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April 15, 1999

Spring has sprung and the grass has rizz and we are wondering were our birds is. So in order to find out, I drove to the Tom Yawkey Center in South Carolina.

Last year, as you may recall, we raised another group of Sandhill cranes to see if we could teach them to follow our aircraft yet remain wild enough to be released. This was to correct the problems we had in 1997 of birds landing in school yards and golf courses. We changed the protocols and tried some different techniques. We redesigned the costume to cover more of the human form and built pens that were more natural looking. We limited the number of people working with the birds and kept the media away. All of this allowed us to reduce the amount of time it took us to encourage the birds to follow our aircraft. In fact we reduced the training time from 287 hours in 1997 to 63 hours last year. The logic behind these changes is that if we keep human contact to a minimum and only in the form of costumed handlers, and if we can provide a natural environment, devoid of man-made surroundings, we can keep them from becoming too tame. Added to this is the selection of an isolated wintering site and the use of wild birds as role models.

From previous experiments we know our birds will return north on their own, so repeating that part of the investigation was redundant. In the fall of 1998 we transported the new flock to South Carolina by trailer. Many biologists believe that these birds will still return even without having flown the distance, so in order to give them an added advantage, we used the ultralights to lead them the last 100 kms to give them some sense of the direction from which they arrived.

The Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center encompasses 20,000 acres of isolated wetlands reserved for wildlife with limited public access. We built a large 250 x 150 ft release pen and guarded it with three strands of electric fencer wire. The birds were allowed to fly in and out of this enclosure and roost in the water while protected from natural predators. Evidence to the effectiveness of this release pen is the fact that we lost only one bird over the winter despite the larger numbers of Bobcats present.

Stacey Floyd and her husband Billy monitored the flock over the winter checking them daily at first and later only once every third day, always in costume. When I visited in March the flock was spending most of the time in the open, shallow water of Goose Pasture, 300 yards east of the pen. While the birds were away, we removed the pen and the feeders leaving them entirely on their own.

The next day we approached the flock to see how wild they were. Stacey, Billy, and head biologist Bob Joyner and I walked to within 150 feet of the flock. We were speaking in normal voices and wore regular clothes. The birds were definitely alert and as Billy and I moved closer they took off and landed 400 yards to the north.

We consider this an encouraging display of "human avoidance." Step one of our wildness test was a success! Next we wait to see if they will seek out people on their return migration. At last call Stacey informed us that the birds were wandering and we are waiting for our first Satellite hits to see if they are actually coming north.

Also in March, Deke Clark and I traveled to The International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wisconsin to meet with its director Dr. George Archibald and Dr. Alexander Sorokin from the Oka Research Center in Russia. Discussions concerning the possibility of using our technique to lead Siberian Cranes from Moscow. We also had the opportunity to meet with Tom Stehn, coordinator of the U.S. Whooping Crane Recovery Team and Dr Richard Urbanek who will be lead biologist during the Whooping crane introduction attempt.

Before that happens we need to conduct one more investigation with Sandhill cranes, leading them along the route from Wisconsin to Florida to plot the course and identify stopovers along the way. We had hoped to do that in 1999 and we presented a plan to the Recovery Team. Unfortunately the politics of re-introduction have not progressed far enough to allow the experiment this year. Establishing a second migratory flock of an endangered species requires the input of a number of agencies. It is a long term plan and land use, habitat suitability and the sustainability of the flock must be considered carefully. Restoration is a battle fought on many front. While we deal with fundraising and the problems of promoting wildness in birds that will follow us south, the Recovery Team deals with the equally daunting logistics of administration.

This situation leaves us with the novelty of a summer season without field work and as pilots our fancies turn to flying. Oshkosh, Wisconsin is home to the world's largest air show. Hosted by the Experimental Aircraft Association it covers every aspect of flying from ultralights to war birds. It may be too late in the season to book something but we hope to attend in an official capacity, promoting OM. We would also like to use this event as a kick off for our planned flight to Florida to lay out the route and plot the course. After leading birds south every fall for the last six years migration becomes instinctive. As the air turns cool and the leaves turn brown we will have no choice but to answer the call of the wild heading south, with or without our birds in tow. Anyone care to join us?

To all the pilots in our audience we look forward to seeing you at Oshkosh. To all the birder's, we will keep you posted on the return of our flock. To all those with a love for both, we could sure use your support.

March 23, 1999

Joe reports that our 11 Sandhill cranes that were taken south last October have passed their "wildness" test with flying colours! Haven't got full details yet but will update this page as soon as he quits getting flat tires and arrives home.

March 17, 1999

Happy St. Patricks Day! It's not yet "officially" spring, but it is warm enough here in Ontario to say that it has arrived early. Now it's time for all the results that we've been anticipating. Will our 11 remaining Sandhill cranes that were taken south to the Tom Yawkey Center initiate their own return migration? And, even more important, will they remain wild?

Joe left yesterday to make the drive to South Carolina. When he arrives he will apply the "wildness test." He will approach the flock, un-costumed. IF the cranes take flight.... GREAT! If not, he will then conduct some "human avoidance" conditioning. This will consist of yelling & screaming, as well as approaching them with things they should be wary of; dogs, loud noises, and various other scary methods.

The cranes have been leaving their pen area each day to feed in the marsh lands of the Yawkey center. While there, Joe will dismantle their release pen...

February 22, 1999

Stacey reports from South Carolina that all 11 Sandhill's are doing very well. She has started to cut back on the frequency of their supplemental feedings. Will Spring ever get here?

January 20, 1999

We received word yesterday that there are now a record number of Whooping cranes wintering at Aransas NWR! 183 beats last years record by one bird. Our two Sandhills are still here with us at Purple Hill. Every morning when Bill lets them out of the Easy Bake Oven, Edna performs this great dance for her adoring audience. Frank, the aloof one of the pair, stands and watches her go thru her gyrations and jumps with an "are you finished yet" look on his face. They then leave to go for a flight and to exercise their wings. They have become quite a pair.... always at Bill's side, whether working in the shop or stoking the outdoor furnace. If there are any tools missing, he needs only to look in their "oven" to find it.

January 7, 1999

PUBLICATION The Edmonton Journal

DATE: Thursday 07 Jan 1999, Ed Struzik, Journal Staff Writer

HEADLINE: Storm, accidents likely cut numbers of whooping cranes; Nearly 10% lost in fall migration to Texas; A Precious Flock Nearly 10 per cent of the population of one of the world's most ** endangered species disappeared on its migration south from Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Alberta last fall. Officials don't know exactly what's behind the disappearance of 18 whooping cranes that set off from their only nesting grounds in Wood Buffalo last August with 180 other birds. But they suspect that a vicious wind storm that blew over the U.S. Midwest last fall might have claimed at least some of the birds, which included about 24 young whoopers born in Canada this spring, that were on their way with their parents to the wintering grounds at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. "There was a storm on Nov. 9 and 10 that produced unusually strong winds with gusts that reached near hurricane force," says Tom Stehn of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who is coordinator of the international whooping crane recovery team. "We know that one bird ended up in Iowa where whooping cranes have never been seen before. And there's a fairly reliable report of another one that was seen near Chicago." Stehn says it's possible that some of the birds might have panicked and crashed into a power line or simply broken a limb trying to land in the storm. That appears to be what happened to one bird found alive in Kansas with a broken leg, and another that was seen flying with one leg dangling. Stehn is not ruling out the possibility that one or more birds may have been illegally shot along the way. "The fact is there's really no way of finding out for sure what happened," he said. "It's big country they cover. But this is not good news." Whooping cranes are among the largest and most elegant birds in the world. Although never common in North America, they almost disappeared altogether in 1942 when only 16 birds could be found in the wild. A recovery program sponsored by both the Canadian and U.S. governments has unsuccessfully tried to establish a second breeding population in the wild over the past three decades, partly out of fear that a natural or human-induced disaster could destroy this one flock. In spite of the many setbacks in establishing a separate breeding population in the wild, officials had hoped to see the Wood Buffalo/Aransas flock increase to 200 by the year 2000 -- a goal Stehn now thinks is unlikely to be achieved. "I'm going to go out one more time on Friday to do a count," said Stehn. "Maybe I'll find the bird from Kansas that apparently set off just after Christmas. But I doubt there will be any more than that. They all really should be here by now." It's not the first time the whoopers have suffered a setback in recent years. Ten birds disappeared on the flight south back in 1993. "This is really a serious, serious setback," says Ernie Kuyt, the ** Edmonton-based Canadian Wildlife Service scientist who worked on the whooping crane recovery program for 26 years. "I guess we can only be thankful that the population has had a chance to grow as high as it has in recent years. It makes it that much easier for the flock to recover." This year's setback will not have an impact on plans for establishing another breeding flock in the wild. But it now looks like a proposal to establish the flock in the Interlake region of southern Manitoba is being abandoned in favour of a site in Wisconsin. Canadian Bill Lishman, the artist and pilot who taught goslings how to migrate by using an ultralight plane, is apparently on board to conduct a similar trial on the whoopers. Lishman's exploits with goslings were fictionalized in the Hollywood film, Fly Away Home.

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