May 10, 2000
This years Sandhill project is moving full steam ahead with the egg collection taking place last week at the introduction site. In a helicopter provided by Wisconsin business man and Naturalist, Terry Kohler, George Archibald, founder of the International Crane Foundation and Richard Urbanek, lead biologist of this years project spent most of last Tuesday and Wednesday collecting Sandhill eggs that were nearly ready to hatch. Urbanek jumped out of the low-flying chopper to test the eggs with a technique called "floating." Floating goes like this: 1)place egg in a sock. 2) fill bucket of other socks with water. 3) float egg sock in water. 4) purr (the soft noise made by cranes) to the egg to see if there's a response. Moving eggs mean that the embryonic chicks inside are near hatching!
Those eggs were gently handed into the helicopter and cushioned in foam inside a plywood incubation box heated with hot-water bottles. Other eggs, not so far along in the incubation process, were carefully returned to the nests. 23 eggs were then flown to Patuxent Wildlife Research in Laurel, Maryland for continued incubation until hatching. Before the eggs even hatch the acclimation process to the ultralights begins. Tapes of the planes' engine noise as well as crane calls are being played in the incubator now.
When I spoke with Dan Sprague at Patuxent yesterday he said that 3 cranes had already hatched and they were expecting a total of 8 birds to be hatched by the weekend.
April 28, 2000
Sandhill crane sighting - The 1998 cranes turn up!
Wildlife biologist Sonny Knowlton of the Iroquois Wildlife Management Area reported that four Sandhill cranes were sighted on April 20, 2000 near the town of Alabama in Genesee County NY. The birds were identified as numbers 350, 352, 358 and 366. These birds participated in our migration study of 1998. They were transported to the Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center in South Carolina. Once our investigation was complete and in an effort to gain more knowledge, Dr. David Ellis of Patuxent Wildlife Research Center captured half of the flock (six birds) and released them at the Iroquois WMA, New York in late July of 1999.
They were known to have moved east to the Never Sink River district northwest of New York City. Later, in the fall, they were seen near Stoney Creek, Ontario. They were not heard of again until November 1999 when they were reported near the Mogadore Reservoir east of Akron, Ohio. We have had several reports recently of six birds in the Alabama, NY area but this latest sighting places them less than five miles from the release point.
Biologist Knowlton reported that only 4 birds were present and they were foraging in cut grass on private property. He closed to a distance of 50 yards however the birds displayed alert posture and he did not get closer. We do not have a bird with a leg band # 350 but this is the second report of this number. We must assume the band has been disfigured and it is most likely #356.
Recently, Dr. Urbanek of Seney NWR in Michigan traveled to South Carolina to check on the birds that were not transported to New York. These five remaining Sandhill cranes moved south to the Donnelly Wildlife Management Area, SC and have taken up residence in good crane habitat. Dr. Urbanek reported that he could approach the flock to a distance of 8 meters without wearing a costume. This distance is too close but of more importance is the fact that the birds are not initiating this type of human contact. They are tolerant of people but are not seeking an association with them. This is an important difference and we are confident that simply performing some enthusiastic human-avoidance conditioning can easily increase the "approach distance."
March 1, 2000
In the short but entertaining history of Operation Migration we have accomplished great things. In the early years, we attempted to prove that the aircraft-led migration technique was viable by leading Canada geese south in what can be referred to as our Goose Phase. When Columbia Pictures produced Fly Away Home we saw an opportunity to finance our research during our Hollywood Chapter. Back on track, we conducted several studies with cranes in our Sandhill Period. Now as we move closer to the first aircraft led migration of Whooping Cranes we enter our Year of the Meeting. The Whooping crane is an endangered specie, probably the quintessential endangered specie. As such, their welfare is the responsibility of the Federal Government, which also has authority over their habitat. The purpose of the Endangered Species Act is to protect fauna and flora that are threatened by human encroachment. It does not, however, make provisions for teaching birds to follow ultralight aircraft, or for leading them across state lines in order to establish a new migration route. It seems odd to us that the US Congress would have missed that option (whodathunkit) BUT they did leave a loophole to cover future developments. As well as writing an Environmental Impact Assessment the Whooping Crane Recovery Team is applying for a designation called an Experimental, Non-essential population. In other words, lets pretend that these particular Whooping cranes, the ones we will lead south, are not really an endangered specie and that they are not critical to the survival of the only existing flock. That way we can try some experimental methods of protecting them that normally would not be allowed, like leading birds with ultralight's and dressing up in costumes so the birds will not become too attached to us. This federal authority over threatened habitat is not popular in all quarters. History has taught us that humans and wildlife do not live in harmony all of the time and to some degree, you can understand both sides of the argument. Take our reintroduction as an example. If we were to lead Whooping cranes from Wisconsin to Florida and in subsequent years these birds decided they liked Georgia better... Say they found a wetland that suited them and they began to return there every year. That area, no matter who owned it or what plans they had for it would become endangered species habitat and the Federal Government would have some say in its future. You can see now why we have so many partners and why it can be called the Year of the Meeting. The US Fish and Wildlife Service is the federal authority and then the Wisconsin state government is involved because that is where we will raise the birds and Florida because that is where we will lead them. After that there are the direct line states that we will pass through including Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Georgia and the dispersal states where the birds may wander to, such as Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio, Missouri, Iowa, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, and North and South Carolina. There is a government organization known as the Flyway Council that deals with all issues relating to migratory birds. Our route will dissect both the Atlantic and the Mississippi Flyway Councils jurisdiction. Each agency will be asked to participate in the discussions and the approval process. So far, everyone involved is encouraged by the enthusiasm and the fact that we are still targeting 2001 for the first introduction attempt is an indication of the level of cooperation. Added to that the number of agencies that have sanctioned the Sandhill crane study that will begin this spring and we may have to rename the Year Of The Meeting to the Year Of Miraculous Achievement.