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December 31, 1998

Well, the two birds hit Kingston and decided to stay ;-( Not what we had hoped for. Even with a cold front to push them South, they did not budge! Bill decided to go retrieve them and transport them back to Purple Hill. They will spend the winter here in the comforts of their glass enclosed home, affectionately dubbed the "Easy Bake Oven".

December 21, 1998

Frank and Edna (wearing leg bands 202 & 204) have finally worn out their welcome in Picton. After eating their fill of zebra mussels (outside of Jim Corey's house), visiting the Beer Store and and the Picton Hospital, they were conducted out of town by Joe Bergeron and released near Bath, Ontario. They took wing and hadn't gone far before they recognized a "pen" surrounded by chain link fence, similar to the one they were raised in, dropping in for a landing, they were soon made welcome by the inmates and staff of the Bath "medium security" institution. The inmates in particular took a great liking to them and soon the pair were being petted and were the center of attention. The two birds became too comfortable with prison life; they liked the role of jail birds and gave the appearance that they wanted to become federally supported for the winter. On Sunday, Bill (accompanied by his friend Peter Beelen from nearby Napanee) Picked up Frank and Edna (busted them out of prison) and drove them to just east of Kingston, releasing them at the farm of John Myles. The Myles farm, just north of the Saint Lawrence river is directly on the route that the two cranes flew last year. This morning, the 21st of December, Scott King of Abbey Dawn road called reporting two large birds (about half a mile from the Myles farm). The big question is will they head south now that they are past the barrier of Lake Ontario? or have they become too screwed up by all their human contact? Knowing their affinity to humans they may just visit downtown Kingston for Christmas ????

December 15, 1998

In the last update I mentioned that Edna (#203) had gone for a flight with Richard and Bill. Bill decided that perhaps she would head south IF she had some crane company, so he went to the refuge where they have been staying and gathered up #202 from last year's experiment. #202 is a male Sandhill and the one that #203 stuck with last year upon their return to Ontario. Frank crane arrived here at Purple Hill on December 2nd. He and Edna stayed here until December 6th. They were both fitted with large yellow leg bands featuring our 800#. Edna is now known as #204 as we could not locate her original legband. On Sunday night (6th), the calls started coming in. That night they were spotted just north of Port Perry in a field. The following day, in Peterborough, Ont. The next call came on Tuesday when they were in Keene, Ont. (slightly south of Peterborough). Wednesday brought a phone call from Grafton, Ontario which is situated on the north shore of Lake Ontario! definitely SOUTH! Since Wednesday, the two have shown up on Keller St. in Belleville (Saturday morning), then later that afternoon, they landed at the home of Mr. & Mrs. Jim Corey in Picton, where they were happily munching on Zebra mussels on the shore of lake Ontario. Later that evening, Frank decided to leave and Edna decided to stay put for the night. Sunday morning, Bill recieved a call from Mike Branscombe who lived a little further east of Picton. Mike had Frank in his yard near his two penned Ostrich. On Monday Mike reported that he was still there but had been calling all night. Edna was still at the home of the Corey family and they too reported that she had been calling all through the night. Bill & I headed to Picton (2 hours) and reunited them. They were only about 5 miles apart but felt it was best to assist them in locating one another. These two are definitely following the same migration route as they were shown last year when they were led to Virginia to winter!

December 2, 1998

Most of you will remember #203 from last years experiment. For the last 4 months she has been staying here at Purple Hill with us. This past Saturday, Richard Van Heuvelen decided that he would like to go for a flight in the trike as we had some unseasonable warm weather. He landed at Bill's airstrip and Bill decided to go for a jaunt with him in his Maxair. As they were wheeling out the aircraft, Edna (203) flew down and landed near the hangar with Bill and Richard, who didn't think much of it at the time. When the two got airborne, they noticed that they had a friend with them. #203 had decided to join them IN the air! They flew for about 1/2 an hour with her stuck to the wing of the trike like glue! She is now 1 1/2 years old and hasn't flown with the ultralight since early spring this year.

November 26, 1998

News from Yawkey Center: Stacey reported on Monday that we were missing 4 of the cranes. She was unable to locate any of the missing birds with the aid of the radio tracker. After two days of waiting and wondering and searching, unfortunately the body of one bird was located in an area some distance away from the pen. It appears to have been the victim of bobcat predation ;-( On a happier note, the other 3 missing birds (probably having been witness to the attack?) returned to the safety of their pen the following day. All remaining 11 Sandhills are back where they should be.

Novemberrrr16, 1998

Kindness Kills Wildness

This has become the motto of the new, informed environmentalist. If you believe in this credo and carry it to its conclusion then you understand that the best thing you can do for any wild creature you may encounter is to yell and scream and chase it farther into the woods and further away from us. This seemingly outrageous statement flies in the face of everything we have been taught by Beatrix Potter and Walt Disney. These and other fairytales of our youth, tried to teach us that things wild are only furred or feathered versions of ourselves. Anthropomorphism (attributing human form and character to things in nature) is so ingrained that our first inclination when we see an animal, is to get closer, to encourage it to eat out of our hand. Then we ponder its disappearance when the lack of natural fear allowed it to get too close to the neighbours and it was destroyed as a nuisance. When we stop our cars by the roadside to watch a deer, we teach our children to respect nature but we also teach the deer not to fear automobiles. Death is all too often the result of good intentions.

As Operation Migration edges closer to the re-introduction of Whooping cranes, we come face to face with this problem. The experiment we conducted this past season was specifically designed to address the issue. Conditioning birds to follow an ultralight aircraft is the "state of the art" method of establishing new and critical migration routes. Unfortunately, the human interaction time required to accomplish this, has so far produced birds too tame to be left in the wild. The problem is twofold. Overly imprinted birds may encounter people not so well intentioned or, at best, a curious public that cannot be expected to understand the birds intrinsic defences. At five feet tall, a Whooping crane feeling a threat, perceived or real, can be very aggressive. Secondly, young birds raised in captivity will identify with their handlers during the early stages of rearing. The resulting identity crisis becomes obvious and problematic once they reach breeding age.

The solution, we hope (check with us next spring) is to reduce the human impact, perfect our training procedures and present the birds with as much of a natural environment as possible. The following are improvements we made over our 1997 experiment to accomplish this goal.

Young cranes are fragile creatures; long necks and delicate legs make them particularly susceptible. As well, their first inclination after hatching is to kill each other. This makes raising them in the field difficult, so when the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center again volunteered their expertise we gratefully accepted. Sixteen birds were hatched out of incubators and penned in their propagation building in Maryland. Everyone who came near our birds wore a redesigned costume and abided a strict "no talking" rule and we played a recording of natural marsh sounds to mask the noise of human activity. Last year when the birds were old enough to walk, two or more handlers would lead them to a nearby field for "taxi training" with the aircraft. At the end of the exercise we would lead them back and often stop at the pond for a little foraging practise. Inadvertently, we were teaching our birds to follow handlers and not the ultralight. If you have read last year's report (somewhere on this web site) you will know the difficulties this caused.

To correct this mistake, we removed the wing from one of our aircraft. The "trike" could then be taxied directly to the propagation building and while the 3 day old chicks were still in their pens they were exposed to the sight and sound of the real aircraft. When old enough to walk, they were led by one handler in the wingless ultralight. In the past, this process required two or more handlers, one to drive the trike and others to protect the birds from its propeller and wheels. To overcome this necessity, Dan Sprague (Patuxent technician) built a two foot high fence in a thirty foot diameter circle. The trike was driven around the outside while the birds followed from the inside protected by the wire mesh. In the center of the ring a second enclosure was built and tentative birds were placed in this "jealousy pen" to watch the proceedings. This encouraged even reluctant birds to follow the ultralight. During the entire process the young birds were never presented with the image of a walking handler. Once they were transported to Canada (thanks to the Canadian Armed Forces, Air Command) they were much more attentive, if the ultralight was moving they would ignore all else and trundle after it.

When our birds are finally released we hope they will find safety in a natural habitat. In retrospect, it seems foolish then to house them during the early stages in an institutional environment. With its high chain link fences, photoperiod lights and large expanses of cut grass, their familiarity with Patuxent and their pens in Canada may be what drew last year's birds to land in the many school yards they frequented on their return migration to Ontario. To counter this possibility, OM build sectional pen panels covered in heavy camouflage fabric to act as visual barriers. The enclosure was situated in an isolated area and the rear of the pen was open to a view of the wetlands. We placed cut trees in and around the pen to enhance the natural look and painted feeders and shade shelters in earth tone colours. As much as possible all evidence of humans was removed.

After early morning training sessions and on days when the weather prohibited flying, the birds were let out of their pen and left unattended. These daily release sessions, though distressing for the crew, served several purposes; as well as being exposed to a more suitable environment, the birds learned to forage on their own and contend with natural predators. They were also free from human contact and it allowed them time to establish their intrinsic dominance structure. From past experience we have learned that this social order is critical to flight conditioning. Similar to their behaviour on the ground, birds have a preferred sequence in the air. As an example, we have found that if the birds are reared and conditioned to follow the ultralight in groups and two cohorts are integrated, the result is invariably chaotic as the dominant members struggle for leadership. Frequently, birds will break away from the aircraft and call others to join them. Allowing them time together on the ground to acclimate, speeds this development. Careful monitoring and management of the dominance structure can minimize human contact time with the flock.

In 1997, due to our misguided imprinting, it took us 282.5 hours of frustrating interaction time to persuade the flock to follow us south. By comparison, the birds we raised this past year would follow our lead after only 63.7 hours of encouragement. This calculation does not include time spent maintaining the birds or the pen but we have plans to reduce that contact by using an automated feeding and watering system.

The process worked so well that we faced another discipline. There were beautiful days of early morning mist and glorious autumn colours when a perfect flight over the country side would have been a small reward to the pilots for untold hours of work in the frustrating confines of a costume, alas the birds were following well and the additional contact could not be honestly justified. We would sigh in unison and carry on with other less fulfilling duties.

Our primary function this year was to teach birds to follow our aircraft, yet keep them as wild as possible in the process. That was one of the reasons we decided not to lead them on a migration, but trailer them south instead (why waste the time and expense of re-proving last year's successes). They do however, need to winter in isolation in the type of environment that the Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center in South Carolina has to offer. In the spring we will test this wildness by approaching them un-costumed and away from their release pen and rate their performance. If they come to us..... we have failed, if we can advance on them, they will score 50%, but if they fly away, as I am confident they will do, they will pass the test. Roosting in water and proper crane behaviour will add honours to their degree.

During the discussions that led to this investigation, many members of the Whooping Crane Recovery Team expressed a belief that these birds may return to Canada, despite being transported south in a closed trailer. To test the theory, we agreed to leave the birds in the wild past the time when they would normally migrate and to give them an added advantage we led them the last hundred miles of the journey south using the ultralights. At the least they will know from which direction they arrived. We tried this approach twice with Canada geese and the cranes we trailered south last year did not make it home, so we hold out little hope for success, but time will tell.

In the interim, if you are approached by a Sandhill crane and it is wearing an OM leg band, do us and the bird a favour...... scare it away!

Joe Duff

"Novembrrrrr" 2, 1998

Joe has returned from the migration and I am making him sit down to write the next update! Stay tuned...

October 30, 1998

Wow! it has been a few days since my last update! sorry, but not much has been happening. The crew headed to Gainsville, FL. in the hopes of picking up a flightless Sandhill to act as a role model for our birds and hopefully teach them to water roost. Well, it seems that the reason she was flightless was because of a wing injury. She had a pin in her wing that was due to be removed and would require surgery. Joe felt that it would have been too much stress for her to have the surgery, (which of course requires anesthesia) then put her in a crate inside the trailer, drive her 6 hours back to SC and then place her in a strange pen with 12 juvenile cranes. He decided not to bring her back. Besides the release pen is for the most part built in water, so the cranes will undoubtedly be roosting in it eventually. They have flown the birds a few times around the Tom Yawkey Wildlife center so that they get a sense of their surroundings. The crew will be leaving to come home this Saturday (yippee!). Bill & Joe will head to Buffalo in November to help the crew from "Environmental Studies at Airlie" who are using the same ultralight techniques in an effort to restore the Trumpeter Swan to the Eastern Flyway. Reports from Donielle at Airlie indicate that they have about 6 swans that will "lock on to the aircraft" during training flights with Biologist/pilot Gavin Shire. Their migration is scheduled to take place on November 26th. when they will lead them from just outside Buffalo to the Chesapeake Bay area of Maryland.

October 26, 1998

The weekend was spent building the new release pen for the cranes. It is finished today. Joe & Deke have attempted to fly the birds locally about 3 times and the birds don't seem to want to cooperate. They are still a little upset by the move from Ontario to SC. The guys will drive tonight to Gainsville Florida to pick up two flightless Sandhills that will act as role models for the winter months.

October 22, 1998

And then there were 12... As it turns out I was wrong in reporting that 13 birds had arrived at the Tom Yawkey Wildlife center yesterday. While enroute, the crew experienced some trashy air and one of the young birds peeled off and dropped altitude. While Deke went after this wayward bird, Joe continued on with the others, not realizing that a 2nd bird had also fallen back. Once they realized it, Deke went off in search of this crane and could not locate him. Not wanting to jeopardize the safety of the remaining 12 birds, the guys continued on to the center. They landed safely and Deke and Dan then backtracked in the truck to see if they could locate him on the radio tracking device. They did get a signal on him, in a field but there were dogs chasing them. Spotting a tree line at the other side of a field and thinking that this is probably where the missing crane would go, they drove around by the roads and when they arrived, the dogs were there! no doubt chasing our crane. By this time they had lost the radio signal and it was dark. Joe, Dan & Deke will start constructing the release pen today and Rebecca will head north (with the tracking radio) in search of the missing bird.

October 21, 1998

The crew had been sitting at the Shaws' airstrip for two days waiting for a break in the weather so that they could fly the cranes the remaining distance into Tom Yawkey Center. Well, that "break" finally arrived this morning! I'm happy to report that they have reached their final destination!! Two ultralights followed by 13 gorgeous, 6 month old Sandhill cranes arrived at the center midmorning after a 1 hour and 10 minute flight from Green Sea. Now, the work begins.... construct the release pen, drive to Florida to pick up two flightless Sandhills to act as role models for our cranes, return them to SC. AND fly the birds locally, so that they become familiar with their new winter home. Then we sit back for the winter (yeah right) and wait to test their wildness level in the spring. After being taught to follow an ultralight aircraft, will they remain wild enough to actually survive in the wild?

October 19, 1998

The crew arrived in Green Sea, SC at the private airstrip of Earl and Shirley Shaw yesterday around 4pm. They will rest there for today and if the weather cooperates tomorrow morning, will fly the cranes the remaining portion of the trip to the Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center in Georgetown, SC. When I asked Joe how the birds had faired in D.C. he said that the "remote field" they had spent the night at, was anything BUT remote on Saturday. He said it was infested with bird watchers, a cub scout troup and a model airplane club! Then they found out that there was a fox hunt scheduled for early the next morning (Sunday). As it turns out Deke & Rebecca had spent Saturday night in the comforts of a motel, when at 5am Sunday morning there was an attempted break-in of their room. Upon hearing a noise, Rebecca looked towards the window only to see a hand appearing through the window screen that was now cut open. The hand grabbed the first thing it came into contact with which turned out to be a make-up bag. He (the hand) ran off and dropped the bag about 20 yards away when it realized it was only cosmetics. Needless to say, they got an early start yesterday.

October 16, 1998

Sadly, Joe reports that we've lost a bird on the trip to aggression from one of the others ;-( It seems #1 attacked #10 and to end the birds pain he was euthanized. I suppose this is the trade off when you want them to remain as wild as possible? The crew arrived at their destination at 1:00AM this morning and then had to build the temporary pen to house the birds for today. The cranes and the crew will rest for today and tomorrow morning they will carry on to Green Sea, SC.

October 15, 1998

HOORAYYYYYY! The permit came thru late yesterday and as I write this the gang is on the road accompanied by 15, six month old Sandhill cranes, destined for SOUTH! They will meet with wildlife officials on the U.S. side of the border at Niagara. FINALLY!

October 14, 1998

STILL no word on the much anticipated permit. I'm sure the birds (and the crew) would prefer to be south by now..... Will update as soon as it arrives.

October 13, 1998

Tuesday and Joe gets on the phone begging and pleading for the last permit. It is in the process of being processed, he is told. Everything is packed and ready for an early morning departure tomorrow. They will cross at the Queenston Lewiston bridge in Niagara Falls and head to Airlie Centre in Virginia to give the cranes a rest. From there they will truck them to Green Sea, SC and spend the night with them. The Shaw's are graciously allowing them the use of their airstrip and a field where the cranes will be penned for the night. The following day they will fly the birds the remaining distance to the Tom Yawkey Wildlife Reserve and Cat Island.

October 10-12, 1998

Happy Thanksgiving! The crew spent most of the weekend packing up all the equipment necessary for the trip south. Hopefully, the last remaining permit will arrive early this week? The birds are now housed in a temporary pen, as there regular pen has been dismantled.

October 9th, 1998

We were approached by a production company out of Vancouver called "Over Canada" to capture some footage of the ultralights in flight with the cranes, with the crew still waiting on one permit, they decided to give it a go. The plan was to have the film shot from a helicopter flying overhead. We had to wait for a couple of days to get mother nature to cooperate but they finally got their footage today! With the beautiful fall colors and even some bonus mist over the river, the scenes that were captured are breathtaking.... Bill then took the cameraman up in the Maxair to fly front seat to get some really close-up footage following behind the birds. It is scheduled to air on television Thanksgiving of 1999 and will consist of shots of Canada all shot from a "birds eye view".

October 6th, 1998

Dan Sprague (crane egg hatcher extrordinaire)arrived from Patuxent Wildlife Research Center on Sunday to help out with this year's migration. Things are getting pretty hectic with everybody gearing up and making sure that lists are complete and packing done. Marigold Lincoln Mercury in Whitby is providing a truck to tow the crane trailer (Thank you!). The necessary permits are arriving. The birds will now follow in the air for 1 1/2 hours. A great improvement over last year!

September 30, 1998

Migration is scheduled to begin on Oct. 8th, providing that all the permits are in place. The plan is to truck them most of the way into South Carolina, then fly them in the last 100 or so miles to "Cat Island" on the Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center. The reason for flying them the last leg is so that in the spring they will have a sense of which direction they arrived from. They already are familiar with this geographic area and we are hoping that when it comes time to migrate north, they will head in the direction from which they arrived and keep heading north till they recognise "home".

September 29, 1998

Rebecca trailered the cranes to Utica and released them. They flew into the air following the ultralights. Joe & Deke led them west and then headed south. The birds formed up perfectly off one wing and flew for a total time of 1 hour and 14 minutes. The longest flight yet!

September 18th, 1998

Trailered the birds to Kerr's farm. Released them and all 14 flew into the air following the ultralights. Unfortunately, Joe reported that the air was trashy and after altering course several times, decided to land them back at the pen area. The entire flight lasted 30 minutes.

September 17, 1998

This morning I trailered 14 of the birds to Castille's farm on Scugog Island, about 3 miles away from Reader's field. Joe, Deke & Richard were flying the 3 trikes and Bill was piloting the Maxair with video camera ready. On Deke's cue I released the birds from the trailer and they followed Deke's trike into the air. When they were about 200 feet off the ground, I heard a whistling noise from inside the trailer....... It seems that green #10 didn't quite make it out and was left behind. I trucked him back to Reader's and released him, where he was immediately joined by the wild bird from yesterday! They flew about 4 circuits around the field, then settled in at the wetland adjacent to the runway. This morning's flight was the longest in duration yet with the entire flock! 50 minutes!

September 16, 1998

The cranes spend their days outside of the confines of their pen. Tonight as Joe went to return them to their pen for the evening, he put all 15 cranes inside then turned to leave. He was startled to see a Sandhill crane outside of the pen! he opened the door to the pen, counted all 15 birds, closed the door and on closer inspection, determined that this bird is a wild Sandhill!

September 11, 1998

Today was the first attempt at integrating both groups into one complete flock in the air. The birds were trailered to Davis field about 3 miles from Readers and released from the trailer. They took-off as a group, but two birds quickly broke off and followed Deke Clark, while the other 12 stayed with Joe Duff. There was jostling between the more dominant birds for the lead position, but all in all, the first attempt went well and lasted for 14 minutes. The next step is to continue these flights with the one flock and gradually build up their flight time/endurance.

September 8-10, 1998

I had the opportunity to spend the week at Airlie Center in Warrenton, VA. My friend Karen and I drove the 8 hours and arrived in time to witness biologist Kevin Richards, herding the swans into their pens from their daily trip to the pond. Environmental Studies at Airlie Center is using the same techniques as we are in an attempt to restore the Trumpeter swan to the Eastern flyway. The swans are very different from the Sandhill cranes, and due to their size are not quite able to get off the ground yet. Unfortunately, because of bad weather we are unable to witness any training sessions, but lead biologist Gavin Shire tells us they are all following well during taxiing runs.

The next day we head to Patuxent Wildlife Research Center where our birds are raised under the capable hands of their biologists. Dan & Carlyn give us the grand tour and we are thrilled to be able to donn costumes and see some of their Whooping crane breeding stock. These birds are truly majestic! The juveniles still have some of their tawny plumage and don't quite have the beautiful red "crown", while the adults, standing 5 feet tall, show off their black wing tips (and 7 foot wingspans) and their surreal unison calls. I can only hope that someday soon I may get to witness these endangered birds following behind an ultralight aircraft......

September 3, 1998

We had to temporarily re-locate the cranes today as Nelson Reader was holding a plowing match one field north of the pen field. We decide to use this opportunity to our advantage and decided to take them to Hawke farm in Orono (the first stop on the '97 migration). Hawke farm is approximately 16 miles away (as the crane flys). Joe & Deke set out early with group "A" plus 2 other birds and Rebecca trailers the remaining birds as we felt they were too young to cover the trip. Deke landed first and this was the first time they had ever landed anywhere other then "home". Joe remained airborne and watched while the cranes circled the field cautiously for 20 minutes before they decided to land.

They penned the birds in a temporary pen for two nights. The first night, Deke and Rebecca camped with them and the second night Joe stayed. On Saturday, the birds were accompanied by four aircraft. Deke, Joe & Bill flew the 3 Cosmos Trikes and Glynn Walters piloted his Challenger. Confronted by a strong headwind, the flight back was a lot more tedious and difficult. The birds, confused by the extra aircraft, broke off and as Joe rounded up 6 of them, Bill & Deke chased the others in an attempt to get them back into formation. Bill & Deke landed their trikes in the hopes that the stray birds would land with them, but no luck. From his Challenger, Glynn kept an eye on the strays and kept in radio contact with Bill, advising him on their location. Eventually, the cranes landed and Rebecca rounded them up in the trailer. The flight back for Joe and his group lasted 1 hour and 6 minutes, the longest flight to date. The cranes were very happy to see their own field.

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