Aug. 31, 2000
Very windy and hot, heavy rain. We decided to leave the birds in today and we checked their feed and water in the late morning.
Aug. 30, 2000
Cool, clear and calm. This is the first day that we have been able to fly in 5 days and it is the first time we have attempted two aircraft, Deke and I arrived at 6:58 and Dan released the birds starting with group 2. While preparing for the session, I accidentally played a flight call very loud on the aircraft system and frightened the birds, which were still in their pen. When Dan opened the door they were all at the back of the pen. As soon as they exited though the pen door, I took off and despite the fact that we were short a bird (one did not come out of the pen) the take off was very good and the birds stayed with me most of the way.
We circled from the north to the east and two birds stayed with me, while the other four moved east, closer to the pen. We did a pass over the observation tower but by that time only two birds were on the wing. Deke, who had been circling to the south waiting for us, descended and the 4 birds moved back and forth between us until they decided to fly with him. We passed close to the pen on a northwest course and some of the birds turned inbound. I circled to the north and the birds flying with me broke and landed. Deke led the others in and landed from the north. As Deke was already on the ground I suggested that he lead the second group. I waited to the south while he and Dan put group 2 back in the night pen. When he took off with group 1, I was too far away and was late getting to them. Additionally, two cranes were in front of him on the runway and he had to wait to get airborne.
We flew to the south and then west and one bird broke off. I picked it up and tried to intersect with him. As we were flying from west to east I tried to pass the one bird to Deke but instead it headed north and flew right past the pen and kept going! I was flying chase for Deke thinking the bird would just head home but when Dan told us he was heading north I broke off and gave chase. I was not able to find him but kept looking the entire time it took Deke and Dan to put the birds away. Eventually, we headed back to the airport and had breakfast with the reporters that were visiting that day. In the early afternoon we (Deke, Dan and Joe as well as Mike Forsburg, a wildlife photographer) released the birds for some socializing.
As we approached the pen we noticed that blue/white had returned and was standing hiding in the shrubs next to the pen. He was displaying very submissive posture. We let the rest of the birds out to join him. At first, there were a lot of confrontations between the two groups, especially when the birds would hop high in the air and come down too close to others. We witnessed a lot of jump raking and hissing but nothing very serious. Whenever they took off to fly I would play the brood call loud and Dan would use the puppet head. Once they calmed down a little, Dan and Deke cleaned the pen and filled the water barrel while Mike and I led the flock to water. They became very relaxed and only had the occasional confrontation, which lasted only seconds. We walked them back to the pen and put them into their respective sides with little difficulty.
All in all the flight was not great but as good as we could expect because they have not flown in five days and this is the first time they have been in the company of two aircraft at the same time. The socialization session, however, was very good and the flock are closer to becoming one. Total time for group 2 was approximately 14 minutes and group 1 was 10 minutes. They can do better.
Aug. 29, 2000:
Too windy... could not fly. We released the birds into the top netted day pen, one group at a time starting with group 2. Later the weather improved and we went for some pleasure flying.
Aug. 28, 2000:
Windy and very low ceilings. We could not fly today. We released the birds to the day pen, one group at a time starting with group 2. We attended a Monday meeting and also the bird team conference call.
August 30, 2000:
Canadian Governor General honours Co-founder and President of Operation Migration
In a recent press release issued by the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson it was announced that OM president William (Bill) Lishman was among thirty-two Canadians to receive a Meritorious Service Decoration at an official event in Quebec City on September 15th, 2000. The Meritorious Service Medal that Bill will receive is given to Canadians, who through some deed have brought honour to Canada. Bill will receive the honour for his aviation and ornithological breakthrough of being the first human to lead a flock of birds with an aircraft in 1988. Bill can now add the letters M.S.M. to his name.
August 28, 2000
The weather has turned against us and the last 4 days have been windy and wet. Both cohorts of birds are sharing a pen at site 2 and although it is divided they are slowly becoming acquainted. When the wind keeps us on the ground we release the birds to fly on their own. Once out of the confines of the pen the two groups are too distracted to be aggressive toward each other so it is good socialization time.
It is interesting to watch their tolerance of each other increase as they slowly evolve into one flock. Each bird must find a place in the order and the positions are determined by aggression. Once this hierarchy is established the hostility lessens and peace returns as the flock becomes cohesive. As this begins to happen we can see their requirements for personal space diminish and they allow other birds to move closer, before chasing them away.
It is fascinating to cover yourself head to toe in a costume and become a silent observer, watching the interaction and confrontations. We learn to read their posture and recognize their demeanor and we begin to understand the drama as it unfolds. It is no different than the politics of any society from the colony of ants below our feet to the dynamics of kids in a playground. This is a culture that few ever witness this closely and the price of admission is a baggy costume and absolute silence. We are a privileged few, we watch and listen, with help from Dr. Wessling and a mini-disc recorder we communicate. What takes place on the ground is almost as fascinating and what happens in the air.
August 27, 2000
Early morning flight training continues whenever the weather cooperates. Dr. Bernhard Wessling visited us over the weekend but unfortunately, did not get a chance to see us fly accompanied by the cranes.
Bernhard is a chemical engineer from Germany and his success has allowed him to devote time to his other passion. He is developing a means of identifying individual birds by analyzing their voice prints. The recorded sonograms can be compared to a library of crane calls collected in the wild and provide a method of recognizing individuals without having to band them. He is even developing a program to predict the changes in a cranes call as it ages.
We are working closely with Bernhard and this year, for the first time we are using digitally recorded adult crane calls to communicate with our flock!
In the 15 sub-species of cranes worldwide, ornithologists have cataloged over 100 communication methods used by these intelligent birds, including; calls, posture, displays and behaviour. This puts cranes at the apex of complex creatures in the avian world. So far, we have concentrated on a "brood call" which sounds a bit like a purr. It is a contact call and repeated by the parent to reassure the chick like saying "Im here, everything is OK." Our birds first heard this sound from adults that were penned next to the chicks to act as sexual imprinting models making sure the young birds were well aware of who and what they were. Whenever we are around the birds we carry a hand puppet, designed to look like the head of an adult crane and we play the digital recordings of real crane calls. Bernhard also designed a system that attaches to the aircraft and can broadcast up to 6 calls loud enough to be heard over the sound of the engine.
Next week when we introduce the second aircraft to the flock we will begin to use an adult "flight call" to encourage them to follow us in the air.
August 21, 2000
Below 50 feet (altitude) the air was mostly calm so we began with Group 1 at 6:45am. The birds took off with Deke in the trike but this time there was one on the wing and six in a group slightly behind. Then a second joined the wing while the other five struggled to catch up. I reported to Deke on the radio to roll left. The five lagging birds intersected and for the first time group1 had all seven birds on the wing. Deke's method for teaching the four laggers about the air coming off the wing has worked perfectly. Although a clean formation was not established the birds stayed in a tight group on the wing throughout the 5-minute flight. This was a milestone for group 1!
Next!... The group 2 birds, eager to get airborne, took off from the pen gate as Deke waited in the trike for their return. As the birds circled back over the runway Deke easily caught them after take off. The group flew in perfect formation off of the wing tip for a six-minute flight. After landing with group 2, I brought group 1 out for another socialization session. Many early scuffles ensued, but the birds settled down and demonstrated less violent and aggressive behaviors this time. Group 2, again, clearly dominated. Pink57 while not the leader of group 2 seemed to have become the enforcer and was the least tolerant of any group 1 bird occupying the area. However, group 2 was generally more tolerant of the other birds and the "personal space" required by both submissive and aggressive birds had allowed closer contact between groups. In the 45 minutes, we felt that they were mixing better and after walking them in a group up and down the runway, believe that they will fly together as social ranking gets works out.
August 20, 2000
Deke and I decide to fly each group and then join groups with the trike on the runway where they aren't confined. This allows submissive birds to find a comfortable "personal space" from the aggressors as they mingle. By the time Deke arrived with the trike the wind was too trashy to fly birds. We decided to let each group out separately to get the morning burst-of-energy flight out of their systems. We used the loud crane-caller on the trike to keep them in the area. Once the birds had completed their morning flights, both groups were merged. Within a few challenges, group 2 was again (or still) dominant as a unit over group 1, P/W as the leader. W/W from group 1 (former leader) became submissive and B/P appeared to be the new leader within group 1. All birds would follow the costume and brood-call but group 2 generally maintains the closest contact, forcing group 1 to the periphery. There were several short flights of mixed birds and one flight of 13 birds, (B/P stayed with costume as he often does) which is encouraging. After each flight, challenges would break out on the ground upon landing. Mixing the two cohorts appears to be working much better in this open area situation. The birds spent a little over an hour together near the trike. We will continue this method of socializing the groups following, or in lieu of flight training.
August 18 & 19, 2000
Morning winds have us grounded. The groups take turns in the day pen.
August 17, 2000
I made a hand held, loud brood caller to enable us better control of the birds from the ground. Flight training was rained out. I went to the far end of the runway while Deke released cohort two. When the birds took flight, I turned on the loud caller and all 7 landed with me. I turned the caller off and ran to initiate flight again. The birds flew FAR to the west. I turned the caller on and they turned back and returned to me after a few minutes of being in the air. Group two flies in a very tight, cohesive group. We returned them to the pen and began the same exercise with group one to see if we could determine the leader of the group of four birds while in flight. They flew to me in one group rather than dividing as they do with the trike. B/P stayed at my side as the others made a few short flights.
We had hoped that flying the two groups would assist in taking the edge off of the dominance issues, so that integrating them this time in the netted pen would lessen aggression: It didn't help.
What did happen was a very interesting: W/W and P/W the respective leaders of each group had a violent fight. I think W/W (group1) was all prepared to clean P/Ws (group 2) clock, when he jumped and kicked P/W in the breast. His toenail got caught on P/W's body causing him to be stuck on his back; laid out on the ground with one leg up in the air. I quickly grabbed his foot and freed the toe (to be restrained on one's back is the most vulnerable position for a wild animal, hence a dog rolling on it's back to demonstrate submission). In this instant, W/W had become afraid and ran off. P/W was the victor and from that moment on, every bird in group 2 was now dominant over the birds from group 1.
The pandemonium of mixed challenges and retorts between both groups, instantly became a dominance of group 2 over group 1. Each group 1 bird would dart off in a submissive posture when approached by a group 2 bird! This is the first time I've seen this situation develop between cohorts of birds and I'm fascinated. It was now very clear to Deke and I that the groups were functioning as two cohesive units; each under it's own government. Creating one flock from the two has us a little worried.
August 16 2000:
We began flying the birds at 6:30am. Deke started with group two. The birds took off and flew a 1/2 loop without him but he easily caught them and all seven cranes flew beautifully in-formation, off of the wing tip for 4 1/2-minutes before returning and landing with the trike; an excellent flight!
At Deke's request, I separated p/p, b/p and w/w from group one and led the other four out to the trike. They have been lagging behind in a group and have not found the preferred location off the wing yet. The four selected birds followed from a distance for about11/2-minutes. Then, Deke rolled a sharp turn to allow them to catch up by intersecting his turn.
One bird found the wing, while the others worked hard to catch up. All four finally managed to get on the wing and even accomplished some soaring.
Big improvement, way to go Deke!
The four stayed right with the wing until landing: Flight time was 6 minutes. Deke taxied with the birds and I on the ground for another 10-15 minutes. B/W is still skittish around the wing and nervous of the trike turning around, but followed and foraged with the others well.
August 15, 2000
Good weather! Joe flew group one from pen #1 to pen #2 first. This flight again was split with three cranes on the wing and four laggers. Group one was then herded into the new flight netted day pen so that Joe could return to pick up group two. Six cranes from this group stayed together locked onto the wing. One bird fell far behind but still landed next to the trike as it waited on the runway. I suspect this slower bird is white/blank; this bird seems to be weaker in flight compared to its pen mates. The other six did not land with the trike on the strip but chose to land on top of the flight netted day pen, which contained the birds from group one! Joe and I braced the bird's feet to help walk them off of the net
With this being the first time the two cohorts have been introduced since they arrived here at Necedah, it was interesting to note the many dominance challenges that ultimately ensued. Pink 57 from group #1 appeared to be the most dominant bird. Green/yellow, normally a submissive bird within group #1, became more dominant toward the birds from group #2. Yellow and Blue53 of group #2 were the most submissive.
After approximately 20 minutes the groups were returned to the divided pen. The rest of the day was spent working to restore the damaged aircraft so that we could once again have two trikes in operation. Later that evening Joe departed in his Rans airplane for a much-deserved weekend in Ontario with his family.
August 14, 2000
Bad weather again, no flying. Dan and Brian visited ICF then Brian returned to his duties at Patuxent.
August 13, 2000
Bad flying weather this morning. Joe, Deke, Brian and Dan went directly to work on pen #2. We completed the 50 x 100 ft, netted day pen at site 2 and installed gates at each end of the pens divider. This will enable us to run either group of birds through either end of the night pen without interference from the other group. Josh Zimmerman, a Florida journalist with the St. Petersburg Times, left after spending the weekend with us and learning about this massive study.
End report-Dan Sprague
August 12 2000
We decided that we should make modifications to pen #2 as it is slightly larger than pen #1, so this morning at 6AM we led the birds in two groups from site #2 to site #1. We began with group 2. Deke released them and although the wind was out of the south and I was facing that way. They took off to the north. I thought they would circle and land but they did not so I took off and tried to lead them. Deke came out of the pen and they saw him while we passed overhead so they landed on the runway adjacent the day pen. I landed and we started the process all over again. This time they followed me as I headed for site #1. Halfway across, one of the birds broke away but luckily, when he saw we were landing he came in on his own.
Deke flew group one back to pen #1. All 7 birds followed the trike; three birds flew just off the wing, which is the most efficient spot for birds flying with an ultralight, while the other four followed in a group lagging behind. All the birds landed on the runway close together and next to the trike, rather than near Brian and I who were standing nearby in costume. Both groups were moved into the divided pen #1.
With help from Brian Clauss, who arrived from Patuxent WRC the four of us began construction of the new flight-netted day pen at pen #2. Late in the afternoon, thunderstorms rolled in and we were forced to knock off for the day.
End report-Dan Sprague
August 18, 2000: OM Headquarters Update
Bill called this morning from South Carolina. He and Paul have made great time and have completed mapping out the migration route for this September and have visited all of the proposed stopover sites to ensure they are suitable for our needs. Over the next few days we will go over these locations carefully to finalize the exact route. Thanks to everyone that they visited for their hospitality. We look forward to seeing you again in September and October!
August 15, 2000: OM Headquarters Update
Bill Lishman departed yesterday with Pilot Paul Nopper to scout out the proposed migration route from Wisconsin to Florida. Paul flies a Husky airplane which has the ability to land just about anyplace that our Cosmos trike's can land and has donated his time and his airplane for this mission. Armed with a GPS and a laptop computer, they will enter the coordinates of potential landing strips and approach the owners to discuss the possibility of using their site as a stop-over during migration this fall. We have gone to great lengths to ensure that the birds in this study remain wild despite having been conditioned to follow an aircraft. They have been costume reared and if we are successful, by the time we arrive at the wintering site, they will have never seen an un-costumed human, heard a human voice or been exposed to human environments. Managing the birds experiences in this way requires open areas away from building and roads. In the past we have relied on the owners of little used, privately owned, grass runways that are off the beaten path. Many elements make these locations ideally suited to our needs. Firstly, being private, we can control access to better manage a curious pubic. Secondly, being runways, they are normally inline with prevailing winds, clear of power lines and other obstacles at the approached and departure ends; they are smoothly surfaced and more than long enough to accommodate our light aircraft.
Birds for this study are sub adults and not capable of flying great distances. They surf on the wake created by the aircraft to help increase their endurance. On most days, we can only fly 50 to 100 miles depending on the weather. We fly at sunrise to make use of the calm air and are usually down for the day at 10 to 11 AM. Three aircraft will accompany the birds; 2 flying lead and one following behind or in the chase position. Navigation is provided by Global Positioning Systems. When the GPS tells us that we are within 15 minutes of the destination, the chase plane will speed ahead and land at the site to move any spectators to a safe distance and check that no dogs are present. This also gives the birds a target with which they are familiar. When the lead planes and birds arrive, we will circle several times to calm the flock before landing. Once on the ground, one aircraft will lead the birds to an isolated area of the property and sit with them while they rest. The other pilots will speak with the owners and when the ground crew arrives, help set up a pen in another isolated area on the property. When this is complete all additional crew and handlers retreat allowing the lead aircraft to move the birds to the pen area without exposing them to humans, vehicles or the sounds of work being performed. The portable pen has a visual barrier that can be set up on three sides to control what the birds are able to see. All human activity is conducted in silence on the blind side of barrier. A handler will monitor the birds from a distance 24 hours per day. We would normally depart the following morning but could remain on site for days if the weather does not cooperate.
Should you happen to be one of the landing sites that Bill and Paul visit during the next few days and have any further questions, please call Heather at: 800-675-2618
August 8, 2000: Field Update
We cant be doing this right its too easy. That was the feeling that kept nagging in the back of my head. The birds are learning to fly earlier than ever before and not just one or two of them; they are all following the aircraft enthusiastically! After early morning training sessions, we let them out to forage on their own for up to six hours. This provides them with a more natural environment and leaves us free to cover other duties like record keeping, aircraft maintenance and repair and attending the myriad meetings. We can even spare an occasional hour to launder costumes and blackened socks that result from walking in 16 inches of muddy water with 14 inch boots.
What is going on, why is this working out so well? It cant be the result of years of study and planning, of personal experience and advice from the worlds most prominent aviculturalists. Things have never run this smoothly before but my puritan background wont let me enjoy it. Dont misunderstand, we still start at 6 in the morning and rarely quit before 10 in the evening. It is hard work but for some strange reason we are not running from one panic situation to the next trying to anticipate the needs of a small flock of birds that are oblivious to the havoc their actions can cause. It would be a sad realization to think that I would be happier if things did not run smoothly but before I had time to dwell on the subject the birds changed their habits and our hectic pace was restored.
Late yesterday afternoon Deke and I went to return cohort #2 to their night pen but could not find them. Normally, they are patiently waiting for us somewhere close by but not this time. We walked the entire area and came away with low spirits and blackened socks. Despite the strong head-wind, I returned with the aircraft to look for our charges and arrived just as they were returning. Unfortunately, they were in the company of 15 or so wild Sandhills and although I managed to lead them home, it was an indication that they are forming an allegiance. This of course is not all bad. Wild birds are the perfect role models and eventually, we hope they will assimilate, but not before we get them to Florida. If we continue to leave them unattended the call of the wild may call them away and we would be left with empty pens and red faces. We came up with several solutions including top-netting a large area of marsh outside their night pen. This, however, is a daunting task and we settled temporarily for monitoring the birds more closely.
After a picture perfect flight this morning Dan and Deke went to pens one and two respectively, to let the birds out and watch them for a few hours to ensure they did not fly away. Birds have a knack for foiling even a good plan and as Deke stared in amazement all seven birds flew off to the west and disappeared. At this point here is not much we can do, the area is flat and wet and it is hard to see any distance much less cross it. We are using digitally recorded crane calls to converse with the birds so we cant call to them other than to turn up the volume on our wrist mounted speakers. These sounds are authentic but not meant for long distance communication. Resorting to the only option left he climbed a ladder we store nearby in hopes that even if he could not see the birds they may see him. There he stood, perched on his lookout, scanning the horizon; a beacon for wayward birds he kept the home fires burning. Eventually, it paid off and after 45 minutes seven birds glided in for a landing and he ushered them into the night pen.
Meanwhile, Dan at pen one, spent an hour searching for his birds that had flown off to the north. He recruited our help and we spent an hour covering the area for the second time. We took the vehicles and headed north stopping frequently to scan the lake with binoculars. Two or three miles later as we passed the entrance to pen 2, I stopped to check the young birds while the others searched the south end of the lake. As I approached the pen I heard the familiar sound of wind over feathers and turned to see seven birds on a descent to the field. I could not believe it. Our older birds had crossed the lake and recognized the similar pen. They covered a distance greater than we suspected they were capable of and they did it against strong head winds. The only thing puzzling was the mismatched leg bands and it was Dan who figured it out. While Deke stood on his ladder searching for missing birds he appeared as a light house and attracted the attention of group one. As they moved closer the familiar looking pen and the distinctive gray costume drew them in and they landed beside him. Relieved that his charges returned his herded group 1 into group twos pen and left happy.
Sometime thereafter, group 2 returned on their own only to find their home occupied by long lost nest mates they had last seen in Maryland!
It is now midnight and tomorrow starts in 5 hours. We have formulated a plan and I think we have this problem under control. Now this is more like the pace we have come to expect, it is hectic but we are still ahead.
Operation Migration Field Report: July 28 2000
The dog days of summer are upon us and the birds are starting the recognize the routine, an early morning flight (now expanded to 4 or 5 circuits of the pen area) followed by a day of foraging in the wetlands. They have also become conditioned to the area and are not as quick to venture off on their own so we have begun to leave them out for six hours or more at a time. Although leaving them unattended most of the day is hard on the crew who are normally more protective, it is an important part of their training. It allows them time to establish their natural dominance structure and teaches them to forage for food. As well it is time away from the confines of a pen and more like the life of a wild crane. The more of that type of experience we can create for them the more wild we can expect them to be or more correctly the less tame they will become.
Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland raised these birds from eggs and once old enough, they began feeding them a specially formulated and custom made feed pellet. It was developed over a number of years and contains the proper amount of protein and nutrients as well as medication to guard against parasites. Patuxent has generously agreed to supply feed for the duration of this project and we give the birds as much as they want at their feeding station in the night pens. During the day while the birds are out we practice controlled food withholding. By late afternoon when its time to return them to the protection of the pen we do not have to be concerned with handling or herding. They are hungry and all we have to do is open the gate.
Hot summer days and the feel of August on the back of your neck is a reminder for all pilots that it is air show time. The biggest and grandest of all is the EAAs Airventure in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. It is a Mecca for high timers and big dreamers with 850,000 turning out annually. It is also only two hours away from Necedah. The crew all took their turns minding the birds while the others went off to look at "big boy toys" and help man the booth that the USFWS had in the Federal Building. Oshkosh has something for anyone who has ever aspired to slip the surely bonds and is proof of the old adage that if God wanted man to fly he would have given him more money.
End Report Joe Duff
July 24 2000
We have learned from previous studies that in order to keep birds as wild as possible it is important to reduce the amount of "human contact" they are exposed to. Hopefully, by the time they arrive at their new wintering site, they will have never seen an un-costumed human or heard a human voice. We also eliminate all man-made paraphernalia and try to provide a natural environment. Managing the birds experiences becomes one of the most difficult aspects of their training. As an example today, we had to perform some general pen maintenance and arrange to cut the grass on the training fields. The preparations began in the early morning when we worked with the birds; firstly, as part of their training schedule but also to tire them out. After all the equipment was collected and parked out of site we released the birds. Their initial excitement eventually dissipated but not before they flew off in all directions into the wetland.
They do respond to the costume but not if there is something really exciting to do, like play in the muck. Once the novelty wore off and all the strays gathered by the pen, one of the costumed handlers led them off into the marsh away from the pen and out of hearing range. Meanwhile the rest of the crew descended on the area to conduct a clandestine clean-up. They brought in tractors with cutting decks and Weed-whackers to trim around the electric fence. The water barrel was filled and feeders scrubbed and disinfected, even a little door repair. The crew worked as fast as possible, grateful that they did not have to wear costumes but they kept them close by in case the birds became nervous and flew home to the perceived safety of the pen, only to find the clean-up elves hard at work. (Hence the logic of tiring the birds out beforehand) The entire operation took about 90 minutes per pen of coordination and concentrated effort and the birds didnt even notice the improvements. Experience Management has become a leading concern and we have yet to develop all of the procedures to deal with the problem while on migration. It seems that every year we add another wrinkle to cure a specific problem. So far we have always found a solution but the protocol is getting complex. End Report - Joe Duff
July 22, 2000
In all we are working with three cohorts of birds here at Necedah NWR. Two groups of seven birds each were raised at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland and another was raised here on site. We have been struggling to develop a third landing site to train this extra group and despite the best efforts of the Necedah personnel in particular, Mike Belsky the field is not serviceable. We found this out the hard way this past Sunday. Deke Clark landed on the new strip on Friday and although it was rough, he managed safely. On Sunday after heavy rain the ground was softer than anyone expected and while rolling to a stop he hit a particularly loose spot and flipped the aircraft. Luckily he was not injured but the trike is now what we loving refer to as a "hangar queen." By next week it should be back in the air thanks to Don Reinhardt of Personal Flight who has donated parts and encouragement. Thanks very much Don!
Today we worked with group 1 and the main training area and the birds performed better that ever before. They are now capable of flying three tight circuits around the pen. Some will drop out along the way but once we land they are anxious to join the aircraft on the runway. During the day the birds are allowed to forage in an open topped enclosure we call the day pen. Recently they have been flying in and out of this area. To encourage them to stay and benefit from the predator protection it offers, we built a mannequin and dressed it in a costume. This is placed inside their day pen and they are often seen foraging close to it. So they will not be distracted by this decoy during training Dan moves it out of sight before the birds are released for training sessions. After the session he laid it in front of the pen under a shrub. When he returned to put the birds back into their night pen he found they had discovered their cherished pacifier and were all taking a nap beside the reclining dummy.
Next we worked with Group 2 but it did not go so well. Dan and Deke let the birds out and they flew out over their day pen. I thought they would come back but they stayed airborne so long that I took off to see if I could fly with them. By the time I got up they were mostly down so I did a circuit. Too many things were happening at once. Firstly, we fly in full costume and the mirrored visors we use tend to fog on cool mornings. Secondly, the digital vocalizer that provides real bird calls can be difficult to operate while flying and often it is too loud or I accidentally change the program and send the wrong vocal message to the birds. I also have to carry a bottle of meal worms used a bird treats between my legs and of course the ubiquitous puppet head. During the last circuit the puppet head was about to fall out and I grabbed it but in the recovery I hit the top of the tree next to the runway. Nothing happened but it gives you pause. After I landed the birds all came to the trike and I was trying to turn around when one of the birds became trapped by the wheel of the left main gear. I tried to move ahead thinking that I was more than half-way over the bird's foot but this only knocked the bird down and it was still trapped. I shut down and was getting out of the trike when Dan beat me to it and rescued the bird. Incredibly it was not injured except for an scrapped helix. It will probably be sore for the next few days. Between the puppet head, the fogged visor, the tree and a near miss with an otherwise healthy bird I was unnerved and we decided to end the training for the day.
June 30 (Friday) at 12:08 PM (Central time) Chief pilot Mike Mauer of Windway Capital Corp landed the company Cessna Caravan at the Necedah Airport and taxied to the ramp. He had been four hours enroute from Suburban airport in Laurel, Maryland and he carried a cargo of 14 pre-fledge Sandhill cranes from the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. By 12:30 the birds were loaded into 2 air-conditioned mini vans and delivered to the maintenance facility of the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge where a temporary veterinarian clinic had been established. As quickly as possible two experienced teams examined, evaluated, collected blood and x-rayed the 14 chicks. All of this well rehearsed activity was performed without a word being uttered and with all to the birds hooded so they could not see their handlers. The procedure is part of a strict and elaborate Isolation Rearing protocol that include the elimination of all things human in order to keep the birds as wild as possible. The birds were hooded to avoid the need for the medical team to wear the large gray body costume and head veil normally worn by anyone who gets close the birds. The costume is designed not to look like a crane but to disguise the human form and avoid the birds becoming too attached to people. With silent efficiency the birds were examined, returned to their individual shipping crates and released in their remote training pens showing little signs of stress.
July 1 (Saturday) The birds have been divided into two cohorts and they are penned in separate facilities about a mile apart. They spent the first night secretly being watched by two of the O.M. crew who obviously faired worse than the birds. Slouched in parked trucks hidden by the night they listened for the sound of predators and the drone of a million mosquito's. They swatted in vain at the many that made it through the open windows.
July 3 (Monday) The aircraft training begins or rather continues. It has been going on since shortly after the birds hatched at Patuxent but the early training was conducted with the wing removed from the aircraft. When they are very young the birds are not able to fly and removing the wing makes the aircraft easier to handle. Now that the birds are established in their new home it is time to add the wing. As the flock begins to fledge their gangly jog down the runway evolves into elongated steps and eventually a low and graceful flight. They have yet to learn the art of landing and the end of each lesson is less than perfect.
July 4 (Tuesday) Rest day of the birds as we let them get used to their new environment. Each facility has what we call a night pen designed to keep the birds safe overnight. It is constructed of treated wood and built like a patio fence. It is covered with a top net and the outside is shrouded with chain-link fence and an electrified wire to deter predators. To make it look as natural as possible we planted trees in and around it and painted it with a camouflaged pattern that blends in with the wild surroundings. Three sides are built of wood that acts as a visual barrier so we can control what the birds are able to see. The other side is open to a view of the wetlands. Attached to the night pen is a foraging pen built of 5 foot high fencing and protected by an electrified wire. The whole structure is 150 ft by 125 ft. and covers mostly wetland areas. The birds are allowed to roam freely during the day and it gives them time to develop their natural dominance structure. Both the night pen and the foraging pen are built close to a grass runway we can use for flight training.
July 5 (Wednesday) Rain and wind! It time to catch up on reports and Email.
July 7 (Friday) 5:00AM We train the birds in the early morning to take advantage to the calm air that usually accompanies sun rise. This allow us to conduct high speed taxi training as the birds test the wings and charge down the runway. It also makes of a spectacular flight from the hangar into the training facility and back. These flight are the reward for all the hours of hot, sweaty, bug infested, preparation work. The crew cant wait until the birds can join us high above the earthly cares.
June 25, 2000
"Project aims to lure Sandhill cranes to Florida"
Operation Migration attempts to establish second migratory flock
By Jo Sandin of the Journal Sentinel staff Last Updated: June 25, 2000
Necedah - Peering through the face screen of voluminous gray coveralls, pilot Deke Clark leans out of the cockpit of his grounded ultralight so he can peck the grass with the sharp beak of a crane puppet on his right hand.
Eight leggy Sandhill crane chicks, feeding on mosquitoes nearby, seem little disturbed by the whir of the plane's engine. The veteran pilot admits that he never had an assignment like this during eight years in the U.S. Air Force or 33 years at the controls of United Airlines jets.
Operation Migration - for which he pilots the ultralight - teaches birds where to fly.
Clark explains the mission this way: "We have to convince these birds to pretend that this scary yellow noisy mix-master with a surfboard on top is their mother."
Operation Migration is the Ontario-based conservation organization founded by sculptor-naturalist William Lishman, whose pioneering migrations with geese were the focus of the book "Father Goose" and the film "Fly Away Home."
This summer Lishman, his partner Joe Duff and Clark are near takeoff on their most ambitious project yet. This fall, they plan to guide a flock of sandhill cranes from Wisconsin to Florida. The journey - the longest yet attempted by ultralight pilots working with birds - could turn out to be a flight for life for the sandhills' rare cousins, whooping cranes.
Once near extinction with only 15 birds remaining in 1941, the tall white birds with the black-tipped wings have become icons of the effort to save endangered species. After years of careful captive breeding and cautious reintroduction programs, the combined wild and captive population has slowly climbed to about 375.
By September 2001, Operation Migration hopes to be leading young whoopers on a fall migration from nesting grounds in Necedah to wintering grounds in Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge on Florida's Gulf Coast.
That will be the first act in a 10-year attempt to establish a second migratory flock of the endangered birds. A second flock, separate from the wild migrants that now fly between northwest Canada and the Texas coast, would offer important protection against such hazards as hurricanes, oil spills and avian epidemics. Along with a non-migratory flock established over the last decade in central Florida, it would also constitute a third wild population of the 5-foot-tall birds.
This plan to save the birds has been devised by an international committee of public and private conservation agency representatives known as the Whooping Crane Recovery Team.
If whooper chicks are to find their way south, they'll need tour guides from Operation Migration. More than a month ago, Duff began conditioning 14 other sandhill chicks in the familiar facilities of Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, where his outfit has worked with previous flocks of costume-reared sandhills.
From the time they were in the egg, the Patuxent hatchlings heard not only crane sounds but also recorded motor noise of the ultralights. As soon as the chicks were up to outdoor exercise (a few days after hatching), they were released directly onto a grassy training strip behind the ultralight's tricycle fusilage. The wing assembly is added only after the chicks begin to fledge.
At Patuxent, Operation Migration found its latest team member - Dan Sprague, who is directly involved in the day-to-day care of the chicks. He has become so adept at handling chicks and ultralights that he plans to join the flying team. Sprague (enveloped in shapeless gray coveralls designed to hide the human form) lures the chicks around a wire-fenced exercise ring with a puppet of an adult bird. Now electronically enhanced into something called "Robo-crane," the puppet contains a small tape player amplifying recordings of adult crane calls and a mechanism that spits out tempting mealy worms into the path of the juveniles. Long before those chicks are capable of flight, they will be transported by private jet sometime this week to Necedah so fledging and flight training both come on the territory chosen to be their nesting ground.
By that time, Clark and Lishman hope to have taught Sandhill chicks reared at Necedah to tolerate their mix-master of a surrogate mother. Those that adapt best will join the Patuxent chicks in a combined flock. The ultralight arrived in central Wisconsin June 12, purposely late to test whether, even without prior exposure, Sandhill chicks can be coaxed to follow an ultralight as they would an adult bird.
If they can, there are obvious advantages to a shorter exposure to the ultralights - less fuss, lower cost and minimized human contact. Richard Urbanek, project biologist, suggests that it might be possible to wait until the chicks are 60 days old to introduce them to the planes. Urbanek, who has researched Sandhills with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for years, says: "For the first month, they tend to be very attached to their parents. Then the second month, they're more interested in eating. After two months, they attach to their parents again." For Urbanek, an important question to be answered by this year's experiment with Sandhills is this: At the end of the process, will the cranes be wild?
In hopes that the answer will be "yes," the Necedah chicks, like those in Patuxent, have been reared according to a strict isolation protocol. That means that all humans coming anywhere near have to appear only in the all-enveloping gray coveralls. Hand puppets of adult cranes, each with a prominent red patch, (a visual signal for cranes) are used to show the chicks what to eat and to intervene between chicks who might try to peck each other.
Like the Patuxent chicks, those at Necedah have heard only crane sounds. But unlike the Patuxent chicks, those at Necedah had not heard the noise of the ultralight until June 12.
At first contact, the birds are "alert, apprehensive," Urbanek reports. However, the wary juveniles don't run away and hide even though they are not in a pen. The next day, the chicks are willing to come within a foot and a half of their Mix-master Mama. Recordings of the trilling purrs of an adult's contact call are played through a speaker on the plane. On the third day, they seem unconcerned even when Clark slowly, gradually moves the wingless ultralight forward. However, Clark says later, "Our experience has shown that their getting used to the noise is not the big problem. Following the airplane is the big problem." By the fourth day, chicks are released into a large circular pen like that used in Patuxent. Six of the birds flee to the wire fence farthest from the slowly moving plane. However, two of the downy juveniles run along with the ultralight, flapping their little wings.
It's not a trip to Florida, but it's a start
June 22, 2000
From the eggs that were shipped in early May to Patuxent Wildlife Research center in Laurel, MD we now have 14 Sandhill chicks for this years migration study. Reports from Dan Sprague indicate that the chicks are training very well. The expected ship date to the introduction site at Necedah, Wisconsin is June 29th. Once at the site the cranes will be housed in a huge pen adjacent to the runway and will take part in daily (weather permitting) taxi and flight training sessions with the ultralight.