UPDATED: Thursday, April 3
As expected the eight “ultralight chicks” of 2013 took off for home – Wisconsin – Monday morning, leaving their wintering site at St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. On its Facebook page on Tuesday, Operation Migration, (the group that taught the chicks the migration route last fall) reported observations of OM pilot Brooke Pennypacker: the young cranes took off as a group, and they had a tailwind. Later in the day there were reported roosting in southeastern Alabama, having covered 150 miles on their first day of migration. On Wednesday OM said this: “We received a couple of PTT hits for whooping crane #1-13 last evening that place her approximately 130 miles north of the previous stopover.” Four other cranes are fitted with the sensitive PTT monitors and it is hoped more location information will soon be forthcoming.
Monday, March 31
Yesterday was highly anticipated, weather-wise, here in northeast Wisconsin, and it didn’t disappoint. A walk in an urban woods was full of sensory gratification: bright sunshine, mild winds from the south, and open water. Slush and mud puddles dotted woodland paths; melting snow was everywhere else, and maybe most welcome of all was the almost-forgotten fresh air smell of everything in the natural world coming out of its dormant state. It was the kind of day, I ‘m sure, that will bring more whooping cranes home to the state.
After a day like that, I’ll be surprised if we don’t learn this week that the 8 “ultralight chicks” of 2013 have taken to the air down in Florida, departing for good from their protected winter pensite at St. Marks’s NWR. There have been a mounting number of whooping crane sightings already reported in Wisconsin this month (see the websites or Facebook pages of the International Crane Foundation or Operation Migration), but the return of these youngest whooping cranes in the Eastern Migratory Population is still awaited.
And it’s always a big deal. Though it happens predictably year-after-year, there’s always something so satisfying and breathtaking, really, about the return of the year-old whooping cranes who have just learned the migration route the previous fall by flying it with the ultralights of Operation Migration. I touched on the fall trip of the Class of 2013 in my first post here at The Badger and the Whooping Crane, calling the guided-migration their “final exam.” If fall’s guided-migration is really their “final examine,” their unaided migration back to Wisconsin this spring is truly a Commencement Exercise – their graduation into the real world as genuinely wild beings.
Until their flight back to Wisconsin, everything about their existence from hatching, to fledging, to fall migration, has been intensely managed by humans. (That would be mute, disguised humans, to be sure, so that the growing crane chicks, do not become imprinted on humans, or even comfortable near them.) Even once in Florida, where they are allowed to fly free after the momentous fall migration, they are still watched over by costumed-handlers, and coaxed into a netted enclosure ever night.
But one day soon, if they haven’t already, the young adult cranes of the Class of 2013, will rise into the moist gulf air with a new intention. They’ll set their course to the north and be gone. And they’ll be found back here in Wisconsin just days later. We’re waiting for them.