|Date:||October 5, 2002|
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,
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
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|
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
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
|Date:||Sept. 30, 2002|
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
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.
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
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.
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
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|
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
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|
|Activity:||A Full Time
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
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|
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
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.
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.
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.
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|
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|
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
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.
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.
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.
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|
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.
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
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
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
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
Over the image would be the slogan "our endangered species is
going to eat your endangered species."
|Date:||July 7, 2002|
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.
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.
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|
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.
|Date:||June 25, 2002|
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|
|Activity:||A New Season - A New Flock!|
Flock of Experimental Whooping Crane Chicks Arrive at the Necedah National
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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|Date:||June 6, 2002|
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
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."
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|
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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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