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Whooping crane Migration - Field Reports - Please update your bookmarks
Date:Oct. 11, 2001
Location:Progress Report
Reporter:Heather Ray
Notes: Whew! My apologies for not updating in 10 days but it has been 10 days filled with the myriad responsibilities associated with getting everyone ready to migrate. The travel binders for the ground and flight teams have been assembled with contact info and maps of each stop-over location, as well as directions on how to reach each one from any number of the previous stops. This is necessary because even though we have a planned route, the plan could change at any moment for any reason: it could be a quick change in weather or a mechanical problem with the aircraft or it could be the birds that dictate where we will be stopping. For those reasons, we have to remain flexible. Along with the binders is a list of contact names/numbers (almost as large as the wingspan of the young birds Joe, Deke and Bill will be leading south); A supply of digital video tapes for capturing the adventure; And a special stuffed Whooping crane that will accompany the team via Joe's backpack. This crane will have the distinction of having flown with the first reintroduced migratory flock of real Whooping cranes into eastern North America! We've outfitted him with a backpack of his own, which holds several copies of a small but important message. 

Once the team arrives at the final destination in Florida, this crane will be given to at a local school. It is our hope that this crane will spark an interest in the children and instill a desire to learn more about not only Whooping cranes but also migration and the importance of preserving wetlands for the species that rely on them.  Then, like any migratory bird, this crane will feel the urge to keep moving, so we've requested in the printed message to pass him on to someone else; anyone, anywhere. And to please drop us a note (email or snail mail) at OM headquarters so that we can keep track of our traveling Sentinel crane as he, hopefully, travels the world educating people.

So, with the foliage putting on a beautiful fall display and frost on the ground most mornings, it can mean only one thing: Its time to migrate south! I'm certain that after years of leading various species south, the instinct is nearly as strong in Joe, Bill and Deke as it is in the birds. Everything is ready and everyone almost in place (Bill, Richard and Gord should arrive in Wisconsin early this evening, having left Ontario early this morning). And while the weather has not cooperated much this past week, Joe reports that last Sunday and again this morning, the birds flew as one cohesive flock for more than 20 minutes each flight so it would appear that even the young cranes are ready!

The scheduled date of departure has been set for this coming Monday, October 15th, at sunrise - weather permitting. Did I mention we have to remain flexible?

Date:Oct. 1, 2001
Location:Necedah Visit
Reporter:Heather Ray

Notes: Last week I had the privilege of visiting the crane-training site at the Necedah Wildlife Refuge. Shortly after arriving Tuesday afternoon I was immediately put to work; the travel pen had to be erected to include the new away-pen trailer. Joe and Dan wanted to have a trial-run with the new set up to ensure everything fit where it should so everyone pitched in and within an hour the camouflaged fabric panels were in place. Next came the top-netting: the net we have used in the past has been the victim of the suns damaging rays and it was time to replace it. Nothing but the best for these rare birds! After another half-hour of stretching, tugging and more stretching, we finally had the net in place over the posts that will secure it during the journey south. Richard Van Heuvelen, who is well over 6-feet tall was our "test-crane," walking beneath the netting to ensure the height was suitable for the Whooping cranes, which are much taller than last year's Sandhills.

With the net now sized perfectly, the edges were trimmed and all that's left to  do is to sew a matching camouflage panel into the center of it, which will provide the young birds with a shade shelter. Tracey Allen of the Friends of the Necedah Refuge has graciously volunteered the sewing skills of her and husband Jim for this Sunday (although I'm not sure Jim knows this yet). Once complete the plan is to fly the birds from site 1 over to the travel pen at site 2 and house them in it temporarily, allowing them time to become acquainted with it before migration begins.

With the travel pen finished, Deke and Dan drove over the site 1 to gather crane #4; box her up, and transport her over to site 2 for a short period of isolation/abandonment conditioning. As Joe reported last week, #4 is the smallest crane, who typically drops out of every flight and lands in the same spot in the marsh. The crew was hopeful that if she spent the night in the unfamiliar site 2 by herself, she would be more eager to stick with the trike that would lead her back to site 1 the next day. Unfortunately, the weather didn't cooperate fully the next morning and while Joe did manage to get her airborne, she just couldn't find the beneficial position behind the wing and they ended up flying for 6.5 min. in large circles over site 2. Crane #4 was destined to spend another night alone. The wind picked up soon after, leaving them with no opportunity to flight-train the remaining birds at site 1.

There were plenty of tasks to keep everyone busy though; that evening, refuge staff and the other partners of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership were hosting a donor appreciation event to thank the supporters of this project. Balloons had to be inflated; tables set up; lights strung and name tags to be made. Throughout the entire day the weather looked skeptical with winds blowing from the north but at 6pm, as if by some higher power, the winds calmed; allowing Deke and Joe to lead several of these special Whooping cranes in flight for the hushed crowd. No matter how many times I witness this image I watch with wonder and admiration for the field team: Dan, Deke and Joe, who sacrifice precious time with family and friends, so that they can spend several months living in less-than-ideal conditions to work the birds each day in utter silence, conditioning them to eventually get airborne with the tiny trikes. And when I see the reaction of the gathered crowd, I am filled with pride, knowing that in a very small way I am contributing to the survival of this grand species.

Everyone awoke at 5:30 the following morning with hopes that another training session could occur and fortunately the weather didn't let us down. First order of the day was to lead #4 back to site 1, ending her isolation sentence. It was breezy the previous morning, which made it difficult to accomplish, but this morning there was little or no wind and following a 3-minute flight, the lone bird was once again on familiar turf. Time will tell if she will now have a better appreciation for the aircraft, or if she is simply not a strong enough flyer to accompany the flock in migration. Next, Dan released the remaining cranes from the night pen for a flight with the two ultralights. With Joe and Deke revving the engines, the birds exited the pen, leaping and jumping with wings spread, in anticipation of a flight.  The flight lasted approximately 10 minutes and amazed the small crowd gathered in the blind. 

Following two days of meetings at ICF in Baraboo, WI. we headed north to Necedah on Friday afternoon to prepare for a second flyover event scheduled the following day for the public. This too, went off without a hitch and credit must go to the refuge staff in organizing both events. Without a doubt, the best part of the entire week occurred during this public event, where I finally had the opportunity to meet, in person, a few of the supporters that took the time to email us during last year's Sandhill migration.  As some of you will recall, last year I was chained to my desk, with only keyboard and telephone within reach. There I sat, filled with envy, while the rest of our team guided a flock of Sandhill cranes in a necessary "dress rehearsal" flight. Ah, but this year I get to travel along, acting as the third media/outreach person, from Tennessee through to final arrival in Florida! Stay tuned for tales from the road...

Date:Sept. 26, 2001
Location:Necedah Field Report
Reporter:Joe Duff

Notes: What a difference a Whooper makes

From the first time we took to the air and led a flock of Canada geese across Lake Ontario; over the mountains of Pennsylvania and into Virginia, the image of birds and aircraft has captured the hearts and minds of people everywhere. We continue to be amazed at the hospitality of everyone we have the good fortune to meet and the number of supporters this project has generated. This mix of grass-roots aviation; contemporary animal behaviour studies and the ancient ritual of migration has broadened the appeal and garners interest from birders, naturalists, pilots and adventurers everywhere - both armchair and active.
Well over one hundred newspaper articles carried this story last year, while we led our small flock of Sandhill cranes through the heartland of America and into Florida but it doesn't compare to the attention the Whooping cranes are receiving this season. 
Because of a strict isolation protocol designed to maintain wildness in these birds, they are sheltered from any human experience. Only a select few are allowed near them and each must serve a function or their presence is deemed unnecessary. This requirement has only heightened the mystique of a bird already revered for its rarity and reclusive behavior. The addition of a blind constructed into the berm at our main training site has opened an otherwise secret process, but the spectacle it is still not a public event. Each day, donors, biologists, researchers and members of the introduction team that are not involved with the field-work, crowd into the damp, dark enclosure that has yet to be made available to those with only a casual interest in Whooping cranes.

Maybe it's all the years that the Canada/U.S. Whooping Crane Recovery Team has worked to remove this species from the endangered list. Maybe it's the efforts of captive breeding centers such as the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and the International Crane Foundation that raise these birds in captivity until there are enough to be released back into the wild. Maybe it has to do with Operation Migration's adventures from earlier flights with geese - through a major motion picture - to a state of the art research project. Or, just maybe it is these magnificent birds that have steadfastly refused to accept the world as we see it and have survived; despite increasing pressures, and returned from the brink of extinction when mere 15 existed.

Deprived of the wetland habitat that once covered a larger portion of North America, prized by trophy hunters and collected as museum specimens, they have survived our thoughtlessness. In our era of heightened awareness, they have increased in numbers to an encouraging but precarious total population of fewer that 400. Whatever the reason, people the world over have followed our progress and been inspired by the tenacity of these rarest of rare birds; these elusive white ghosts of the wetland.

Despite the impressive collaboration of so many agencies and individuals within the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, this project is not only about safeguarding one bird. The Whooping crane has become the icon of endangered species and its salvation has inspired others and proved that our past mistakes can be corrected. Known in conservation circles as "charismatic mega-fauna," creatures as beautiful as Whooping cranes generate the interest that saves wetland habitat used not only by cranes but also a host of other creatures. The education of the next generation will help to change our attitude and make us realize that the world is not ours for the harvesting.

Focusing attention on a migratory species highlights the problems faced by millions of birds as they move across continents so divided by political borders that their conservation is assured in one area, yet ignored in another. Whooping cranes are only one small but crucial link in an interconnected circle of life but their beauty, mystique and stalwart determination to endure enables them to inspire us and makes them a keystone species. Our hopes to end the destruction and safeguard the world, as we know it, rests in no small way on the survival of Whooping cranes. 

Date:Sept. 23, 2001
Location:Necedah Field Report
Reporter:Joe Duff


Since the banding and medical examination of the birds two weeks ago, they have had an extended recovery period. Initially, they were not happy with us. We were the traitors that grabbed them and put hoods over their heads so they could not see the veterinarians. We were the bad guys that fastened tracking radios on one leg and plastic ID bands on the other. It took a number of days before they would trust us again; and then we faced bad weather for over a week. Then the recent ban on air travel left Deke stranded in Denver where he was visiting his family and Dan, back home in Maryland so our crew was abbreviated.
As well, the FAA placed a ban on all VFR flying. Many people asked why we should be grounded when we only operate ultralights but the explanation make sense and is well justified. All aircraft operate under either VFR (Visual Flight Rules) or IFR (Instrument Flight Rules). IFR aircraft, including airliners, use transponders that help the air traffic controller identify the "blip" on his or her radar screen. They also follow predetermined air routes, in an organized pattern. A controller, mindful of the tragedy that occurred on Sept. 11th can report any deviation from the expected course that an aircraft is supposed to fly. The only exception to this rule are VFR pilots who are not identified by transponders and are normally free to fly anywhere they please, once away from airports.
It is easy to see why the FAA wanted tighter restrictions and suspended VFR flight privileges. The ban has since been lifted and we are back to flight-training the birds. On Saturday, September 22, 7 of them flew for 8 1/2 minutes and spent most of that time surfing on the wing-tip wake. #4 is one of our smallest birds and typically drops out of every flight at the same spot in the marsh. It is hard to determine if she is physically impaired or just developing a bad habit. Our plan is to move her to site 2 by herself and leave her overnight; then use the aircraft to lead her back to site 1 and the rest of her flock the next morning. This type of abandonment conditioning has worked in the past and often encourages them to stick closer to the aircraft in the future; fearing they will be abandoned again. Also, by flying her back alone, she will have a chance to experience flying close to the aircraft and deriving benefit from the wake off the wing. She is normally last in line and has yet to feel the assistance the wing can provide. Once this test is complete we will know if more behaviour management is needed or if this bird is simply not a strong enough flyer to accompany us south.

Date:Sept. 12, 2001
Location:Necedah Field Report
Reporter:Joe Duff
Notes: Yesterday we assembled at 7 am to prepare for the medical examination and leg-banding that the birds must undergo prior to leaving on migration. We have yet to set a date for our departure but handling the birds is
so disruptive to their social order and their perception of us, so we prefer to get it out of the way at least a few weeks ahead of time. 

Barry Hartup, DVM from the International Crane Foundation headed the team of veterinarians, vet-techs and experienced handlers. We erected an open-sided tent to provide shade and the birds were collected one at a time from the pen. Once outside the pen they were hooded to prevent them from seeing the un-costumed staff. This allowed the vets to work unrestrained by the awkward costumes and headgear.

Each bird was checked, gave of its blood and received injections against Eastern Equine Encephalitis. Thereafter, they were fitted with radio tracking devices and coloured identification bands. This unfortunately, is a necessary, but slow process; requiring us to hold the birds still for 30 minutes or longer while the bands and radio are placed around the upper leg and glued together so they will not come off. The handlers are experienced and the birds are held securely, yet comfortably, with little effects except a wariness of us that lasts a few days. 

Despite their size, cranes are delicate creatures. Because of the nature of our study these birds are somewhat used to the infrequent handling, however, occasionally a bird will react negatively to the procedure and become over stressed. This was the case with bird number 11. The examination went smoothly but once this bird was returned to the pen, his behaviour indicated that all was not well. He was closely monitored for an hour or two and given fluids.

Expecting a cold night, we moved the bird to an enclosure at site 3 where we could provide a heat lamp. Despite our best efforts, the bird died just before midnight. The exact cause of death will be known after a necropsy is preformed by the National Wildlife Health Centre. Number 11 was the first bird in group 2 to follow the ultralight into the air and we are saddened by the loss. Each member of the medical team did their job well and no mistakes were made so we must accept that some things are beyond our control. We take consolation in the fact that fewer of these birds would have survived this long in the wild.

When we initially transported all ten birds from Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland to Necedah, two of them were subjects of our concern. Both 4 and 9 had wing problems and were unable to hold them in the proper folded positions. After much discussion, it was decided to ship them anyway and see if they progressed. 

Over the summer, we have been pleasantly surprised at the improvements made by both birds. Until recently, they appeared to have fully recovered, however, during the last few training sessions we have noticed both of these birds seem to have much less endurance than the others. 

While examining them, Barry was able to get a close look at their wings and to feel the smoothness of the joint movements. Although it is too early to tell, the development of #9ís feathers is not promising. Growing feathers is not easy for a bird and if it is under stress, fault lines or defects will appear in the portion of the feather that is developing at the time. Later, it is possible to see these weaknesses as lines across the feather and estimate how much stress the bird was under during the growth period. The primary and tail feathers on #9 are a cross work of lines resulting in a weakness that may inhibit it's ability to fly any great distance. We still have a few weeks left in the season for training but it is not encouraging. #4 had fewer stress bars and itís wing joints felt smoother so we remain hopeful.

Date:Sept. 11, 2001
Location:Necedah Field Report
Reporter:Joe Duff
Notes: What happened to our summer? It seems like only a month ago that ten Whooping crane chicks hatched at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and Dan Sprague introduced them to our aircraft. It seems like only weeks ago they arrived at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge and it was only the other day that they first took to the air. But despite our abbreviated perception the season has progressed and the dog days of August, when wearing the costume in 110 degree heat was torturous, are behind us. The air is cooler now and the trees are showing the tell tale signs of autumn. It is time to prepare for migration. 

All summer long our planned departure date has been the most asked question. The Migration team wants to know because many are volunteers and must schedule time off; the Health Team must perform the pre-migration medical examination; the Outreach Team is working on a departure event and all the bird watchers along the route are anxious to know what date we will be passing over their home town. 

So far our answer has been as general as the month of October. Anything more accurate would have been only a guess. To allow more time for the Regulatory Team to steer the approval process through Washington, we used eggs from a later hatch period. This put us behind from the start, and to further complicate the matter, Whooping cranes are slower to mature than Sandhills, taking longer to fledge. Referring to our notes from last year, it would appear that we are a month behind, however, once fledged, whooping cranes develop faster and their flight endurance increases rapidly when the weather cools.

The only existing wild flock must lead their chicks from the nesting grounds in northern Canada before the early onset of winter and this physiological trait may put us back of schedule. Many things must happen before we depart Wisconsin and how long they will take is pure speculation. Our health check is scheduled for today and the birds will be fitted with tracking devices at the same time. It is certain they will not be pleased with us for a few days and not likely to follow the aircraft well. We raised the chicks in two small cohorts of 5 birds each at separate locations a mile apart. Last week, we brought them together for the first time and it will be a while before they begin to socialize and establish the proper dominance order. Their flight endurance now is around 8 minutes but it is hard to say how long it will be before they can fly for 50 miles at a time.

For now, we will have to keep our answers vague but if all goes well, maybe by early October, we will be headed south. 

Time will tell...

Date:Sept. 6, 2001
Location:Necedah Field Report
Reporter:Dan Sprague
Notes: A group of FWS Biologists met us to observe training this morning. We worked the younger group 1 first. #7, 10 and 11 caught the wing and remained in a tight group for 4.5 minutes landing with the trike.

After a couple minutes of rest and foraging with Robo-crane, Deke took-off for a second flight and they continued in a less than tight formation for an additional 4 minutes. #9 attempted to take off both times with Deke, but sat down on the end of the strip before ever leaving the runway. Her left wing is drooping slightly. #4 broke away both times after a Ĺ circuit and returned to the pen. His left wing was also drooping slightly and he was showing signs of fatigue. Perhaps the unintentional extended flight of yesterday, due to the stuck throttle, overworked #4 and 9's previously injured wings. Deke and I discussed separating them out of the main group and working them separately as a possible solution. 

Group 2 continued to show improvement, flying in formation on the wing for an initial flight of 6 minutes and a second flight of 3.5.  This time they were easier to coax into the pen. Each time one group was flying with the trike, the others, in the pen, were pacing and crying with excitement. Each group spent half the day in the day pen (4-5 hours) and the other half out foraging on their own.

Date:Sept. 5, 2001
Location:Necedah Field Report
Reporter:Dan Sprague
Notes: Our plan was to fly group two cranes across the lake and move them into their new location at site 1-B. On Deke's cue, Sara released the birds at site two and I waited for them to arrive with the trike at site one. On the first attempt, three birds circled back, returning to the familiarity of the pen, while cranes 2 and 3 stayed on the wing and landed with Deke at their new location.

After penning these two, Deke returned to site two and took-off a second time with the cranes that had turned back; #1, 5 and 6. This time they stayed on the wing and landed at site one with Deke. The birds were alert to their new surroundings but did forage with Robo-crane. We could lead close to the pen, but ultimately, they had to be herded through the pen gate.

Total flight-time across the lake; 3.5 minutes.

With the 5 birds from site two now secured in their new pen, we trained group one birds next. All five birds took-off with Deke. After a five-minute flight Deke came in on a landing approach, however, the throttle appeared to be stuck and he had to go up again. #10 and 11 continued with the trike for an extended flight of about 5 minutes. #4, 7 and 9 landed on the first approach.

Group 1 was let out of the day pen for approximately 3 hours and allowed to fly and forage on their own. When I moved them back into the pen, I released cohort 2 for 3 hours, which allowed them to explore the wetland on their own.

There was little interaction through the fence and no aggressive behaviour or threat posturing was observed. A successful introduction!

Date:Sept. 4, 2001
Location:Necedah Field Report
Reporter:Dan Sprague
Notes: This morning we trained site #1 birds first. Two birds dropped out early; #'s 4 and 7 but cranes 11, 10 and 9 stayed with the trike for 3-4 minutes and landed with Deke. #9 showed great improvement. I was able to get an approximate following order for for our records. The older birds at site 2 continued to show improvement, following Deke for over 5 minutes in a tight group on the wing and landing with him. I was able to get a complete following order for the first time. 

Deke and I decided that we would attempt to fly group 2 over to site 1 tomorrow, which will give us one flock of 10. Sara and I prepared site 1-B for their arrival the next morning. This way, each cohort will be in separate sections of the large pen, while still being able to view each other through the fencing. This will allow them to interact through the fence and help us to monitor any aggressive behaviour that may result.

Date:Sept. 4, 2001
Location:Report - Necedah/Green Bay
Notes: We returned very early this morning from a trip that began in Necedah last Wednesday. After a sleepless night spent listening to some rather loud thunderstorms pass through the area, everyone fell out of bed at 5am with doubts that training would take place given the soggy conditions. But today the crew had visitors; several members of Wild Birds Unlimited had traveled from Indiana to witness a training session from the blind that WBU had funded through the Friends of Necedah group. Everyone gathered at the OM trailer-park near the refuge annex; some looking far too cheery and others (myself included), hoping that once introductions were made, names would quickly be forgotten, at least until we had a chance to shower. Occasionally, everyone would glance up, waiting for the sky to brighten so that Joe and Deke could determine if a training session would be the reward for rising so early. 

After a few minutes, the crew decided that training would indeed take place so everyone crowded into the two refuge vehicles and ventured out to site #1 to await Joe's arrival in the trike. During our brief wait we were lucky to view an immature Bald Eagle in a nearby tree, who departed hastily once the ultralight arrived.  Once inside the blind we were all witness to an inspiring display of man assisting nature, with Joe lifting off the grass training strip in the tiny trike, with five gangly young whooping cranes in tow, following him in circuits over their large pen for approximately 4.5 minutes. This provided some great photo opportunities to those of us sequestered in the blind. 

Following the session, we packed up the aircraft trailer with merchandise and Joe's aircraft then traveled to Green Bay, WI to participate in the Midwest Birding Symposium. We met some wonderful people at the show who were very enthusiastic about this project. This show is very well organized and I encourage any birders that have not yet attended a Midwest Birding Symposium to consider attending the next show scheduled for 2003.

Date:Aug. 24, 2001
Location:Field Report - Necedah
Reporter:Joe Duff & Dan Sprague
Notes: When the leaves on the trees hang perfectly still and the air is as calm as a sleeping baby, ultralight pilots begin to get excited. Smooth-air to a pilot, is like glassy-water to a canoeist and it's also ideal for training birds. 

For several mornings now the tranquil conditions have teased us but the lingering fog has kept us firmly on the ground, increasing our anxiety the longer the interruption in training lasts. During the field training season there are several markers we use to measure our progress and the development of the birds and thus far, all signs are good. 

Although our fledglings are only able to fly for a minute or two at a time, we can see that they are desperately trying to follow us. The increasing volume of the engine motivates them and they open their wings to charge down the runway after the departing ultralight. We try to make a tight circle around the pen and land again before they run out of energy. Many of them make the complete circuit with us but some are still too young and drop out as their strength is depleted. They land in the marsh but as soon as they are able, fly to re-join the aircraft on the runway. It is this kind of behaviour that encourages us; it instills the confidence that we can eventually make this work. But the fog eats away at their training time and interferes with their daily exercise, which will increase their strength, so we have begun letting them out to fly on their own when the air is too thick for us to leave the ground.

Last year's Sandhill crane study was a model for this one. It was used to set the protocol we are now supposed to be following. By this time a year ago, the
Sandhill cranes were spending much of the day out of their pen and looking after themselves. So far we have not had the nerve to try it with these birds. In defense of our actions, you have to understand that these Whooping cranes are from a later hatch and not as well developed as the Sandhills were by this time. And lets face it, these are Whooping cranes!  We have ten of only 400 individuals that exist... They are juveniles not yet wise to the ways of the world and we are as reluctant to turn them loose as any over-protective parent. We often see wolf tracks close to the pen. A daylight attack is unlikely but still a threat exists, however, they will not learn to cope with the threat, basking in the protection of a fortified pen, so out they go. This is more easily said than accomplished and after two attempts, has not yet been successful. 

Dan Sprague released the Site 1 birds into the marsh and spent an hour or so probing and foraging in the muck with them; all the things a crane loves to do. Slowly, they gained confidence and moved farther away until Dan was able to quietly escape to the nearby bushes. He crouched and crawled combat-style to avoid detection and slowly made his way toward the blind. This was accomplished in full costume on a hot and humid day. His costume was wet, his feet were soaked and he was in desperate need of fluids.  He was only feet from the blind when the birds noticed his absence and took-off, landing by his side. The blind is built into a berm and we park the trucks on the far side, out of their view. Not wanting the birds to see this human environment, he ran down
the hill toward the pen to intersect them. It was an hour later that he finally put them back in the pen and was able to remove his hot and sticky costume. 

The procedure worked better at Site 2, which may have something to do with the pen location. The water on Rynearson Pool is lower than normal, which unfortunately, leaves Site #2 high and dry. These birds do not have the benefit of a flooded day pen so are more anxious to head to the marsh. Once released, they took-off immediately flying one hundred yards to their favourite wetland. It would only be a few minutes before they would return to find us but in that time we had made our escape. We left them out for several hours then both Dan and I returned to the site to retrieve them. We walked in from the road as usual and were surprised to not see them next to the pen. Our anxiety grew as we scanned the marsh and headed to where they were last seen.

Their favoured spot is hidden by tall grasses and we were getting nervous as we moved closer and could not see them. Once they heard the soft brood-call coming from the recorders we carry in our costumes, up popped five heads and they followed us back to the pen like puppies anxious to please. A few more sessions like that and maybe we can relax the way we did last year, confident that they are learning to behave like wild Whooping cranes. 
Joe Duff

And from Dan: I'm often asked during interviews: "what is your favorite part?" 
In a project of this magnitude, with so many elements; so much travel; and such a diverse group of people to work and celebrate with, I have often thought "there is no way to answer this one." That was until a day or so ago, when I had what some might call a moment of clarity and realized it was as simple and obvious to me as it would be if the cranes were asked the same question.

My favorite part...
As I stand in the marsh among the cranes probing the mud with the bill of my puppet, once in a while and without cognizance I begin to slip away. The rhythmically soothing chortling of the whooper colts in response to the soft contact calls emanating from the recorder in my pocket becomes almost hypnotic. 
All of the concerns of the day in my human life dissipate like the morning fog in the shallow eastern sun. After uprooting and pulverizing the stalk of a freshly sprouted cattail, a few young whoopers wading on either side are interested in what I have been methodically pecking at two inches beneath the waters surface...a succulent snail or water beetle? Another playfully bathes then orderly preens each feather with long graceful strokes, in between loading the bill with oil from the uropygial gland like an artist wetting the tip of his paintbrush on his pallet. 
Never has the canvas looked so beautiful. Just as it has been for hundreds of thousands of years we forage among the tamaracks to echoing calls of distant
sandhills and bellowing herons. I have no name. I am recognized by my stature, the familiar voice projecting from my pocket, my dark rubber boots, the loose white bag that conceals my humanity and an imitation crane head that has become an extension of my arm. There are no thoughts about tomorrow; only here and now with the assurance of comfort in the unity of our small flock.
Dan Sprague

Date:Aug. 23, 2001
Reporter:Heather Ray
News:Field Report - Necedah
Notes: Dan reports that with heavy fog this morning and thunderstorms yesterday, the birds have had a two-day break from their training schedule. However, on Tuesday morning, refuge staff member Jennifer Rabuck, captured this photo, which clearly shows the five younger cranes at site #1 following along with the ultralight aircraft.

Joe reports that the five older birds at site #2 are also flying very well with the trike and that he will send an update as soon as he gets a few spare minutes to compile one... right Joe?

Date:Aug. 8, 2001
Location:OM Headquarters
Reporter:Heather Ray
News:Field Report - Necedah
Notes: Lift off - We have lift off!
Joe reports that over the course of the last few days the birds at site #2 have been getting more and more air-time during the early morning sessions. In fact yesterday morning, a couple even followed him while he led them on a low circuit around the training site and landed with the trike on the grass strip.

A few times last week the birds that would start out following the airborne trike in this same circuit, at times decided to land in the wetland area adjacent their pen, instead of landing with the aircraft back at the starting point. To curtail this and to prevent it from becoming habit, the "swamp-monster" was born; This meant that either Dan Sprague or Deke Clark, cloaked in a camouflage tarpaulin would be stationed in the wetland. Once Joe was airborne with the birds, if it looked as if the cranes might have plans to land in the marsh, the swamp-monster would rise up from its hiding place and quickly convince the young birds to stick to the original flight plan instead. 

The younger cranes at site #1 also continue with daily conditioning sessions and are quickly catching up to the older group. 


Date:Aug. 2, 2001
Location:OM Headquarters
Reporter:Heather Ray
News:Flight school begins
Notes: The gangly young cranes arrived at the Necedah refuge on July 10 and following a brief health exam, were divided into two cohorts, according to hatch dates, then transported in a climate controlled van to the newly enlarged pens at sites #1 and #2.

The crew decided to allow the birds a day to get accustomed to their new surroundings and on July 12, brought each group out of the pens and introduced them to their respective training strips. Since they already were familiar with both the aircraft and the costumed handler, the cranes have adapted quite well.

Early each day, when weather permits, the crew rises with the sun and quietly travels to the first site, to conduct the training session. In the days immediately following their arrival at the refuge, the birds would work with the wingless aircraft; following the taxiing trike for the length of the grass strip.  

The young cranes have developed their primary feathers so at times, one or two would even catch a bit of air and glide for a few feet.  

When the session is complete, the crew travels to the next site to begin the process again, with the other cohort. 

Joe reports that the wing was added to the regime a week ago and while both cohorts were a bit nervous and cautious at first, they have accepted the new addition and are continuing their training sessions.  

Date:July 10, 2001
Location:Necedah National Wildlife Refuge
Reporter:Joe Duff
News:And so it begins again...
Notes: It is early summer and the ten Whooping crane chicks that have been raised at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland are approaching fledging age. In the life cycle of a bird there are a number of geographic locations that play important roles. One of which, is the natal area where their life begins. In the wild, the fledging grounds where they learn to fly, is normally very close to the area where the birds hatch.

Earlier research has shown us that birds can be raised at a captive breeding center, such as Patuxent or the International Crane Foundation in Wisconsin and then transported to the site selected for their introduction, as long as the move takes place before they learn to fly. They seem to focus on the first
location they can explore from the air and are driven to return there year after year. The site of their fledging will eventually become their nesting grounds.
With cranes this is true at least for the males. When they reach breeding age, male birds in a wild population will pair bond with an unattached female from a different flock and lead them back to the area of their origin. Accordingly, his female siblings will bond with males from other regions and follow them north to their preferred habitat. This simple gender preference guarantees the distribution of the genetic lines and minimizes inbreeding.

Our birds are almost ready to fly and today the young birds will be relocated to Wisconsin to begin their flight training. The staff and volunteers at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge have worked hard to prepare for their arrival. The pens used last year had to be refurbished, following a harsh winter with unusually heavy snow loads. Before departing on our fall migration last year, we spoke to Mike Belsky of the Necedah maintenance crew. We gave him our wish list of things we would like to see improved for this year. This spring he and his team doubled the size of the night pens at Site 1 and installed top nets over a 7500 sq. foot wetland area that the birds will use during the day. Harold Carter used heavy equipment to extend the runway and to landscape around the blind that the group, Friends of Necedah & Wild Birds Unlimited have funded. 

The blind is new this year, giving biologists and those needing to monitor bird behaviour, a hidden location from which to do so.  It started out as a simple idea; construct an enclosed blind, into the berm so it wonít be too noticeable. However, this is Federal land and as such, all buildings must meet curtain requirements. The selected site needed an archaeological study and the building plans had to have an engineers stamp of approval. A full-scale effort orchestrated by Tracy & Jim Allen and the other volunteer Friends of Necedah produced the "Hilltop Hilton;" designed for your viewing pleasure. This world-class blind offers something no other can; a view of the first free-flying Whooping cranes in eastern North America in over a hundred years. It is our hope that possibly next year, we may be able to accommodate a small number of public visitors but for now, we'd like to work out all the kinks first.

Date:July 5, 2001
Reporter:OM Headquarters
News:Ground school
Final approval has been granted and the young Whooping crane chicks continue their training schedule. Under the tutelage of Dan Sprague, Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, the chicks attend class whenever weather allows.

A circular enclosure, consisting of a two-foot high fence is used during this training exercise. The young bird is placed inside the circle-pen and the costumed pilot slowly taxies the aircraft around the perimeter.  

Using a puppet head, resembling an adult Whooping crane, the chicks are encouraged to follow the trike, which is on the outside of the enclosure. This puppet head is affectionately referred to as "Robo-crane" because it has the ability to drop tasty mealworms for the birds which act as a reward for following.

Notice the speaker mounted on the frame of the trike in the above photo? Recorded, adult crane vocalizations are used to communicate with the birds. To learn more about the language of cranes please visit Dr. Bernhard Wessling's site: Craneworld.

Date:June 29, 2001
Reporter:OM Headquarters
News:Good to GO!
An ambitious task...From the beginning it has been an ambitious task. Develop a method to teach migration routes to endangered Whooping cranes; work out the behavioral techniques needed to encourage the birds to follow our ultralight aircraft over 1200 miles; conduct the entire study in isolation to keep the birds from associating with humans and convince both the Canada and United States governments that the scheme would work; and that was only the beginning. Once the idea was accepted, introduction sites were found, and a preliminary study with non-endangered Sandhill cranes was conducted to test the procedures, and most daunting of all -- approval sought from two Countries; including two Provinces, two Flyway Councils and twenty States. By any measure, the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP), a consortium of nine government and private agencies, has accomplished a great deal in the two years of its existence.

Convenient or not, nature has a specific calendar. Whooping crane chicks hatch in the spring and if the reintroduction was to begin this year, the WCEP Project Direction Team had a tight deadline. They selected the end of June as the Drop Dead date. If the permits and approval from all jurisdictions were in place, if the preliminary studies had been successful and if the necessary funds raised, the reintroduction will begin. If not we will start again next year.

Down to the Wire - U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Gale Norton will hold a press conference at Patuxent Wildlife Visitor's Center early next week. Secretary Norton will announce that the final rule submitted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, authorizing this experiment, was published in the Federal Register on June 26, 2001.

In preparation, at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, ten young Whooping crane chicks are slowly forming an attachment to the ultralight aircraft that is their surrogate parent. Before they learn to fly they will be transported to the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin. In the fall they will follow our aircraft south and if all goes as planned they will return, on their own, next spring.

Operation Migration is by far the smallest organization within the partnership and we are responsible for raising our share of the overall budget. To conduct the fieldwork, and lead these precious cranes on the 1200-mile migration, our costs will exceed $300,000.00. To date, we have raised half of this sum and are working diligently to raise the shortfall. Two weeks ago we mailed out an urgent appeal and our thanks goes out to everyone who answered our call - the result was an additional $5,000.00 raised. We would also like to thank the Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund for their continued support of our work. We're still short but we will carry on and hope that all will work out in the end.

Onward & Upward!

Date:June 8, 2001
Reporter:OM Headquarters
News:Whooping cranes


The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership includes more than sixty people from the nine founding organizations; each contributing to one or more of the six sub teams. Coordinating a project of this size, in only a few short years, is an incredible task. Two countries -- involving 20 States & 2 Provinces, are working as one; to restore a migratory population of these rare cranes to eastern North America.

As you can imagine, many hurdles have already been cleared and we now find ourselves down to the final four, with the go or no-go date, set for the end of this month.

We are awaiting final approval from the Department of the Interior on the proposed Federal ruling change, which would designate these particular Whooping cranes as an "experimental, non-essential population." The proposed rule was published to the Federal register in early March, along with the Environmental Impact Assessment. The public comment period ended 45-days later and the ruling is now working its way through system, with results expected soon.

When dealing with Whooping cranes, a limited number of eggs are available and each one is precious. An adult whooper will normally lay two eggs each season; generally only one chick survives. However, if eggs are lost to a predator early in the season, the bird will sometimes produce another set. Known as "double-clutching," researchers can take advantage of this natural safeguard, to increase the number of birds produced in captivity. There are ten breeding pairs in the captive flock at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland and this spring they produced 55 eggs.

We knew several things had to fall into place before this study could begin so to give us extra time to get our "cranes in row," we decided to select chicks from the latest hatchings. Pending approval, by the time they are ready to be shipped to central Wisconsin in July, we will have a better idea of the sample size we may be working with.

The draught in Florida a problem, with no immediate relief in sight -- the ramification to our project is that the once prime areas, selected for a release-pen has now dried up and is no longer usable. As the supply of fresh water diminishes, the salt marshes of the Chassahowitzka NWR become saltier. Introduced birds will have to find a natural water source that they can visit daily, or we will have to provide fresh water for them - until they learn the ropes. Tom Stehn, Co-Chair of the Whooping Crane Recovery Team and Steve Nesbitt, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission met with Refuge Manager, Jim Kraus and others last week to search for a new site.

Lastly, but equally important, is our ongoing funding concern. Our total cost to participate in the project, to determine and investigate the new migration route; to provide the field team, necessary to train the young birds to accept and follow our aircraft while we lead them to Florida is $334,690.00. To date we have firm commitments for $100,000.00. This leaves us with a shortfall of $234,690.00 and a very limited period in which to raise the required funds. This is an opportunity to step forward and help. If you believe in the work we have accomplished thus far with the ultralight-led technique and wish to help safeguard the Whooping crane from extinction won't you consider sending a donation? Your contribution will go directly to the project and will make a difference.

Until one of these issues stops us in our tracks, we will proceed on the faith that all will work out. Within the last few weeks, eleven valued eggs hatched to the recorded sounds of an ultralight aircraft engine and the purring of an adult crane. Once old enough to be moved to the aviary they were placed individually in pens next to adult Whooping cranes, to ensure sexual imprinting on the correct species. Within a few days they were introduced to the aircraft for the first time; Dan Sprague is lead trainer for this portion of the study and he has noted some differences between these whooper chicks and the Sandhill cranes we raised last year. When distressed, Whooping crane colts prefer to stay close to the costumed parent while Sandhill chicks will hide in long grass, until the danger passes. Consequently, when the young birds are first introduced to the aircraft, their response to their initial fear is to follow the surrogate more closely, unlike the Sandhills that would run in the opposite direction and hide. This makes the process simpler and the Whoopers, on their first training session, act like the Sandhills did on their third.

We take this encouragement in stride and tackle each remaining obstacle one at a time; we've come a long way and we are close... very close.

Date:May 1, 2001
Reporter:OM Headquarters

Last Friday, April 27th, 2001 a flock of Sandhill cranes, all wearing radio transmitters descended upon the grass strip they had trained on during last years field season...

Sandhill cranes are ancient creatures. Fossil evidence indicates that these birds have existed relatively unchanged for nine million years. They have witnessed the freeze and thaw of myriad ice ages and survived the coming of mankind. For nine thousand millennia they may have moved north and south with the changing seasons passing the knowledge of migration from one generation to the next. With such well developed instincts, the return of the birds we led south should not be surprising, yet we marvel at the incredibility of a journey that in the avian world is commonplace. 

Dr. Richard Urbanek had intended to track these birds north but their departure came without notice and took him by surprise. The radio transmitters they carry have a range of 15 miles on a good day, making a search of the 1250 miles between Wisconsin and Florida impractical. We pondered and speculated and held meetings to discuss our options; we checked all the known staging areas where wild birds gather and kept a listening watch at the northern terminus. For 62 days they remained at large, practicing their wildness and avoided humans while we used terms like "missing" and "unaccounted for." 

Much more exciting than their predictable return is their apparent wildness. When Dr. Urbanek picked up the signal in central Wisconsin he tracked them north and eventually into the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge. He drove to the training area where they first learned to fly and before he realized it they took off, alarmed at his presence. Twice that same afternoon the birds were flushed into the air by the approach of humans proving their wariness and validating our methods.

The appropriate behaviour of these birds and their unaided return is timely. It coincides with the close of the public hearings that will assist the U.S. Department of the Interior in its decision to let the reintroduction proceed. It is the "icing on the cake" the "I told you so" that makes us proud of our extra effort. This happy ending will help generate the public support that is so important; allowing us to make the long-term commitment to safeguarding Whooping cranes. 

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