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We gratefully acknowledge the support of our sponsors.

The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership
is responsible for conducting this reintroduction. To learn more about the unique partnership and each member click here.

Now you can donate online through CanadaHelps.org! CanadaHelps accepts and processes credit card donations and forwards these to OM, without keeping a fee. 

2002 Spring & Summer

2002 Winter/Spring | Spring & Summer | Fall
2001 Spring | Fall


Date:October 5, 2002
Reporter:Heather Ray
Activity:A Break

Notes: This morning brought clear skies and cold temps with no wind, so after a quick cup of coffee everyone scurried about the camp: some, gathering flight gear and costumes and others, binoculars and camera equipment. The plan was to lead the flock from the east site over to the north site - accomplishing two objectives. Firstly, the water circulation through the east site is not quite adequate due to limited rainfall earlier in the season. With the increased number of birds the water in a couple areas of the enclosure has become stagnant, which could pose a health risk. Secondly, anticipating public and media turnout of our departure this Thursday, having the cranes situated at the north site would provide a better viewing of the departure as the aircraft leads them to the first of many stopover sites south of here.

Three aircraft appeared over the tree tops -- Richard stayed aloft, circling and keeping a watchful eye. Brooke took the lead position as Dan and Mark released the birds, trying to delay their exit to allow any birds that were at the far back of the pen to make it out for the group lift-off. With the larger group this year, timing of the release has become an issue in that if there are one or two young cranes that don't make it out with the rest of the group they may have a difficult time catching up to the flock and could get discouraged and turn back. 

Joe was in the chase position, further back on the training strip and ready to pick up any birds that might drop out or turn back. After broadcasting the contact call several times from the speaker mounted to his aircraft, Brooke applied full throttle and pushed out on the bar, raising the tip of the delta wing as he gathered speed for take-off. Within a very short distance he was airborne and all around him flew 17 mostly white, with the odd patch of caramel, crane colts.

The strange entourage traveled north over Rynearson pond -- three small yellow aircraft accompanied by the feathered flyers, while all around the marsh smaller flocks of migratory birds rose up out of their foraging and roosting areas no doubt uneasy about the noise of the aircraft. Skeins of geese and ducks filled the blue sky and smaller cohorts of Sandhill cranes passed overhead giving those of us on the ground reason to wonder what they thought of the spectacle that had just passed by them.

The planes and cranes continued north and we could tell the air was becoming unstable as birds began falling back. They were getting jostled about and having difficulty forming a chevron behind the aircraft. Three birds dropped down off the main flock and Joe moved in to pick up these three while Brooke continued with the ten that were still attempting to follow him. After a few more minutes Joe was able to catch Brooke and pass the three cranes back to him.

Brooke veered right, heading toward the north site with at first, all seventeen youngsters in tow but soon after, one crane decided she didn't want to land at this site and changed her course, heading back to the east site. Crane #3 is the same bird that needed some convincing to leave the west site three weeks ago when the flock was combined and relocated as one cohort at the larger east site.

Several times, Joe had to intercept this rebel crane as she attempted to return to site one and eventually his persistence won out and he led her over to join the rest of her flock mates, which had by now landed with Brooke.

Beginning tomorrow, Oct. 6th we will have a new Field Journal page, which will be kept current during the migration as well as a new migration Photo Journal page, which will feature images taken each day of the trek. Please update your bookmarks accordingly so you don't miss any of the action.

Date:October 4, 2002
Reporter:Heather Ray
Activity:t-RAIN-ing Update

Notes: The one good thing about sleeping in a travel trailer is that you get a sense of the weather before crawling out of the sleeping bag and the past two mornings, we could hear fat raindrops hitting the aluminum roof over our heads.
Joe, Richard and I arrived late Wednesday night after a long 13-hour drive from Ontario. At one point during the drive they began commiserating about the many times they have driven the same route this past summer.  I reminded them that this was the last time they would have to do it this year, and that for the next few weeks they'd be trading the drivers seat for the seat of an ultralight and wouldn't have to worry about traffic congestion on the way to Florida. Both seemed content for the remainder of the drive...
Since it also rained on Wednesday morning the cranes have had a 3-day break in their training regime at a time when the field team would prefer they fly as often as possible to both build endurance and continue to sort out their flight order. 

Date:Sept. 30, 2002
Reporter:Heather Ray
Activity:Getting Ready...

Notes: It seems as if we only recently returned from Crystal River, FL and the conclusion of last year's migration flight, yet here we are again, only a week and a half away from the launch of this year's journey.  The decision was made last week to delay the departure from Necedah NWR by three days, until Oct. 10th. This will allow the young crane colts a few more training flights, which will help to build their flight endurance. The delay will also give us three additional days to complete the many tasks required before our departure from central Wisconsin.

When the field team isn't training or tending to the cranes they are busy putting the finishing touches to travel enclosures, and equipment. Routine aircraft maintenance is a must and vehicles and travel trailers must be readied for the long trip south.

As you can well imagine, organizing a journey like this can be a logistical nightmare and there are numerous people within the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership necessary to carry it out. Here's a rundown of how the migration will work:

MIGRATION CREW... In the air

Lead and Chase Positions:
Operation Migration (OM) pilots will fly ultralight aircraft, often referred to as “trikes” because of the three landing wheels on each. These ultralights are Cosmos, Phase II Trikes, powered by Rotax 503 engines. OM co-founder and migration team leader, Joe Duff will be joined this year by fellow pilots Brooke Pennypacker and Richard van Heuvelen and the three will trade-off the lead and chase positions over the course of the 1,250 mile journey. Each “Trike” is equipped with a Global Positioning System unit, which ensures that they do not stray off the intended route. These small planes weigh just over 350 pounds and feature a 19-meter wing surface, allowing the lead and chase pilots to fly as slow as a crane (between 32-38 mph) but to increase speed in case one of them needs to intercept any wayward birds. With a full fuel tank the trikes are capable of flying 2 - 2 1/2 hours, depending on wind/weather conditions.

Scout Position:
OM co-founder Bill Lishman will fly the scout position in his Cosmos Trike. The only difference between Bill’s trike and the others is that Bill’s sports a 14-meter wing, allowing a faster flight envelope and quicker maneuvering. Bill will fly ahead of Joe, Brooke, Richard and the cranes so that he is able to find alternate landing locations should the need arise and to ensure that each intended destination is free of humans and other possible disturbances to the young cranes that must be kept isolated.

Top-Cover Position:
Volunteers Don & Paula Lounsbury have flown “top-cover” for OM during past migration studies with Canada geese, Sandhill cranes and Whooping cranes. Both Don & Paula are licensed pilots and fly a Cessna 182 aircraft. They are able to be in constant radio contact with the OM ground crew, as well as the ultralight pilots and airport control towers and are able to convey messages between everyone in case things don’t go according to plan. Don & Paula provide reports necessary to complete the journey; from weather changes and possible obstacles, to aircraft control zones and other private aircraft that may be passing through an area that we intend to take the cranes to.

MIGRATION CREW... On the ground

This year, two travel pen units will be used by the ground support crew, allowing a pen team to leapfrog ahead of the flight crew. By the time the cranes leave one stopover site, an enclosure will already be in place at the next location. This will reduce the amount of time the flight crew must hold the birds at the new location waiting for the pen to be dismantled at the previous stopover, moved ahead and re-assembled. Previously during this holding period the pilots at times had to lead the birds through inappropriate habitat to find isolated areas to wait for the ground crew to arrive and this may have acclimated the birds to brush and tall grass habitat where predators are more common. Having two pen-crews will eliminate the need for a pick-up team whose responsibility in the 2001 migration south was to deal with birds that dropped out of the migration. With a pen will already be in place at the arrival location, either pen-crew will be available to search for errant birds. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center’s Dan Sprague and Brian Clauss will each be responsible for one of the two travel enclosures.

In addition to the above units, which provide accommodation for the young cranes, three homes away from home will be used, providing accommodation for the human contingent of the migration. Finally, in order to return the aircraft and necessary equipment from Florida to Operation Migration headquarters in Ontario at the conclusion of the journey, a large aircraft trailer will accompany the entourage. OM intern Mark Nipper will drive Deke Clark's motor home, which Deke generously allowed us to us this year despite his absence and Kelly MacGuire from the International Crane Foundation will drive the vehicle, which hauls the aircraft/equipment trailer.

Chuck Underwood from USFWS Jacksonville Field Office and Heather Ray from Operation Migration will accompany the team, providing outreach and education along the flyway in addition to coordinating media requests and providing daily updates.

Landing Protocol:
As the pilots guiding the young cranes approach the intended destination, Bill Lishman, in the scout aircraft will fly ahead and circle the landing area, providing a visual target for the lead and chase position pilots. Bill then lands and ensures that the area is secure and free of humans. Once he is assured there are no dangers present, he communicates this to the still airborne pilots.  Before landing, the lead pilot will likely circle each location once or twice, providing the birds a chance to become familiar with the surroundings of each new stopover. Once safely on the ground the cranes will be sequestered in the overnight predator-proof enclosure and provided fresh food and water. There are a total of 38 possible stopovers along the migration path, with approximately 20-60 miles between each. 

Of the many air and ground vehicles needed to carry out the ultralight-led migration, three trucks have been provided courtesy of Daimler Chrysler and Dodge and are on loan to us for the duration of the southward journey. A fourth truck - a Ford F350 - was made possible through a generous donation from the Darden Environmental Trust Fund and the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin and the new 32-foot aircraft trailer has been funded by Phillips Petroleum and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. 

Three members of the flight team will be piloting brand new ultralight aircraft, one of each made possible through the Wild Birds Unlimited Pathways to Nature Conservation Fund; the Charlotte and Walter Kohler Charitable Trust Fund; and Phillips Petroleum in conjunction with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

This reintroduction would not be possible without the generous assistance of the above and the many other corporate donors, sponsors and private citizens that have stepped forward and pledged their support for the Whooping crane.

We are extremely grateful for this support, however, we are still short of this year's project budget and we have 17 juvenile Whooping cranes that need to be delivered to their new winter home. We can only hope that once the journey is underway, those of you that follow along through this Field Journal will pledge your support for our work. Operation Migration is a registered non-profit organization in Canada and the United States, which relies on donations to fund our continuing work toward safeguarding the Whooping Crane. Please give us a call at 800-675-2618 - we'd love to hear from you!

Our latest video production, "Flight of the Whooping Crane" is now available for the home market. This production features the first ultralight-led Whooping crane migration conducted in 2001 and details the steps leading up to this reintroduction project. Runtime is 50-minutes and features music by Canadian recording artist Loreena McKennitt. Price is $25 with a major portion of this helping to support our work. You can get your copy by calling the toll free number above.

In two days, Joe, Richard and I will head back to Necedah, followed by Bill Lishman and long-time OM volunteer Gord Lee a couple days later. By the following week, everything should be in place and all that's left to do is hope for good migrating weather on Oct. 10th. We hope you'll follow along for the ride...

Date:Sept. 20, 2002
Reporter:Joe Duff
Activity:Training Update

Notes: Originally the staff at Necedah constructed two isolated training facilities compete with pens and aircraft operating areas. A third was added for Dr. Urbanek’s initial study and they were named appropriately Sites 1, 2 and 3.

This past year, Necedah added a fourth site to accommodate the increased number of birds. Three cohorts were established in the spring also named one, two and three. Odd circumstances left us with cohort one at site 2; cohort two at site 1, cohort three at site 4 AND a team of often confused crane handlers.

Logic prevailed and we have renamed the three functioning sites east, west and north, based on their location around Rynearson Pond. The original structures included a high security pen made of wood and wire to protect the birds at night while they roost, as well as a fenced wetland area, which is covered with a top net where they forage during the day. These areas are referred to as the night pen and the day pen but to encourage water roosting behaviour, we have been keeping the flock overnight in the day pen and moving them into the night pen first thing in the morning in preparation for the flight training -- You would almost think that flying with birds wasn’t complicated enough.

The banding and health checks occurred in late August and are now a fading memory in the minds of the birds. Prior to this disturbance, our longest flight was 8.5 minutes and that duration was again achieved fifteen-days later. The east site has been empty for over a month and once all the birds were again responding to the aircraft and handlers we led them, one cohort at a time, over Rynearson Pond and housed them side by side in the unused facility. We expected some aggression after we mixed the seven oldest birds and ten younger ones so we waited a day or two to let them adjust before we released them together. We picked a day when the weather prevented us from flying and Mark, Kelly and Brian opened the door to one side of the pen expecting seven birds to emerge. Twelve birds later they realized that the inside connecting door was open and the flock was already socialized. A few of the younger birds appeared tired which may indicate they had been vigilant for some time but none showed any signs of injury due to aggression. Sometimes this is easier that expected. The next morning the weather cleared and we decided to attempt a mass take off. Getting seventeen excited birds out through the small doors of the enclosure one at a time is challenging and the trick is to hold the leaders back with outstretched arms while the others catch up. Despite this effort number 9 was left behind as the others took off and Richard Van Heuvelen moved in to take the lead. We headed north, with me in the chase position and the sight was spectacular.

Nowhere else on earth can you see sixteen young of year Whooping cranes flying in formation and for the first time in history all of them diligently followed our aircraft. They formed two lines; eight off each wing and began to surf on the wake that the aircraft creates. After six minutes, bird number 15 began to tire and drop back. I moved in, hoping to lend her a wing and an easier ride home but she was too low for me to get close. The north site was only a quarter mile away and I landed there thinking she could make it that far but she had dropped into the marsh somewhere behind me. I took off again and located her on the path, which leads to the site. I landed once more, turned up the volume on the vocalizer and within minutes she joined me on the runway. She was panting heavily, her legs were wobbly and her wings were drooping slightly but after a twenty minute rest, she followed me back to the east site and was united with her flockmates. In the interim, Richard and the main flock had carried on and were airborne for 15 minutes. The next morning we launched all seventeen birds for a perfect 9.5 minute flight and set a new record.

Date:Sept. 17, 2002
Reporter:Joe Duff
Activity:A Full Time Job

Notes: Teaching birds to follow our aircraft is a full time job. We fly every morning that the weather allows and spend the rest of the day monitoring the flock, documenting their progress, maintaining aircraft and custom building the specialized equipment we will need on the migration. We installed solar powered pumps at all three sites to ensure a steady flow of fresh water and once the birds are led off to a distant foraging area, we cut the grass on the runways. Each day there are other tasks from making new puppets to repairing torn costumes snagged on the brambles that grow in the marsh. Last year the main field team of Deke Clark, Dan Sprague and myself spent months at a time away from our families. This year we have expanded the team to allow all of us a little more time at home.

After the medical exam and banding that took place in late August the birds were wary of the handlers and reluctant to follow the aircraft. We took a step back in our training schedule and began to use only one aircraft at a time. This allowed the other pilots to head home for a few days while Richard van Heuvelen carried the load. Richard has always been part of the migration team and served as a backup pilot but this is the first season he has been part of the field team spending most of his summer in Wisconsin. 

Slowly, as the birds recovered from their sore muscles, grew familiar with their new leg bands and began to trust the handlers again, their flight times increased. Richard along with Brian Clauss, Dan Sprague and Kelly McGuire coaxed and cajoled them back into the air and by the time Brooke and I returned, they were flying the 8 to 10 minute flights we were experiencing before they were banded. Now that we are back in their good graces it is time to integrate the three groups into one. 

To minimize the leadership struggle that will inevitably take place, we decided to house them at the east site, which has been empty for over a month. This will be new ground for all of them and eliminate any home court advantage. Out of the ten birds at the north site, six fly well and four are less committed. Richard took the lead and I backed him up in the chase position as we started the two-mile flight with the first six. Flying behind and above to watch for dropouts I had a perfect view of three birds off each wing. Fall is less than a week away and the marsh of Rynearson Pond is beginning to fill with migrants. 

As we passed overhead we caused a stir and discords of geese, flurries of ducks and squawks of irritated herons fly off in all directions looking for a quieter part of the wetland. The first flight of the day lasts 6.5 minutes, a is a personal best for the middle group of birds. Next, we retrieved the four remaining birds at the north site and although they swooped in and out and switched from wing to wing in inexperience, they all landed at the east site after 5 minutes. 

Finally we headed to the west site to lead the oldest cohort over. They have been making 10 to 15 minute flights and the one-mile trip should have been well within reach but the wind was blowing out of the south, making take-off difficult. Despite their enthusiasm we had to encourage them to stay on the ground with us until we could taxi to the north end and turn around. The wind in their face was too exciting and they took off to the south and circled the pen. We expected them all to land with Richard, allowing him to begin the exercise again but four of the seven dropped down beside my aircraft next to the pen.

We both took off with our respective groups and planned to join them in the air but in the confusion crane number 3 turned back taking number 5 with her. The rest made the flight in short order and while I helped Brooke and Kelly move them into their new home Richard went back to find the dropouts. He intercepted number 5 who was willing to follow as long as he had the to wing to himself. Rather than land, Richard flew slowly, circling overhead and his lone bird dropped out, landing next to the handlers on the runway. Things began to resemble “Richard’s bird delivery service”; first 6, then 4, and then 1 as he again returned to the west site to retrieve the errant crane number 3. He made three attempts to convince the lone crane to join him in flight but each time the bird turned back, confused by the absence of its flockmates and reluctant to leave familiar ground. I joined him for two more attempts but despite the advantage of two aircraft we could not convince her to leave. Finally Mark Nipper and Brian Clauss returned her to the pen. 

After 24 hours of abandonment conditioning she may be more attentive so we will try again in the morning. For many of these birds it is the first time they have landed at a site other than home and their anxiety is heightened by the presence of the other birds. We will slowly introduce the two groups and allow them time to become familiar. If we have planned it well and luck is on our side, a single cohesive flock will emerge in time to start the migration.

Date:Sept. 9, 2002
Reporter:Joe Duff
Activity:Crisis Management

Notes: Research suggests that crisis management is not the strong suit of most birds. When faced with a perceived danger they become so alarmed they react with either a "fight or flight" response. When their safety is threatened they will either take to the air or stand their ground. However, if they are captured these options are not available to them and the resulting stress can be harmful. Known as capture myopathy; the condition can cause paralysis and can even be fatal. In other words birds can be frightened to death and it is a concern the health and banding teams must consider seriously when handling birds. 

For the banding and health exams that took place in late August, handlers entered the pen and corralled, one bird at a time, out the door. Their eyes were covered with a hood to prevent them from seeing the un-costumed staff and they were picked up and carried to the examination area. Since they arrived at Necedah the handlers have cajoled, charmed and coaxed the birds to get them to do what we want. To move them back into the pens after training we entice them with treats and patiently wait until the move becomes their own idea. Despite the frustration, we use positive reinforcement and rarely attempt to herd them. So when we grab them for the banding exercise it is considered an affront that they are slow to forgive. For several days they are suspicious of our intention whenever we enter their enclosures and the chicks that once ran to greet us are now apprehensive.  

Although the handlers are very experienced the restrained birds often struggle and the resulting sore muscles contribute to their general post-exam/banding depression.  Additionally they are now encumbered with coloured leg bands and a radio-tracking device that makes them walk much like a puppy wearing slippers. The health check and banding procedure is a necessary but unavoidably disruptive period for the birds, leaving them wary of us and reluctant to fly. The field team takes a step back and spends many hours luring them with smelt to re-win their confidence. (See current Photo Journal) Rather than resume their flying schedule, we go back to taxi-training until they have had a chance to recover. 

Before long the soreness abates; the leg bands become familiar and they begin to relax their guard. As they resume their normal schedule we begin to amalgamate the three cohorts into one flock. When their endurance allows, we lead one group across Rynearson Pond and move them in with the other. Eventually all three will be housed at one site and after a few days of confrontations as they establish a new dominance structure a new hierarchy will evolve and become the basis of a migrating flock. 

Weather, crew readiness, endurance and social compatibility will all dictate the date we can begin migration. Based on all these factors and consulting the records from last year we have estimated a tentative departure date of October 7th. In the meantime we go back to coaxing, cajoling and coddling and keep all our primaries crossed.

Date:August 25, 2002
Reporter:Heather Ray
Activity:Training Update

Notes: The early mornings are getting cooler so when it wasn't raining this past week, it was foggy. Thursday morning provided a small window in the weather so Joe and Brooke headed to site one to work with the group of birds that hatched in the middle of the 39-day age span. With Brooke taking the lead and Joe flying in the chase position, they flew for about 5-6 minutes making several large circuits over the training site with the young cranes following the aircraft intently.

Once Mark and Kelly returned the birds to their enclosure the team quickly departed in an attempt to get in a second flight, this time with the oldest group at site two but by the time they were half-way to the number two training area the fog began to thicken and they were forced to retreat to the hangar before visibility worsened. 

Rain continued through Friday and Saturday making training flights impossible but this morning the rain had stopped and with only light patchy fog, the two pilots arranged to meet Dan at site one. The plan for today was to begin combining the three cohorts in preparation for the fall migration flight when they will hopefully migrate as one cohesive flock. 

With the site one cranes now capable of 6-minute flights with the aircraft, Joe, Brooke and Dan felt the best way to begin amalgamating the cohorts would be to lead this small group over to the youngest group of cranes located at site four. Joe reports that they handled the the 1-mile flight beautifully and are now situated at the newest site, which has been divided with fencing into two areas. This will allow the two groups visual contact only while they get acquainted with each other and begin sorting out and re-working their pecking order and dominance structure. Over the next few days they will be allowed to mingle outside of their pen with the pilots and handlers supervising and ready to break up any disagreements that may arise.

Over the next three days the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership's Health Team will perform pre-migration health checks and will place radio transmitters along with coloured bands and a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service band on the legs of all seventeen whooping cranes. Veterinarians Barry Hartup from the International Crane Foundation and Julie Langenberg from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources will take blood and fecal samples and weigh and examine each of the young cranes to ensure they are healthy and ready to make the 1200-mile southward journey in October. Richard Urbanek of the Fish & Wildlife Service will perform the banding procedure, which will give each bird a distinctive colour combination used to identify them visually in the future through binoculars or a spotting scope. Radio transmitters, each programmed with a unique frequency will be placed on each of the cranes, allowing project staff to track and monitor their movements and finally each will receive their FWS leg-band. 

While this may sound like each young bird will be sporting quite a bit of jewelry on their legs, I assure you they will still be able to get airborne and follow the trikes to Florida later in the fall.

Date:August 7, 2002
Reporter:Joe Duff
Activity:Field Report

Notes: Costume rearing a flock of Whooping cranes is a lot like visiting a foreign culture. We are somewhat familiar with their customs and have a rudimentary understanding of their language; we have studied their behaviour and even dress like them but we still don’t quite fit in. Over millions of years cranes have developed a complex communication system and in Whooping cranes ethologists have identified the meaning of at least 60 messages. They use calls and displays, posture and behaviour to calm the flock or signal their intentions; to warn an intruder or woo a mate. Thanks to Dr. Bernhard Wessling we are able to digitally reproduce up to six calls but often their mood is conveyed more through posture than vocalization and these are difficult to duplicate. Pressing a button to broadcast a brood call to send the message that “everything is alright” is a lot easier than craning your neck or fluffing your feathers when you don’t have any. Lately, our crane communication skills have been put to the test.

Of the five birds that survived the winter and returned from Florida this past spring, four have taken up residence here at the refuge in Necedah. Acting just like wild birds, several have tried to lay claim to the territory on which they fledged. Normally they would be chased off by their parents whose traditional nesting ground is in question, however, acting as surrogates, we seem to be about 3 miles per hour too slow to leave a lasting impression. Dressed in waders and a bulking costume it is impossible for us to catch full-grown cranes that over the millennia have evolved the ability to almost walk on water. If, in a valiant, all-out effort, we manage to get within range they simply take to the air and circle around behind us.

Whooping cranes were named for their unison call, a sonorous broadcast that can be heard for miles. The male begins the call and only a split second later the female joins in. It is often used to defend a territory or celebrate a victory and although cranes do not have thumbs or noses the message is clear to us. They interpret our retreat as a sign of their triumph and issue the antiphonal call. Whooping cranes are not as social as Sandhills, preferring small family units and before they breed at three to eight years of age they may spend much of their time alone. Others will form bachelor cohorts, who roam around together and occasionally two birds will form a pair during their first season. Although they may behave like a bonded pair and even attempt to defend a territory they are too young to breed. Often referred to as “playing house” this union can last a month or a year buy will break up abruptly once they become serious about breeding. 

Two of last year’s cranes are using the refuge and ignoring our efforts to train a new flock but the other two, numbers 1 and 2, have formed a temporary pair and most mornings they arrive at the training site just after the aircraft. Our morning exercise usually begins with us chasing the older birds off into the marsh. Sometimes we lure them onto the runway and use the aircraft and occasionally the younger birds will challenge them, having learned a good lesson from us. At close quarters the older birds will threaten us by drooping their wings or turn their back to us in feigned indifference.  As the display becomes more antagonistic they open their wings to make themselves larger or stamp their feet like defiant children. Eventually their attack can escalate into a jump-rake as the five-foot tall birds launch into the air and strike out with extended legs and inch long toenails. To give us extra range we borrowed some backpack-style fire pumps, similar to super-soakers, from the refuge staff and if we can get close enough the retreating birds will get wet. Lately, after dropping in only to be chased away these two birds will fly off into the wetland - far enough to watch but not interfere.

Recently, we released the young birds just as the two interlopers arrived un-noticed and for an all-too-brief moment, I had two yearlings, surfing off the right wing tip, followed by seven young of the year. All of this chasing makes it sound like the birds we spent so much time with last year have somehow become the enemy but they are only acting as they should and we are simply attempting to respond like a wild parent.

In truth, we are very happy with their conduct: all of the birds that survived the winter returned to Wisconsin and four have settled near their fledging grounds. This validates our selection of the introduction site and their return, along with their wild behaviour justifies our methods. For the handlers and pilots, it is a gift to work in proximity to these rare cranes. Seventeen chicks: still half-fawn/half-white follow our every move, while four others in full adult plumage with red crowns and stark white feathers watch from a distance.

We have wild migratory Whooping cranes summering in Wisconsin for the first time in over a century and seventeen young birds that will soon join them; a success by any measure.

Date:July 20, 2002
Reporter:Joe Duff
Activity:Field Report

Notes: We have three cohorts of birds at Necedah his year, each housed at a different location, each at a different stage of development. The oldest group are flying behind the aircraft for 2 or 3 minutes as we circle the pen while the youngest are still running down the grass strip with flightless wings: half feathers and half fluff; flapping in anticipation. The oldest group, cohort one, is penned at site 2 (recently renamed the west site to lessen the confusion) and these are the birds hampered by the return of two Whooping cranes from last year's flock. Yesterday we lured them into a small enclosure hoping that six hours of confinement would be a negative enough experience to keep them away. This morning they were nowhere to be seen when we arrived to train the younger birds. 

Sara Zimorski released the group and they took off to the north ahead of me. I followed in the aircraft and assumed the lead position just as Sara radioed that our two interlopers were arriving. As we circled around the backside of the pen the two yearlings moved in to sail off my right wing while the seven fledglings followed slightly behind. The episode lasted only a few seconds but left a lasting visual memory -- no more than 20 feet away, two magnificent birds in full adult plumage, black wingtips over stark white bodies maneuvered with gentle grace. Behind them flew seven chicks, white patches just beginning to show through fledgling feathers the colour of caramel corn. As I turned to land at the north end of the field the two older birds dropped into the marsh behind the pen and the youngsters landed with me on the training strip. 

Worried about aggression against our chicks we tried to encourage them back into the pen but they had only been free a few minutes and were reluctant to go in. While Sara coaxed the chicks, I chased off the other two as best I could, slipping in the muck that they easily danced over, staying just out of reach.

Back on the training strip two of the younger birds began to challenge one of the older and surprisingly the larger bird backed off. I joined the dispute and chased him away from the pen and finally he took to the air. The other one took off also and together they headed north. The did not show up again for the rest of the day but tomorrow it may all change again. Some people have suggested that we should let them mingle but we are worried they may form an attachment. We know from earlier studies that second year birds will sometimes let us fly with them but we no longer control the flight. If we let the two age groups mix, the younger birds may prefer to follow the more experienced we could lose our chance to teach them the migration.

Date:July 18, 2002
Reporter:Joe Duff
Activity:Field Report

Notes: Using a camouflage tarpaulin to discourage last year's Whooping cranes from claiming site II as their own territory only worked for a few days and yesterday when we arrived to train the new cranes we were again faced with the problem and had to curtail the training once again. After much discussion we came up with another plan: using visual barrier panels from our travel pen we constructed two adjoining ten-foot by ten-foot enclosures immediately outside the compound that houses the new birds. With relative ease we were able to herd the yearling cranes into the temporary compound, one to each side and held them there for 6 hours. We separated them to add to their stress level and posted observers to ensure they did not injure themselves. A team of seven handlers were positioned around the marsh and hid under camouflage tarps to wait for the release. Sara and I dropped the panels on one side of the pen while Dan charged though a door on the other, dressed in a noisy plastic tarp and waving a silvery Mylar sheet to add to the threat. The two birds, desperate to escape took-off to the north and circled, trying to decide where to go. This was the cue for the other handlers to stand up and rattle their tarps to discourage them from coming back. It seemed to work and they headed north, followed by one of the members of the tracking team. Although we had hoped they would go farther they landed less than a mile away and we will have to wait until tomorrow to see if they will risk returning to interfere with our training. 

Date:July 15, 2002
Reporter:Joe Duff
Activity:Field Report

Notes: Whooping cranes raised at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center have to be a certain age before they are transported to Necedah National Wildlife Refuge. Letting our birds fly is considered the same as releasing them and that is not permitted at Patuxent so they have to be moved before they fledge. On the other hand, if we ship them too early we risk injury to developing wings and legs. Our birds arrive in Wisconsin at approximately 60-days of age: just before they learn to fly. At this stage they are vulnerable to predation and we have gone to great lengths to make sure their pens are secure. While we were making final preparations to the pens we became concerned over the number of wolf sightings. Last year we were excited to catch the odd glimpse but this year we have seen them many times and have even identified a rendezvous site and possible den location less than a 1/2 mile from the training site. We have also seen wolf tracks a site II and a large female loping down the runway at site IV. This has encouraged us to add an extra perimeter wire of electric fence around the pens for added protection. 

The first seven birds to arrive last month were housed at site II and a couple of weeks later, three of our Whooping cranes from last year followed the aircraft in when it arrived for an early morning training session. We tried to use the aircraft to herd them away but they only pecked at its wing. Four costumed handlers tried to flush them but we were no match for birds that can fly or run over marsh that is too deep for us to even walk through. Our attempts were futile and we soon gave up, sending a definite message to the interlopers.

Birds in the wild are attracted to their natal grounds and return the following year to the nesting location used by their parents to raise them. By this time they are considered to be intruders and are run off by the older generation bent on defending their traditional nesting site.  In our case the younger birds successfully defended the site against their surrogate parents who had no choice but to leave. Their aggressive behaviour became more pronounced each time we showed up to train the new birds.  Finally they were flushed using a camouflage tarp that served as a deterrent we have named the "swamp monster" but we are still tying to develop a protocol to deal with this problem, which we are sure will be ongoing.

We have last year's Whooping cranes curtailing the training at site II and Grey wolves adding an element of risk at site I. As if this weren't enough, there have been reasonably reliable sightings of a cougar north of the refuge and a fisher near site II. There are so many endangered species here that the staff has joked about a T-shirt we need to produce, featuring an image of a Whooping crane about to eat a Karner Blue butterfly while being examined by a Grey wolf, under attack from a Cougar, being bitten by a Massassauga rattlesnake.  Over the image would be the slogan "our endangered species is going to eat your endangered species."

Date:July 7, 2002
Reporter:Heather Ray
Activity:Progress Report

Notes: In the last update I mentioned the sighting of a wolf and her pups near the site 1 training area. While her presence does make us a bit nervous and extra precautions were taken to discourage her from gaining access to the crane enclosure; I should probably point out that this mother wolf and her offspring have every right to inhabit the Necedah refuge. The refuge consists of 43,656 acres and was established in 1939 as a refuge and breeding ground for migratory birds and other wildlife.

The Timber wolf, also called the Grey wolf, has a background similar to the Whooping crane in that they once inhabited most of North America before Europeans began to settle here. In fact in 1830 an estimated 3,000 - 5,000 wolves roamed the state of Wisconsin but as the fur trade developed and more farmers began to work the land the animals wolves preyed upon began to disappear, forcing hungry wolves to rely on livestock for food. Responding to the farmers concerns, in 1865, a bounty of $5 a head was placed on the wolves. People could kill all the wolves they wanted to and they were paid for doing it. By 1900, there were no wolves in the southern two thirds of the state and by the 1950's wolves disappeared entirely from Wisconsin. Bounty laws were changed in 1957 but by then the only wild wolves that remained in North America were in Minnesota, Canada, and Alaska.

In the mid 70's the Minnesota population flourished and a few wolves began dispersing into northern Wisconsin. Due mostly to the reversal in the bounty laws and the public's heightened awareness of wildlife, this secretive species was trying to make a comeback and in 1975 the timber wolf was added to Wisconsin's endangered species list. As with other listed species, a recovery plan was adopted, which calls for a long-term goal of 350 wolves in the state. It is estimated that there are now about 320 wolves in Wisconsin (2000-2001), enough that the species can be reclassified from endangered to threatened in the state of Wisconsin.

The wolves at the Necedah refuge are not the "big bad wolves" of children's storybooks, nor are they cute and cuddly creatures. They are a potential predator, just like the Florida Bobcats and should be treated with the same care, caution and respect that all wild animals deserve. Over the next couple of weeks the pack near site 1 should move on and away from the den area as the pups get older. 

Date:July 3, 2002
Reporter:Heather Ray
Activity:Progress Report

Notes: Last week I had the opportunity to visit the crew at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge while taking care of some outreach duties on behalf of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership. I witnessed first-hand the work that goes on to prepare the sites for the arrival of the chicks from the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. Last years enclosures must be checked for repairs to fencers, feed stations and top-netting to ensure they are safe for the curious young cranes and still predator proof. With three sites operating this summer there were many items on the crew's "To Do" list and by Thursday morning, June 27th all of the items had been checked off the list. The training sites were in tip-top shape and ready to receive the final shipment of ten young whooping cranes later that same day. 

The birds arrived at approximately 1pm onboard a private jet, which was again donated by a Wisconsin-based corporation.  This company is a great supporter of the whooping crane and of the WCEP's effort to restore a migrating flock to eastern N. America - while they wish to remain anonymous, we applaud them for their continued assistance and support.

Upon arrival at the refuge, x-rays were taken of each young bird, while still in its container and they then driven in air-conditioned vans to either site one or site four, depending on age. Site one is where cranes numbered 9 through 13 will be trained and cranes 14 through 17 are housed at the new site four.  Eventually, all of the birds will be merged into one flock in late summer and continue flight training together. This is where it may get tricky because this year there is a 39-day age gap between the oldest and the youngest and it may be necessary to have two lead trikes during the flight south this fall; one aircraft leading the older group and the other guiding the younger group. We'll tackle that when the time comes.

Several times last week a female wolf was spotted, along with her five pups at site one. Her presence makes us nervous so as a precaution the team ran an extra hot wire around the entire pen at the site. So far so good.

All of the cohorts are training very well. The crane crew at Patuxent did a fantastic job, as always of conditioning the birds to accept our aircraft. Thank you!

Date:June 25, 2002
Reporter:Joe Duff
Activity:Progress Report

Report: Five Whooping cranes are now traveling around central Wisconsin, doing what juvenile Whooping cranes have done for millions for years. They forage for food and probe in the mud. On hot days they find shade or stand hock deep in the cool waters of isolated wetlands. When the warm air begins to rise they may take-off to ride the thermals - gliding on their 8-foot wings. The northern migration is well over and as the dog days of summer set in, life is simple for an adolescent crane. 

It will be a couple years before they are inspired to find a mate and defend a territory and for now they have the carefree wanderlust of a teenager on summer break. What appear to us to be random movements, which may be guided by some ancient instinct are tracked using modern technology. The coloured, plastic bands decorating their long legs were at first frightening, then annoying and now are preened just like another feather, relay the secrets of their whereabouts through orbiting satellites to NASA. The information is sent by email to the monitoring team and kept confidential; used only by the biologists who ensure that they are selecting proper habitat and behaving like cranes should. 

So far their conduct has been encouraging and validates the procedures we used to keep them wild but their wildness is tentative and could be easily lost with too much exposure to humans. These are famous birds; not only the first Whooping cranes to inhabit this area in more that 100-years but also the first five of a population that may lead to their removal from the endangered species list. The cost of notoriety is increased interest but to date, people have been respectful of their need for isolation. Please keep up the good work; they need your cooperation while they practice and hone their wildness skills.

Before juvenile birds mate and become full adults they sometimes form bachelor cohorts taking solace in the company of their flock mates. These famous five started out that way until number 7 left the group on the return migration. Now number 6 has also gone his own way and although they are all frequenting the Necedah refuge area they have yet to meet again. Since June 12th, we have 7 new chicks at the refuge and we are expecting another 10 to arrive from Patuxent Wildlife Research Center by private aircraft later this week. While Dan Sprague and the Patuxent team continue the early training in Maryland, the rest of the field team are working every day with the first of three cohorts. Over the winter the Necedah staff constructed another training site with both a high security night pen and a large water pen for daytime foraging. We now have three training areas to house the three groups of 5 or 6 birds each but through odd circumstances this new area is known as site four.

Because of the age difference the birds are being transported from Patuxent in two shipments. We want them to fly for the first time at Necedah so they must be moved before they fledge at around 60 days of age but transporting them too early is dangerous to fragile young chicks with very long legs. Thirty-nine days separates the first to hatch from the last, so two trips was inevitable and will probably prove to be our greatest challenge this year. Some of our birds will be flying behind the ultralights like pros, while others will still be running down the runway flapping their yet to mature wings. We have to amalgamate all of these birds into one cohesive flock before we can begin the migration. In Deke's absence and to handle the larger number of birds we have recruited new team members. Richard Van Heuvelen has worked with Bill Lishman for many years and has been involved in most of our migrations. Richard normally heads our ground crew and fills in as back-up pilot when needed but this year he has agreed to spend most of his summer and all of the fall working with us as a lead pilot.

Brooke Pennypacker has worked with Airlie Centre's Environmental Studies in Warrenton, Virginia and conducted several ultralight experiments with Trumpeter swans. He has taken a sabbatical to become our third lead pilot and is a welcome new member. Both Richard and Brooke are experienced trike pilots and have an affinity for birds. As well, both are innovative, mechanical, workaholics and each possesses the slightly warped sense of humour necessary to fit in with the original team. Sara Zimorski, aviculturist with the International Crane Foundation is working with us again this year and her counterpart, Brian Clauss from Patuxent will spell Dan on and off over the season. We have recruited Mark Nipper as an intern and already he has proven his worth. Bill Lishman will take time from his very busy schedule to help us train birds this summer and he will also fly the route prior to the migration to ensure every stopover location is in order. 

It is hard to believe how many people it takes to fill in for Deke. We spoke to him last week and he has a very heavy rehabilitation schedule. He is getting back some movement in his arm and his speech is improving. It's odd how he has little problem with expletives when he gets frustrated. Brooke wants to get a T-shirt proclaiming him "A poor substitute for Deke Clark." Brooke is doing a great job but Deke's shoes are difficult to fill.

Date:June 13, 2002
Reporter:Heather Ray
Activity:A New Season - A New Flock!

Second Flock of Experimental Whooping Crane Chicks Arrive at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge

A second experimental flock of whooping crane chicks arrived by private aircraft on Wednesday, June 12, ready to begin their pre-migration flight training at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in central Wisconsin.  While the project this year will take place with up to seventeen young cranes, only the seven oldest cranes made today's flight from U.S. Geological Survey's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center (WRC) in Laurel, MD. The remaining young whooping cranes will be transported later this month. Today's arrival marks the beginning of the second year of a reintroduction project, designed to return a migrating flock of this endangered species to its former range in eastern North America.

Upon arriving at the refuge the chicks underwent a health check before settling in to their predator-proof enclosure at the training facilities. To ensure the birds remain wild and do not imprint on humans in any way, handlers and project biologists will adhere to a strict no-talking rule and wear "costumes" designed to mask the human form whenever they are in the vicinity of the crane chicks.

The flock of whooping crane chicks has been reared at the Patuxent WRC since hatching from eggs collected from captive whooping cranes at that facility, as well as from the International Crane Foundation (ICF) in Baraboo, WI.

Exposed to aircraft noise since prior to hatching and raised in extreme isolation from humans, the chicks' specialized training will continue under the direction of pilots and handlers from project partner Operation Migration at the refuge throughout the summer and early autumn. This fall the juvenile cranes will migrate, guided by ultralight aircraft, approximately 1,230 miles to the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge on Florida's central-west coast where they will spend the winter in a remote salt marsh area of the refuge. Biologists from ICF and the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service will monitor the cranes over the winter and will track them as they initiate their return migration north next spring.

Refuge staff at Necedah has been busy preparing for the arrival of these cranes and this year there will be three training sites in operation, with the cranes divided into cohorts according to hatch dates. Members of the expanded OM field team have been on site for the past several days ensuring everything was ready to begin a new season. This year the field team will consist of Joe Duff, Brooke Pennypacker, Richard van Heuvelen and Bill Lishman as pilots; and Patuxent crane crew members, Dan Sprague and Brian Clauss will be primary crane handlers/trainers. OM intern Mark Nipper and ICF's Sara Zimorski will be on hand throughout the summer to assist with training duties for this larger than last year flock of birds.

Joe reports the cranes showed no signs of stress following their 5-hour flight from Maryland yesterday, and this morning they seemed right at home in their predator-proof enclosure at one of the training sites.

Stay tuned......

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Date:June 6, 2002
Reporter:Heather Ray
Activity:Project Update

Notes: The five whooping cranes that returned to Wisconsin on April 19th are continuing to select suitable habitat as they explore the vast wetland areas of their home State. Crane #7, the female that prefers her own company to that of the other four whoopers turned up on May 28th in the early evening when Richard Urbanek of the International Crane Foundation detected a signal, indicating she was in flight over Adams County. Richard managed to locate her later that evening at her selected roost site, approximately 20 miles from the Necedah refuge. *Please note that we will be providing approximate locations only in an effort to protect the privacy and the wildness of these very special cranes. 

Until last Sunday, cranes 1, 2, 5 & 6 had been at a location southeast of Madison, which they had occupied for more than a month. On Sunday, three of the birds decided to head back to vicinity of their natal area at the refuge, leaving crane #6 who preferred to stay where he was. 

Crane training has been proceeding very well at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, with the oldest group of birds already spending nights outside in the pond area in anticipation of their move to one of the three the flight training areas at the Necedah refuge. With a 39-day span in ages this season, project staff members are preparing to transport the entire group of young whooping cranes in two separate shipments. The reason for this is that the first group of hatches is nearing fledging age and the area they see from the air during their first flights is the area that they will recognize as "home." 

Obviously, we want to ensure they recognize the central area of Wisconsin as home and not Laurel, Maryland so it is best to move them to Necedah before they fledge. The second group of younger cranes is being held back at the Patuxent crane facility to allow them more aircraft training time, and as well, to mature and catch up to their future flockmates. Over the next few weeks they will spend more and more time outside and as the nights become consistently warmer, will eventually spend nights outside in preparation for their move to Wisconsin later this month.

We would like to send our sincerest thanks and appreciation out to the Hooper Corporation as well as to Betty Evanson for both responding to our plea to sponsor a day of the migration south this fall. Based on last year's 50-day flight south we have determined that the actual migration costs us $989.28 each day. With these two stepping forward, each with a donation of $1,000.00 we're a bit closer to meeting our budget requirements this year. Betty Evanson and the Hooper Corporation are based in Wisconsin so if any of you happen to come across either of them please be sure to say "thanks" for helping the Whoopers!

If there is anyone else out there that feels they might be able to help please don't hesitate to contact us. We've still got a long way to go before reaching our budget and there are 18 young whooping cranes counting on us.

Date:May 28, 2002
Reporter:Heather Ray
Activity:Chick Update

Notes: Biotech Dan Sprague of Patuxent Wildlife Research Center reports that we now have our final count of 18 young cranes for this year's project! All of the staff at the captive breeding center have been putting in long hours to  keep these chicks healthy and condition them to accept their somewhat different parents: a puppet that looks like an adult Whooping crane; a large and baggy, white moving object that makes no noise; and a tiny yellow ultralight airplane that makes obvious noise

From the moment they hatched, these birds (hopefully) will never see an un-costumed human, nor will they hear human voices. The handlers and trainers must wear large white costumes, designed not so much to make them resemble cranes but rather to hide the fact that they are human. This will keep the cranes wary of anything human and prevent them from imprinting on people, which will ultimately increase their chance of survival in the wild.

In addition to the puppets, costumes and the aircraft, the limited number of handlers that work to train the young birds use a crane vocalization referred to as a "brood" or "contact call."  This call and others are digital recordings of actual Whooping cranes captured by Dr. Bernhard Wessling, a German scientist who has spent most, if not all of his free time traveling to record and analyze the complex communications of cranes. 

Our oldest crane, appropriately named crane #1, hatched on April 12th and our youngest, crane #18 hatched on May 21st. This means with the 39-day age span between the young birds that they are obviously at various stages of the conditioning protocol. The oldest group of birds: cranes 1 - 6 are socializing well together and have been training with the trike in the circle-pen, as well as some straight line taxiing. After training sessions they are led to a nearby marshy area for wetland exposure and where they can probe in the mud and grass locating natural food. This is used both as a reward and to teach them to forage. This group of six hatched between April 12th - 24th. 

The next group has also been training with the aircraft but because they are younger and aggression tends to be an issue until they mature enough to outgrow it, they are trained only one or two birds at a time, which is very time consuming for the Patuxent crane crew. These cranes also receive pond exposure following their training sessions.

The youngest cranes in this new generation of WCEP birds are still very small, having only hatched in the past two weeks. Extra care must be taken to ensure they are receiving fluids to prevent dehydration and to make sure they are eating sufficient amounts of the high protein food so they will quickly gain weight, which will also safeguard them from dehydrating.

Throughout Operation Migration's history our goal has been to use the technique we designed to help endangered species. We began by working with Canada geese because they are hardy, precocial and common. It was easier to get permits to work with these plentiful birds than to test an unproven theory on a rare avian species. Our early success led to credibility and acceptance from the scientific community and we moved on to Sandhill cranes. 

We conducted several studies to address the concerns the Whooping Crane Recovery Team had and once they were satisfied our method had merit; the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership was formed and together we began this reintroduction. This description is only a brief history of our efforts but it was not as easy as it sounds. Convincing the US Federal Government that dressing up in costumes and using ultralight aircraft to lead the most rare of all crane species across the country was originally met with some skepticism.

It was Dr. George Gee of the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center that first stepped forward. Patuxent is the U.S. Geological Survey's captive propagation center in Maryland that first bred Whooping cranes in captivity. Dr. Gee is also a member of the recovery team and he encouraged the other team members, and us to pursue our dream. 

It was at Patuxent in Maryland where we raised the Sandhill cranes that we led to Virginia in 1997 to see if they would return on their own. They also hatched the birds we used to refine our wildness conditioning methods in 1998, as well as the 2000 flock of Sandhill's we led along the migration route now used by Whooping cranes. 

Along the way we worked with Dan Sprague, a biotech with Patuxent and eventually, he became an integral part of the Operation Migration field team. This is the second year that Patuxent has raised young Whooping cranes destined for release into eastern North America and Dan, along with Brian Claus, Carlyn Caldwell, Damien Ossi, Jared Kwitowski, Barb Niccolai, Jane Nicolich, Jennifer Green, Brenda Muldoon and of course Glenn Olsen DVM, are hard at work preparing these special young cranes. 

The above team conducts the early imprinting and the initial introduction of the birds to the aircraft that will act as parent and eventually guide them south.  Without the expertise and encouragement of Dr. Gee; the hard work of Dan and the others members of the Patuxent Crane Crew, Whooping cranes would not be flying free over eastern North America. 

Over the years we have become friends with all of the staff at Patuxent. They should be as proud of their efforts to save this endangered crane as we are of our association with them.

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