the nest where a spindly chick is stretching. (click photo to enlarge)

We’ve not yet captured either of these wiley chicks but we do know the field they’re in with Mom and Dad and are monitoring in hopes of radio tagging them soon.

HUGE THANKS to everyone who has contributed to our work. Whether financially or by purchasing one (or more) of the items on our Amazon Wish List, your support means the world to us. 

If you’ve not yet made a contribution, we hope you’ll consider making one today. 

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A Bird in Hand…

Hopefully, you are aware we are currently conducting a study in the White River Marsh area of Wisconsin to determine breeding success among Sandhill cranes.

The results should indicate how their endangered cousins – the Whooping cranes we’ve been working to safeguard – will fair in the area. The results of this study could guide future Whooping crane management decisions.

We arrived at our Green Lake County camp on April 15th – in the middle of a late winter storm, which dropped between 16 – 20 inches of wet, heavy snow. We assume a number of nests were abandoned in the storm and we found two nests containing cold eggs which corroborate our assumption.

In the next few days, we located 3 more nests and we’re now up to 10 known nests, including a Whooping crane nest on White River Marsh!

Two Whooping crane eggs in nest JD07N. Photo: H. Ray

The Royal Couple – Whooping cranes 3-14 (F) and 4-12 (M) – are nesting again! Let’s hope the second time is more successful than their first attempt last year, which was predated by a coyote within a day or so of hatching.

Yesterday, we captured our first Sandhill crane chick for the study. Officially known as JD1.1, this little guy/gal weighed in at a whopping 110 grams. This means he/she is within a week of age.

JD1.1 was our first capture. Photo: H. Ray

Mom and Dad Sandhill retreated while we did our work to capture, radio mark, and weigh/measure the little fluff ball before it was released.

We’ll continue to search for additional nests and chicks over the coming weeks but we need your help.

As much as we love the work we do, we can’t do it without your financial support. There are expenses associated with all conservation work but did you know that of all the charitable causes, wildlife conservation is the LEAST funded?

The five most popular charitable causes are religion, education, human services, health, culture and humanities. The environment and wildlife doesn’t even make the top five and receives only 3% of all charitable giving in North America!

We feel our natural world is critically important. We believe our work is important. We think Whooping cranes should hold a place of honor in the ecosystem and we hope you feel the same.

Some of the expenses we could use your help covering are listed below. Would you have a look to see if you can help? 

Propane for our Rv’s:                                        $25/30lb bottle
Packerland Portables Porta-potty rental:           $250/month
Vehicle fuel: (3 vehicles)                                   $200/week 
Camp groceries: (crew of 4)                              $180/week
Camp groceries: (per person)                            $45
Pizza Night:                                                       $60
Help with crew wages:                                       $100
Case of water: (per RV)                                     $5
Diesel oil change:                                              $125

Whatever amount you can give, rest assured we will put it to good use! Click here to contribute and in the note section, please indicate the item you’d like to help fund.

Operation Migration is in its eighteenth year of Whooping crane conservation and we plan to keep going as long as it takes to safeguard the future for this iconic, endangered species.

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Happy Mother’s Day!

With Mother’s Day coming up this Sunday, I thought I’d delve into the world of birds and mothering.  When we see a bird sitting on a nest or feeding their young we automatically think it’s the female partner – but not so fast.

Many bird species share the responsibility of building the nest, incubating the eggs and feeding the young. By sharing the chores they have more resources available to raise more young. 

Admittedly, some male birds abdicate their responsibility and spend little to no time caring for their young. In this case the main goal is to mate with more than one female. It was a surprise to me who they were.

It appears that the bird world is very much like the human world with some families sharing parental duties equally and others not so much. 

Do you think the male bird in the pair arrives at the nest on Sunday morning with a freshly picked dandelion to offer to his partner as thanks for a job well done?

Read more… 

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How I do it….

Long time Craniac Linda suggested we re-run an article we first published two years ago, in which pilot Bev Paulan describes what it’s like to fly an aerial survey looking for Whooping cranes and nests/chicks.

GREAT suggestion Linda! Here you are…

Guest Author: Bev Paulan, Wisconsin DNR

I often hear questions as to how am I able to fly and take pictures and run telemetry all at the same time. As one commenter stated, it is the ultimate in multi-taking. There really is no secret. It is a combination of flying an incredibly stable aircraft, 30+ years of flying experience and a very great passion for what I do.

My normal crane survey flight begins long before I ever get in the aircraft. I look over all the satellite and GSM data for all the birds equipped with those transmitters. I receive citizen reports and look over those as well. I ensure my gps is loaded with known bird locations, camera and receiver batteries are fully charged, blank data sheets on my clipboard and the bird transmitter frequency sheets are up to date. I check the antennas that are mounted on the wing struts, not only checking to make sure they are all tightly connected, but also that I have the correct antennas plugged in. (Each critter I run telemetry for is on a different transmitter frequency and thusly different antennas). I also make sure I am in contact with all of the partners in the project, not only to let them know I will be in the air, but also to see if there is any pertinent information I need I couldn’t do what I do without the help of OM, ICF and USFWS.

Once the aircraft is pre-flighted and a weather briefing is obtained, I can finally launch. I fly out of Eau Claire so to get to the first bird is about a 50 mile straight line flight. Once I get close, I descend to about 800 feet above the ground, slow the plane and put in 10 degrees of flaps. This configuration creates a stable platform from which I can start my multi-tasking I use the co-pilot seat to hold the receiver, have a clipboard on my lap with the data sheets, my camera is on the floor between the seats and the gps is mounted on the panel of the aircraft.

If the bird I am looking for has a working transmitter, the frequency is dialed in and the receiver is on and I am waiting to hear the tell-tale beeps. If the particular bird has a non-functioning transmitter, I keep the receiver off to not only save battery power, but my ears as well. Listening to 4-5 hours of receiver static is not fun.


As I fly over the bird, I mark the gps, write the bird id and location (by waypoint number), habitat the bird is in, behavior of the bird and whether or not it is associating with Sandhill cranes. It gets busy quickly, but in reality takes only a moment to do. Even slowed down, the aircraft is travelling at 80-90 mph so I have to make the id quickly, or the circling commences.

If I can’t make an initial id because of a non-functioning transmitter, I open the window, grab my camera and start snapping away to try to get an image of the leg bands. I use my personal camera which is a Canon 5D Mark 3 with a 100-400 zoom and a 1.4x extender. This set up gives me a fast camera and a lens long enough to find chicks and read leg bands. The 1.4x extender was a gift from Karen Willes. Karen is an outstanding photographer and was not happy with the pictures I was getting from the plane, so she sent me the extender. I think you will all agree, the images of the chicks are now pretty acceptable.

Whooping crane pair 16-02/16-07 and their young chick.


When I first started doing these flights I was stunned that a five foot tall white bird could disappear. Even when I heard a very strong signal on the receiver, I sometimes could not obtain a visual on the bird. Since the transmitters we use do not have a mortality switch (this allows a different pulse rate to be transmitted when the animal does not move for 8 hours or more) we as trackers need to obtain a visual on the bird to ensure it is indeed alive. I have circled over some birds for 20 minutes or more trying desperately to get a visual. Eventually the bird emerges from a group of shrubs, or I get a glimpse of white moving through the trees. On occasion I do not find a bird and send a text to the trackers or biologists that I was unable to obtain a visual and they need to check. Sometimes it ends well, sometimes not.

The biggest challenge is when chicks are on the landscape. I do not fly so low as to change the behavior of the birds, so sometimes that is too high to see the chicks. Once again, I grab the camera and fire off several frames to review once I am back on the ground. If I have time while flying, I will quickly preview the images on the camera to see if I can find a chick. If I don’t initially see one, I will circle back and take more images.

So, there’s my flight. Once back on the ground, I need about as many hours as I flew to check the hundreds of images I shoot and process the data sheets. It is a lot of work, but I do love it.  Even when the winds are doing not nice things to the plane, or I can’t find birds that are supposed to be on the landscape, I would not give up these flights for anything.

Now here are some photos that didn’t quite turn out…


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