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Date: June 23, 2003
Reporter: Heather Ray
Activity: Let the training begin!

Third Flock of Whooping Crane Chicks Arrives at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin to Prepare for Migration.

A flock of Whooping crane chicks arrived by private airplane at central Wisconsin's Necedah National Wildlife Refuge June 19. A field team from Operation Migration, Inc., the International Crane Foundation and the U.S. Geological Survey's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center will spend the summer conditioning the chicks to fly behind ultralight aircraft. 

This fall the team will guide the young cranes on their first southern migration, leading them by ultralight over Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia before arriving at Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge on Florida's Gulf coast, the cranes' winter home.

They will be the third group of juvenile whooping cranes to take part in a project designed to reintroduce a migratory flock of Whooping cranes to a portion of their former range in eastern North America. Whooping cranes are among the most endangered birds in North America. Of the fifteen crane species worldwide they are the most in peril with only 418 remaining.

The chicks were flown to Necedah from the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Md., where they hatched. While the reintroduction project this year will take place with up to eighteen cranes, only the ten oldest crane chicks arrived Thursday. The remaining chicks will be shipped later this month and in the meantime they continue early flight conditioning at the Patuxent facility.

Once the new chicks arrive at the Necedah refuge they are off-loaded from the aircraft and taken to a quiet facility where they undergo a radiograph, while still inside their individual crates. As soon as possible after the brief health exam the group is divided, based on hatch order and driven out to their respective enclosures where members of the field team observed the groups for approximately 30 minutes to ensure they settled in once released from the crates.

The following morning, June 20th each group was led out onto the grass training area, adjacent the enclosure and allowed to forage. No training took place on Friday - instead the chicks simply spent time with the costumed handlers, and each other in their new surroundings.

The first official training session got underway early on Saturday June 21st. International Crane Foundation's, Sara Zimorski, along with Brian Clauss from the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center joined Joe Duff at the north site location where cranes 301, 302, 303, 304, 305 & 306 are stationed. As Brian entered the enclosure to retrieve the young birds from the wet section where they had spent the previous night roosting, Joe taxied the wingless trike into position outside the main gate and shut off the engine. 

Inside the enclosure Brian managed to get the six cranes from the wet area into the dry section and closed the gate separating the two areas. He opened the main gate so that the birds could exit onto the training strip and see the waiting aircraft. Joe reports that all six cranes exited without showing any signs of fear and the group spent a few minutes foraging in front of the aircraft.  Cranes 303 & 304 decided they'd rather return to the water and re-entered the enclosure, attempting to get back into the closed-off wet section. They would not come out to join the others easily so the main pen door was closed with them inside. The trike was walked to the north end of the strip with the remaining four chicks following. Joe then taxied the aircraft back to the front of the enclosure with the four chicks close behind. Before turning to repeat the procedure he opened the main gate and the two previously reluctant chicks eagerly exited the pen and followed the trike on this second trip. On the return taxi run, crane 301 followed on the right and the others ran on the left, strung out in a line just as if they were flying.

The group was led easily into the pen after training and as a reward both areas of the enclosure were left open.

Next the crew drove to the east site to join Richard van Heuvelen and new volunteer OM pilot Ralph Arwood with the four older cranes that make up the second cohort: 307, 309, 310 & 311. There appears to be a bit of an aggression problem with cranes 310 & 311 so the pen area has been divided with 307 & 310 on one side and 309 & 311 on the other. This allows separation so that they can't be aggressive, and at the same time, offers some opportunity for visual socialization to take place through the fence that divides them. The second cohort was worked in pairs: first with rivals 310 & 311. The aircraft was walked to the end of the grass strip and then taxied back to the gate of the pen. Both cranes seemed to focus on the aircraft rather than each other so the process was repeated successfully. Next, cranes 307 & 309 had their turn, and again the results were favorable. Each pair was returned to their respective areas of the pen until the crew is sure the aggressive pair has had a chance to work out their differences.

Elsewhere on the Necedah refuge there are as many as nine adult, and yearling, wild Whooping cranes. If you are among the many who have not yet experienced seeing this magnificent species, I urge you to visit the Necedah refuge where the best viewing opportunity, perhaps available anywhere is the public observation tower. To learn more about the tower and the refuge please call: 608-565-2551. I'm heading out to the refuge Wednesday - perhaps I'll see you on the tower!

Date: June 19, 2003
Reporter: Heather Ray
Activity: Well, well look who's back...

Click for large image

Photo: Richard Urbanek  - USFWS/ICF

Notes: And just in time for the summer training to begin! Female crane #102 who carries two nonfunctional transmitters, had last been observed on April 25th at the Necedah Refuge. This is the crane that until returning this spring had been paired with the male #101 from her cohort. Apparently she has decided to take up with a younger male and on Tuesday morning #102 returned to the reintroduction site with a yearling male #205.  Shortly after they arrived they were joined by another six yearlings. As of yesterday there were as many as nine Whooping cranes at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, including crane 102's former beau.

Last season it was this pair that almost daily, attempted to wreak havoc on the training schedule by dropping in on early morning training sessions to claim what they perceived to be their territory. It was also this pair that dropped in on one of our many attempts to depart the Hiwassee State Wildlife Area, and briefly joined the flight south with the juveniles during last falls migration. 

Date:June 17, 2003
Reporter:Heather Ray
Activity:Lotsa stuff...

Notes: I've been worriedly glancing at the calendar over the past couple of weeks until finally I realized that it's been almost a month since the last update. My apologies but things are happening at a fast pace and there just aren't enough hours in each day to accomplish everything. So, in no particular order:

Of the twenty-one Whooping cranes from the combined '01 & '02 group: Male #101, currently at the Necedah wildlife refuge reintroduction site. Female #102, non-functional transmitter. Last confirmed location Apr. 25th, reintroduction site. Male #105, leader of group of three '02 females: 204, 209 & 218, as of late last week were at their usual location, approximately 10-12 miles from the Necedah refuge. Male crane #106 cannot be consistently tracked due to a broken radio antenna. Last seen departing reintroduction site on May 10th. Finally from the '01 cohort, the female #107 crane is at her favorite location, where she spent last summer, the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge.

As for the rest of the '02 yearling cranes, female #210 was in south Juneau Co. WI before departing on June 14th. Females #202 & 217 and males #211, 212, 213 & 216 remain together at an area approximately 15 miles from the Necedah refuge. A trio of females, consisting of #'s 203, 207 & 215 were last seen in southwest Wisconsin on May 26th and have subsequently not been located. Two male birds, #'s 205 & 208 had also been spending time in the southwest area of the State, until the radio signal from 205 was detected at the Necedah refuge on June 15th - Crane #208 apparently stayed behind. The only crane that has not yet returned to Wisconsin is the female bird #214, who chose her own return route north, after separating from the main flock on Apr. 1st when they departed the Chassahowitzka NWR wintering site. This slightly lost lady is still located in north-central Illinois, enjoying herself in a perfect-for-cranes marsh, which of course, she chose.

Our final count of eighteen new chicks (eleven males, six females, one not yet determined) at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, MD. have come from three of the Whooping crane captive breeding centers, including one egg from the International Crane Foundation and two from the San Antonio Zoo in Texas. The remaining eggs were all produced on site at Patuxent, which houses the largest captive population in North America.

The first chick hatched on Apr. 21st and the youngest broke out of its shell on May 23rd, which means a 32-day age gap from oldest to youngest chick vs. last years 39-day difference. Considering a record high number of eggs produced, combined with a record low number of staff, training is going well, albeit with some adjustments to compensate for the very rainy season, which at times left the circle-pen area too soggy.

Like last year, the crane chicks will be transported in two shipments to the Necedah refuge, with the first shipment consisting of ten, arriving later this week. Windway Capitol is again donating the aircraft and pilot, which will move the cranes from Maryland to Wisconsin. Upon arrival at their new summer home and future breeding location, each will undergo a full body x-ray, while still in their individual crates to avoid stressing the fragile chicks any more than is absolutely necessary. 

The Necedah refuge staff has been hard at work over the winter and spring making modifications to the three training sites and adjacent enclosures. Joe and Richard van Heuvelen arrived last week to help wherever needed to ensure everything is ready for the arrival of the newest WCEP Whooping crane class. Top-nets are in place; gates have been installed - separating the wet area from the dry area inside each enclosure, and electric fencing has been re-installed and tested.  The ultralight aircraft are out of the trailer and back inside their recently refurbished hangar, which now features a paved floor inside and apron outside, AND even electricity. (Thanks T. !!!) 

It's almost time for flight school to begin for the third season... 

Date:May 22, 2003
Reporter:Heather Ray
Activity:Preparations continue

Notes: There are now a total of 17 gangly Whooping crane chicks; all at various stages of growth, and ability. Two, have come from the captive breeding program at the San Antonio Zoo; Another, originated from the International Crane Foundations' captive program, and the remaining chicks are from the captive population at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland. 

The oldest chick, #301 (hatch year 2003, chick number 01 = #301) hatched out on April 21st, and the youngest, #317 hatched on May 20th. As the crane crew at Patuxent is working extra hours to get the chicks ready for transport to the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin in late June, preparations are in full swing here to get the necessary travel trailers, aircraft, and staff ready to begin another field training season. At the Necedah refuge, manager Larry Wargowsky is busy overseeing the various improvements at each of the three training sites where the cohorts will soon be housed. It's hard to believe that another year is upon us already! 

Another newsworthy item is that crane 214 was located by aerial search on May 13th. It seems that she found a remote pond in north central Illinois and has likely been there since last seen departing Mason county, IL on April 13th. There are now twenty Whooping cranes spending the summer in various parts of Wisconsin and one yearling crane spending time in the neighboring State of Illinois.

Date:May 10, 2003
Reporter:Joe Duff
Activity:International Migratory Bird Day

Notes: It is finally spring and there are few among us who do not notice the passing of large flocks of migrants, or the arrival of many of the birds we have not seen since early last fall. Unless you are completely enveloped in worldly endeavours it is hard not to be moved by this annual phenomena that has stirred the spirit of man since ancient times.  

From our stationary vantage point we think of migration as a cyclical event, occurring only twice each year, and coinciding with the change of seasons. In fact somewhere around the world birds are migrating every day and some almost continually. Sooty terns and Common swifts can remain airborne for three to 10 years without landing.  They feed, drink, breed and even sleep on the wing, covering immeasurable distances. Arctic terns migrate from pole to pole traveling over 25,000 miles annually.  

Moreover, migration is not only confined to birds; fully 85% of the world's species migrate in some form. Many journey north and south, while others move up and down from mountaintop to alpine meadow.  Migration can be east and west or upstream, it may be from warm water to cold or some circuitous route from one foraging ground to another. Migration is critically important both for the habitat and the traveler. Often populations are large enough to place a heavy burden on their host environment. Their absence for half the year allows for a recovery period and has dictated the evolutionary development of many insects, plants and animals. For the migrant, the capacity to travel allows for greater diversity of habitat, larger areas in which to find appropriate mates or breeding territory and the ability to control the temperature of their environment. Unfortunately, this mass movement of wildlife on a global scale goes on relatively unnoticed by most of us too preoccupied by our daily routine.  

We at Operation Migration are among the fortunate. We have a unique opportunity to witness the mysteries of migration from a bird's eye view. In our clumsy way, we act as surrogate parents and feebly attempt to provide a natural experience to our naive charges. Our methods fall far short of the education provided to wild-hatched birds, but they do work. We now have 21 Whooping cranes moving annually between a pre-selected nesting ground and wintering site. We are in the process of re-establishing a migration route that only existed in the memories of their long dead ancestors.  Our 1200-mile migration takes us 50-days to complete and we are humbled by the speed of their return journey. We face wind and rain and mechanical problems; we must concern ourselves with things like fuel consumption, maps, the reliability of our communication equipment and access to private property. Often our crew is larger than the flock, but despite our awkwardness we do get an insight into the problems that face all migratory birds; the obstacles we place in their way, the thoughtlessness with which we make changes to habitat critical to their survival.  

Today is International Migratory Bird Day and many enthusiastic birders will be out enjoying their favourite pastime. For those who have never concerned themselves with things wild, why not take a moment away from your daily routine and look up - You might be amazed.

Date:May 7, 2003
Activity:And the winner is.....

Notes: The cherry blossoms of early spring make Washington D.C. one of the most beautiful cities in America and for two, tired-of-winter Canadians, a weekend in the south and an early taste of spring was a welcome relief. Bill Lishman and Joe Duff were able to enjoy this break from the cold, courtesy of the National Wildlife Federation. As co-founders of Operation Migration they were recipients of the 2002 National Conservation Achievement Awards, presented at a ceremony on March 29th.

With only 16 surviving in the early 1940’s the Whooping crane has come as close to extinction as any species that still exists. Their slow recovery to the current level of 418 individuals has paralleled, and even directed the change in our attitude. We no longer see the natural world as ours for the harvesting, and are beginning to recognize the importance of biodiversity and conservation.

The Whooping crane has come to represent our new, more protective ethic and is now an icon for all endangered species. As evidence to this dubious rank, the National Wildlife Federation presented each winner with a statue of a Whooping crane taking flight. Sixteen award recipients were seated at the head table; each with a realistic, 20-inch high likeness of a Whooping crane placed before them. The coincidence was not missed – 16 is the lowest number of surviving birds, and the same number we led south last year. 

Earlier this year the National Wildlife Federation published The Best and Worst for Wildlife, a report, which surveys recent developments affecting wildlife, both to recognize the positive and to focus on shortcomings. The reintroduction of the eastern migratory population of Whooping Cranes, conducted by the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership was one of three species success stories, making the Whooping crane the wildlife winner over the past year. 

Operation Migration’s work has also been recognized at home in Canada. Our organization has been nominated for the Canadian Environment Awards, established by Canadian Geographic Enterprises in 2002 through a partnership with the Government of Canada and support from the private sector. Of the more than 150 nominations received, three finalists were chosen for each of the six categories. The Operation Migration team has been selected in the category of “Restoration and Rehabilitation” by the panel of judges. Gold and Silver winners will be announced at a gala dinner and award ceremony on June 2nd, during Canadian Environment Week at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Whether we win, or not, we are pleased to be nominated and delighted that seated with our team that evening will be our friends, Deke Clark and Rebecca Pardo.

In other news, Dan Sprague, Mark Nipper and the newest intern to join the OM flock, Beth Anderson have been experiencing a baby-boom at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. In the previous field report we had 7 new Whooping crane chicks that were at various stages of the imprinting and conditioning process. As of yesterday, May 6th there have been four additional hatches, bringing the total to eleven new students! 

Date:May 5, 2003
Reporter:Heather Ray
Activity:A little assistance provided...

Notes: Everyone needs a little help now and then, and such was the case with the off-course crane #9. After deciding not to travel with the large group of returning cranes but rather, make the return flight on her own, crane #9 found herself quite lost. On April 29th she was located in western Virginia and as preparations were underway to capture her and return her to Wisconsin, ICF intern, Lara Fondow kept a watchful eye on her. 

The first available aircraft was scheduled to head out yesterday, May 4th, but the sub-adult female didn't want to wait around for her free ride, so on May 1st, she moved into West Virginia. Then on Saturday she moved northwest into Ohio, bringing her a bit closer to the original flight path. It was at this location in SE Ohio that Sara Zimorski, also from ICF, helped capture #9.  Once inside one of the familiar crates the bird was placed onboard a Windway aircraft for a one-way, non-stop flight to Necedah, WI. From there she traveled by ground to an area about 10 miles from the refuge where she was released with a group of three Whooping cranes, which included 105, 204 & 218. 

Looking back over the migration records for last fall, we discovered that #9 missed a total of six portions of the fall trip, totaling 391 miles. This may not have been a factor IF she had stayed with the others during the return trip, but since she preferred to fly alone, she ended up way off track.

The only crane that is still unaccounted for is 214 who was last seen heading north from her migration stop at Clear Lake in Mason Co. IL., on April 13th. 

From the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center: Dan Sprague reports that we now have 7 chicks for this years project. They vary in age and as a result are at various stages in their training but the first few have already begun their circle-pen conditioning sessions.

A huge WELCOME BACK to Mark Nipper! Those that were along for the ride last season will recall OM's intern Mark. He worked for a pittance, (which is all we could afford) is a great cook, and kept everyone entertained at the refuge camp. By far, the most humorous event took place when Mark was helping Joe construct the travel pen panels and was using an old drill - the type that doesn't stop spinning as soon as you release the trigger? Mark found this out the hard way when after he let go of the trigger, he put his hand (holding the drill) on his hip. Immediately, the drill caught the fabric of the trousers - at the crotch! Joe exited the annex just in time to see Mark, almost completely wrapped up, at the crotch by this drill-gone-mad. Wanting to get the job finished, Mark went in and changed his pants. He dropped his now torn pair beside the sewing machine that Joe had been using to make the fabric sections of the same travel pen. Joe yelled out a few minutes later that his pants were fixed but when Mark later tried to put them on, he quickly discovered that both legs had been sewn shut! We're glad to have you back Mark!

Date:Apr. 27, 2003
Reporter:Heather Ray
Activity:Where is everybirdy?

Notes: As the total population of Whooping cranes stands at only 419, it's important to know where as many as possible are at all times. With 123 of this total housed at captive breeding centers and zoo facilities, there are 296 wild Whooping cranes - divided among three separate flocks that each require monitoring. To accomplish this there are several agencies and organizations working to keep tabs on this most endangered crane. 

The only naturally occurring migratory population, referred to as the Wood Buffalo/Aransas flock because of its historical migration path, which starts at the breeding grounds located at the Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Canada, and ends at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the coast of Texas. This flock, which has improved from the species all-time low of only 15 in the early forties, to its current count of 184, is monitored on their wintering site by Tom Stehn, refuge biologist. At the northern end of their 2700-mile migration corridor, Brian Johns, biologist with Canadian Wildlife Service monitors the flock. Each perform several aerial surveys during the breeding and winter seasons and report total cranes present, first (and last) to arrive/depart, number of nests located, and number of chicks spotted. Information gathered from the nesting season by Brian is valuable to Tom as this will give him an idea of how many juveniles he might expect to see once the cranes begin arriving in late fall at the Aransas refuge.

Latest word from Tom Stehn is that all but two sub-adults have left their winter habitat as of his April 23rd aerial survey, while Brian Johns reports that the first Whooping cranes to return to Canada arrived last week. The majority should begin arriving over the next few weeks as the weather warms up.

The second population is the non-migratory flock, situated in central Florida. This reintroduction program began in 1993 and is overseen by the Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission. Captive bred Whooping cranes from the International Crane Foundation, the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research center and the San Antonio Zoo are soft-released each year, in small cohorts on the Kissimmee Prairie and are monitored throughout the year by FWCC staff. This population currently stands at 91, and includes "Lucky" the first wild Whooping crane to successfully hatch and fledge in the United States in 63 years after taking his first flight, alongside his parents on June 7th of last year.

The third distinct population is the new eastern migratory flock numbering twenty-one. The latest information provided by the ICF tracking team is as follows: 

Hatch Year 2002 - Cranes; 1, 11 & 12 are located approximately 130 miles NE of the Necedah refuge. Cranes; 2, 3, 5, 7, 8, 15, 16 & 17 are still at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge. Cranes; 4 & 18 moved to an area SW of the release site on April 19th. Crane #9 was last seen in Wilkes County, North Carolina on April 16th. The following day she was reported gone from the area and is currently not being tracked. Crane #14 has not been located since April 13th when she was in Mason County, Illinois. The ICF tracking team hopes to conduct an aerial survey this week to follow up on potential sightings.

Hatch Year 2001 - Cranes; 1 & 2 This male and female pair seems to have parted ways, with the male #1 remaining at the Necedah refuge and the female, either moving on, or simply eluding trackers for the past week or so. #2 is wearing both a satellite PTT and a conventional radio transmitter but both are non-functional. Once she is located, she will likely be captured so that replacement units can be switched. Crane #5 is currently with the two younger cranes 4 & 18 in an area SW of the refuge. Crane #6 moved south from the refuge on April 20th and is currently located at a marsh between Baraboo and Necedah. Crane #7, a favorite of many, was eventually located in Waushara county, WI after keeping us all guessing and wondering for a few weeks. She has since moved on and is back to her old tricks - we'll let you know when and where she turns up.

Of course this is the time of year for new crane chicks to hatch (where did the time go????) If you'd like a peek at how Dan Sprague and the rest of the Patuxent crane crew have been spending the past week, click here

This ongoing reintroduction is being carried out by an alliance of public and non-profit organizations, known collectively as the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP). Operation Migration is proud to be among the nine founding members of this multifaceted group and are thrilled that our work over the past decade to perfect the ultralight aircraft technique has, after only two years, resulted in 21 wild Whooping cranes being included in the overall population total.

Returning an endangered species to an area they once inhabited is a colossal undertaking. Add to this that the species must be shown how to travel from a new summer nesting location - to a new winter habitat, and then return the following spring, and colossal becomes monumental.  Achieving monumental, requires the cooperation of many people, from a variety of organizations, each representing a particular area of expertise, which is the basis of how this unique WCEP alliance was formed. 

Of the nine founding members (listed alphabetically), the International Crane Foundation, headquartered in Baraboo, WI is an approved captive breeding center and provides eggs/chicks for the project. Additionally, ICF provides veterinary support throughout the year, and is responsible for monitoring the juvenile cranes during the winter, as well as tracking during the subsequent spring/summer months once the young cranes initiate the northward migration, unaided and return to their summer home.

The International Whooping Crane Recovery Team is responsible for safeguarding the species and makes decisions, which are critical to the well-being of the entire remaining population. The ten person Recovery Team is comprised of five members each from Canada and the United States and is co-chaired by Brian Johns and Tom Stehn.

The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin, both among the nine founding members have each provided some of the necessary funding in the form of grants and donations.

Operation Migration Inc. developed the selected reintroduction method of using ultralight aircraft to teach the reintroduced cranes how and where to migrate. OM was and still is responsible for locating willing landowners in each of the seven-states along the new flyway, which act as stopovers for our pilots, ground crew and the young cranes during the autumn migration flights. OM has worked closely over the past six years with the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center to develop and refine the early aircraft-conditioning process, and each spring and summer Operation Migration pilots and interns also migrate to Wisconsin, becoming the field team, which performs daily training sessions with the newest generation of crane chicks.

USGS National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin, provides on-going support necessary to keep the reintroduced flock healthy and disease free. NWHC is conducting important research surrounding West Nile Virus and the potential effect it may have on cranes. Additionally, the NWHC has provided veterinary consultation, diagnostic services, collaboration on health risk assessments and disease research in support of the crane project.

USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, located in Laurel, Maryland was the first facility to successfully breed captive Whooping cranes. Patuxent is home to the largest captive population, and as a result raises and provides about two-thirds of all Whooping cranes for release to the wild.  Patuxent supplies a substantial number of cranes for the Wisconsin-to-Florida reintroduction.  Eggs provided to the WCEP project by other captive centers are first transported to the Patuxent Research Center for hatching and subsequent circle-pen aircraft conditioning. Before the young cranes reach fledging age, they are transported to the Wisconsin release site at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge so that the first location they see from the air will be their future breeding location.  Patuxent also provides research and logistical support for the field training and fall migration components of the reintroduction. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is given the responsibility by law to recover endangered species. The service will facilitate the federal, state, and private organizations whose common goal is to establish a second migratory flock of Whooping cranes in the eastern states. Additionally, the service has a primary responsibility for operations at the Wisconsin release site (Necedah National Wildlife Refuge) and the Florida wintering site (Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge). As part of the overall team, the FWS is also responsible for flyway states coordination, budget development, and project communications.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is the state agency charged with managing Wisconsin's environment; from fish and wildlife to air, water, land, and outdoor recreation.  Wisconsin was the first state to officially partner with the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership when the Recovery Team selected Wisconsin as the summer nesting site after a lengthy habitat suitability study was conducted. The state maintains and manages a portion of the wetland complex that will support the introduced crane flock, and has supplied much of the environmental data used to assess the suitability of the Wisconsin site where the cranes will be released. The DNR is also funding the project coordinator's position and is providing staff and department resources to the project.

So there you have it: the nine founding members of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, which brings about 70 people to the reintroduction table. When you consider the number of partnering states, agencies, organizations and individuals that have come on board since WCEP was founded in 1999, we can only hope that the population of cranes in the eastern flyway eventually outnumbers the people involved to return them to this portion of North America.

Date:Apr. 14, 2003
Reporter:Heather Ray
Activity:Flown Away HOME!... for the most part.

Progress Map

Notes: Of the sixteen juvenile cranes led south last fall, all but two returned yesterday to central Wisconsin. Cranes 029 and 0214 are still migrating - individually, after hesitating and turning back on day one of the thirteen-day migration. We'll keep you posted on their progress as we learn the details, and in the meantime we're celebrating the arrival of: 022, 023, 024, 025, 027, 028, 0213, 0215, 0216, 0217 & 0218 at one of the three training sites on the Necedah NWR where these cranes first experienced flight, alongside our small yellow trikes. Three others, 021, 0211 & 0212 are still a bit further south in a large wetland, where they may or may not stay. Like last years birds these yearlings may wander a bit in the coming weeks.

Early last summer they arrived at the refuge - aboard a private jet, after hatching and then undergoing several weeks of early imprinting and conditioning at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. They appeared as mostly caramel coloured, high-spirited, gangly children; most were eager to please; others a bit tentative and cautious.

Over the next few weeks their tawny plumage was replaced by fresh white  feathers. Their black primaries lengthened, making them clearly visible when the now not-so-gangly teenagers would take to the air during early morning training sessions.

By mid-October they had reached their full height, though they still had the caramel colouring on their heads and necks. They were able to fly for about 30 minutes at a time so the migration south began. The fall journey lasted 49-days, of which twenty-seven were spent waiting for the weather to improve. 

The cranes were eventually delivered to their new winter home at the Chassahowitzka NWR on November 30, 2002 and were joined immediately by crane 015 who had recently returned south on his own, after making the trip a year earlier behind the ultralights.

For 121-days they learned to forage in the salt marshes; they learned that there is safety in nighttime water roosting; they explored their surrounding area and on all but a few nights, returned to the safety of their predator-proof enclosure. 

Most importantly, they remembered the way HOME and yesterday, fourteen of them returned there - now in their adult "clothing," nearly blinding white, accented by their bold red crowns and black moustaches.

They have done what the generation before them did, and what the soon to hatch chicks will also do...

Cranes 011, 012, 015 & 016 are all now at the Necedah refuge. Crane 017 has not yet turned up but with the battery of her radio transmitter likely nearing, or already at the drained stage, it may be awhile before she is located.

Date:Apr. 9, 2003
Reporter:Heather Ray
Activity:Still windy in Indy
Progress Map

Notes: We've received emails and calls from many people wondering why there haven't been any updates. Truth is there hasn't been a great deal of action to provide updates about. The large group, consisting of fourteen of last year's hatches and one of the HY01 cranes, remains at their southern Indiana location, still grounded by steady north winds.

A bit further back and slightly west, crane 0214 has made some progress and at last word had departed her north Tennessee location and was heading north toward Illinois, under the watchful eye of Windway pilot, Mike Voechting and ICF intern Colleen Satyshur. A bit more further back and slightly east of the large groups flightpath, crane 029, a cry-baby by nature from early on, and one of the two girls that turned back on the first day of the northward journey; was last spotted in north Georgia on April 6th. Persistent rain and winds have prevented aerial tracking and radio signals are sketchy at best in the heavily forested valleys of that region.

Date:Apr. 5, 2003
Reporter:Heather Ray
Activity:Waiting in "Windiana"

Notes: The large group of fifteen cranes is currently waiting out the weather in Windiana, much like we did on the way south last fall. With any luck at all it won't delay them as long as it did us last year and they'll be able to continue their northward trek. Though, considering I had to chip through 8 inches of crusty snow and freezing rain this morning just to get my car door open, perhaps they should stay put for a couple of days.  I tried to get into the office earlier to post an update and I couldn't - the door was frozen shut, sealed by a thick layer of ice.

Date:Apr. 4, 2003
Reporter:Joe Duff
Activity:April Fools

Notes: The wisdom of age and the people you consider your friends can make you completely oblivious to, or very suspicious of, April 1st. I fall into the latter category so when I heard that the 16 birds we led south last fall had departed their winter home at Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge this past Tuesday and headed north, I was doubtful. It had to be an April Fools joke. How could 15 birds flying together cover 495 miles in only a couple of days? The weather was so uncooperative on our way south last fall that we would have been delighted for that kind of progress in a month. 

Despite my disbelief, our cranes were indeed winging their way north - and at record speed. Including the bad weather we encountered, we averaged only 24.7 miles per day on the southbound journey, while they are making 247 miles a day, or ten times our rate. It took us 49 days to cover the 1204 miles from Wisconsin to Florida but in their current haste they could be back home within the week.  

The only warnings of their impending departure from the wintering site were some short, thermaling flights and a general restlessness only recognizable by the trained eye. There is no fanfare to their leaving; no bags to pack and no long goodbyes. They simply took to the air and headed north calling back and forth to gather the flock as they left. Sixteen birds that hatched last season and #5 from the year before all wintered together at the release pen in the salt marshes of Chassahowitzka. The major improvements to this enclosure that were made over the summer have increased the survivability of the flock and none were lost to bobcats this season. They foraged in the marsh by day and roosted in the water, within the safety of the pen at night, with the exception of a couple nights.  At 9:00 AM, Tuesday morning all seventeen birds left together but number 9 and 14 turned back, unconvinced that it was not just an April Fools prank. The reality must have sunk in when they found themselves alone and by the next day they too left. They took off separately and Lara Fondow and Colleen Satyshur, interns from the International Crane Foundation are each tracking one bird while Dr. Richard Urbanek tries to keep pace with the fast moving main flock of 15. They are following the path we taught them last fall even more closely than the previous generation. On the first night out they roosted only 3 miles from our stopover in Terrell County, Georgia where we met with President and Mrs. Carter last year. When they stopped for the evening on day two they landed within 5 miles from where we stopped at the Hiwassee State Wildlife Area in Tennessee.

While paying particular attention to this new generation of naïve birds the team is still keeping tabs on the five more mature sub-adults from the year before. Numbers 1 and 2, the birds that formed what we refer to as an artificial pair, are still together and have made it back to Necedah Wildlife Refuge in central Wisconsin. Biologist Rich King confirmed their presence on the refuge and sent some pictures to prove it. Number 6 was last reported very close to home in Dodge County, Wisconsin and number 7 was last seen on March 17th only 2 miles from the Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge near Seymour, Indiana. Crane number 5 who is now making the trip for the forth time, is probably assuring the group of 14 inexperienced navigators that he knows the way.

Fifteen is an unnaturally large number of Whooping cranes to be in one flock and coincidently is exactly the number that the species fell to in the 1940's however; it makes them easier to track than the groups of 2 or 3 that would be more common. They will not likely stay together as one flock, but hopefully the cohort will last until they reach Necedah National Wildlife Refuge. There we expect them to revert to a more reclusive behaviour and wander a bit before settling down for the summer.

Around 35 to 40 Whooping crane chicks are expected to hatch this year at the six captive breeding centres around North America. The Whooping Crane Recovery Team has allocated 18 to 20 of these birds to our project. We will begin moving them from the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland to Necedah in late June. They will be conditioned to follow our aircraft at the same sites we used to train the last two generations and it should be interesting to see how many of the wild cranes will want to claim that territory as their own.

Date:Apr. 3, 2003
Reporter:Heather Ray
Activity:Progressing...

Notes: On Apr. 2nd the group of 15 cranes, tracked by Richard Urbanek FWS/ICF departed their Lee Co. GA stopover location and had another great day, making it approximately 260 miles, before roosting for the night in Meigs Co. TN. If the name of this county sounds familiar, its because last fall we came to a screeching halt there with these cranes when poor weather held us up for a week. Then of course the cranes decided they really didn't want to leave once the weather allowed and a group of supporters who had turned up each morning to see if we were ever going to leave were treated to one of the best whooping crane spectacles ever seen.

While the exact location of their chosen roost has not been determined, we suspect they spent the night within 5-miles from last falls temporary pen site. Thank you Tennessee! for providing excellent habitat AND for your ongoing support of our work.

This morning the returning cranes were off again under ideal migration conditions and once airborne, Richard picked up their radio beeps and watched them thermal higher and higher catching updrafts of warm air, which carried them north and over the "beast" that has, for the past two fall migrations, given our pilots grief. Walden Ridge peaks at 2800ft. but the group of 15 had no problem climbing over it yesterday and I have to wonder, as they went over, did any of them recall that particular leg of the journey last fall when they were heading in the opposite direction?

No word as yet on where this group of cranes ended up today. A bit further south, ICF interns Lara and Colleen were each tracking the two submissive females, that had decided to turn back briefly on Apr. 1st. Both of these '02 cranes, 9 & 14 were heading north yesterday and once we have the results of their separate flights, we'll keep you posted. 

Meantime, if anyone out there happens to see these very special Whooping cranes as they make their first unassisted return migration, please provide them the respect and privacy they deserve, and do not attempt to approach them. Remember these cranes have been costume-raised and have never seen an un-costumed human, nor have they heard human voices. They have a tentative hold on wildness and it is in their best interest to fear and ultimately avoid anything "human." And please, before making public the presence of any of the returning cranes, please evaluate the potential for disturbance. Thank you for helping... 

Date:Apr. 2, 2003
Reporter:Heather Ray
Activity:Cranes in the North AND South...

Notes: Yesterday was about as exciting as they get - 17 cranes departed the Chassahowitzka NWR wintering location where they had spent the last 121 days, and headed north. After flying as a group for 90 minutes, two juveniles (9 & 14) turned back.  The large group was tracked by ICF intern Lara Fondow and biologist Richard Urbanek to the FL/GA state line, when it was decided the Lara would return south toward Crystal River to attempt to locate the two tentative birds.

Richard continued tracking the group of 15 into Georgia, where after almost 9 hours in flight, and 235 miles later the entire group roosted in Lee County before departing this morning, shortly after 10am. It's interesting to note that their chosen roost location is less than 3 miles by air from one of our stopover locations last fall. So, thank you Georgia - for your wonderful wetland that hosted our returning cranes for the night!

Meanwhile, back in Florida, Lara eventually located the submissive 02-9, after dark, alone, in an unfamiliar salt marsh to the north of Crystal River. Her likewise subservient flock mate, 02-14 was not located until this morning when her radio signal, as well as that of 02-9 were detected. The strength of the signals, indicated that while both cranes were in flight and heading north, they were not traveling together.

And, just in case all of this isn't enough excitement - Yesterday also brought word from Rich King, biologist at the Necedah NWR. Rich reported that yesterday morning at 9:30 am he detected the radio signal from the transmitter worn by crane 011. This crane, along with its mate, 012 departed their Pasco Co. FL wintering location on Mar 25th and they likely arrived at their fledging site late on Mar. 31st, after they were seen departing Lake Co. Indiana that morning by Barb Dodge and Carolyn Marsh, both members of the Indiana Audubon Society. Crane 012 currently has no functioning transmitters, after breaking the antenna on her conventional radio pack as well as on her PTT unit. Click to see photos taken of them yesterday morning.

Summary: Fifteen cranes are currently migrating as one group. They departed Georgia this morning and are being tracked by biologist Richard Urbanek.  Two tentative cranes from last year are about a day behind and are being tracked by Lara Fondow, with air support coming from Windway Capitol Corp. Pilot Mike Voechting and intern Colleen Satyshur are assisting with the tracking and are ready in case the group of 15 chooses to split up.  Two '01 adults are confirmed at the Necedah NWR.  Crane 016 remains in Dodge Co. WI. and 017 remains unaccounted for.

Date:Apr. 1, 2003
Reporter:Heather Ray
Activity:NOT AN APRIL FOOL'S JOKE!

Notes: Whew! No sooner had we reported that the pair of Whooping cranes, numbers 011 & 012 departed Florida and were currently heading north, when word came this morning that the 2002 youngsters have decided to follow suit!

Only 37% voted for the "first week of April" in the very unofficial poll, which just proves that it's anyone's guess - including ours. Details are sketchy at the moment but what we do know is that the entire group of 17, roosted outside of the release pen last night and apparently departed the Chassahowitzka area this morning. Two cranes, #'s 9 & 14 turned back and returned to the enclosure but the remaining 15, including crane #015 continued north.  Richard Urbanek, FWS will be tracking from the ground and ICF intern Colleen Satyshur who had planned on scouting Wisconsin today from the air to locate the HY01 cranes 1, 2 & 7, will fly the route south in the hopes of picking up any radio signals, which she will forward to Richard.

Stay tuned





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