This Could Be Yours: A 2-Week Vacation With the Whooping Cranes

Well, ok, it IS a Working Vacation, but for the right person – and maybe that’s YOU – this could be the adventure of a lifetime. Operation Migration, which is currently training seven of the whooping crane chicks of 2014 to follow their ultralight aircraft, is seeking a corps of volunteers, each to sign up for a 2-week stretch, to assist with the fall migration.

Come late September, or maybe sometime in October, the aircraft, the pilots, the whooping cranes, and a ground crew hauling lots of equipment, will leave the White River Marsh State Wildlife Area in Wisconsin and begin the long journey to St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge in Florida.

Ultralight training of juvenile whooping cranes in Wisconsin. (Photo courtesy, WCEP)

Ultralight training of juvenile whooping cranes in Wisconsin. This is a file photo courtesy, of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership. The class of 2014 cranes have not yet progressed to flying with the ultralight, instead – for now – they follow behind as the aircraft taxis along the ground.

It’s a journey of 1,100 miles but what makes it soooo long is the necessity of perfect weather for the cranes to fly with the ultralights.  The cranes could fly faster, but they are just learning the migration route and need the OM planes and pilots to teach them.  And the ultralights could make a more efficient journey without the cranes following. But since, for the purposes of this journey they are linked together, they will wait for perfect flying conditions. Sometimes that means day, after day, after day, of grounded cranes and planes.

Operation Migration's efforts to train whooping cranes to migrate with ultralights begins with the little cranes following the ultralight as it taxis along the ground. (USFWS photo)

Operation Migration’s efforts to train whooping cranes to migrate with ultralights begins with the little cranes following the ultralight as it taxis along the ground. (USFWS photo)

If you were chosen to fill one of these 2-week volunteer slots, you would be helping to drive the motorhomes and portable pen site equipment that accompanies the birds and flight crew. You would be helping to set up the stopover sites, and maybe helping to track an occasional straying crane. You would be working with the team – the only one in the world – that is using the ultralights to teach these endangered and beautiful birds the migration route that makes possible their reintroduction to Wisconsin.

Operation Migration has always relied on volunteers: “Apart from the three pilots and outreach staff,many of the bird handlers and tracking people are volunteers,” OM pilot Joe Duff explains at the OM Field Journal. And it has always required folks with a very open schedule and a desire to commit a significant part of their year to the cause of the whooping cranes.

Whooping Crane photographed by Dale Bonk in Dane County in November.

Two grown up whooping cranes photographed in Wisconsin by birder Dale Bonk in 2013.

Until this year, that is.  This year OM has decided to experiment with seeking a higher number of volunteers, for the much briefer commitment of 2 weeks.”Rather than asking you to give up an indefinite amount of your fall and early winter, we are asking you for two weeks,” said Joe. OM came up with this plan, in hopes that ” . . . a specific end date would make it simpler for people to plan ahead. . .” Joe is anticipating this will generate new interest in joining the migration team.  Many are willing to assist, he said, but have found it too difficult with the open-ended schedule and their own needs and obligations.

Whether you would actually consider this rare opportunity, or would just like to learn more about all that’s involved with it, go here, and read all about it at the Field Journal. Really, do. This is a fascinating part of the whooping crane reintroduction story.

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