The Winter Homes of Whooping Cranes

If you’re looking for news of Wisconsin’s whooping cranes – where are they now that it’s frigid January, you wonder? – I can point you to two sources of (mostly) good-news items. The first, Operation Migration, is celebrating their own very-good-news story this week: the safe arrival in Florida of the 8 young “ultralight” cranes.

The cranes that have been trained to fly with ultralight aircraft since hatching, and have been learning the migration route with those ultralights since leaving Wisconsin on October 2nd, touched down Sunday at St. Mark’s Wildlife Refuge. Their pilot led them in close to their winter pensite in the salt marshes of St. Mark’s, then rapidly accelerated into higher altitudes, too fast for the cranes to follow. That was the last flight they would ever take with their ultralight “surrogate parent”.

2009 photo of cranes following an ultralight; by Tim Ross; at Wikimedia Commons.

2009 photo of cranes following an ultralight; by Tim Ross; at Wikimedia Commons.

The cranes must have been surprised as the aircraft took off, but, according to OM eyewitnesses, they quickly responded to the signals coming from costumed handlers with whooping crane brood callers a short distance below them. As they landed, the next and final phase of their training to learn a migration route and ultimately become free, wild creatures was beginning. More about this story below, but first, a digression into the second source of whooping crane data – periodic population updates for Wisconsin’s cranes, officially called the Eastern Migratory Population (EMP).

International Crane Foundation photo of the whooping crane winter pen site in Florida; taken January 2007.

International Crane Foundation photo of the whooping crane winter pen site in Florida; taken January 2007.

Whooping Crane Population Reports

The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership monitors the EMP and issues updates, making them available on the front page of their website. The most recent update covers the time period November 15 to December 15, 2013, and it shows a pretty good “snapshot” of where our cranes have gone; or at least where they were in mid-December. I’ll summarize the major points, but you can access this WCEP report directly for particular details, such as “long-term-missing” and other categories that affect the totals. There is quite a bit to study and learn from in each report.

Here are the highlights of the December 15th report: There were approximately 18 EMP cranes reported in Kentucky and Tennessee; 2 were counted in Georgia, 6 in Florida, and 24 in Alabama. But the majority, 42 of them, remained close to home in our neighboring states of Illinois and Indiana.

That was well before the polar vortex sent overnight temperatures plunging below zero all over the midwest. Have the 42 that were counted in our neighboring states in December now moved on? Are more Wisconsin cranes staying in Alabama, rather than Florida, for most of their migration? These are questions a future EMP update may help answer. I’ll be sure to mention it here when WCEP issues the next one.

Data from Operation Migration

Just as WCEP provides much data on the whooping cranes that we in Wisconsin call “ours,” so too, does Operation Migration. They are exclusively concerned with one particular aspect of establishing this new flock of whooping cranes, that being the training of some of the new chicks hatched each year to follow the ultralights. So by necessity, their focus is a narrow one. But it is so deep in details – from the aircraft, to the pilots, to the cranes-in-training.

Photo courtesy International Crane Foundation

Photo courtesy International Crane Foundation

And you can’t forget the ground crew that travels along the migration route to set up the travel pens and carry equipment and when necessary retrieve a crane that has gone astray; nor the people along the route that open their homes and fields to host the crew and the cranes. Then add the constant worry and tedium waiting for the right weather to allow all this to happen. Whew! That’s quite a list, and I know it just scratches the surface. All this, and then some, is described everyday in the Field Journal at OM’s website. You don’t want to miss it.

The cranes that arrived in Florida this week, have now begun a transition that Joe Duff, lead pilot for OM, has called “their gentle release into the wild.” Every step of this process will be chronicled at the Field Journal. In fact, it’s best described in a post Joe wrote when the Class of 2012 arrived at St. Mark’s a year ago. Read his “Just As It Should Be” to see what happens next.


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