Ask the Experts: Answers About Ultralight Migration

October ended with an “Ask the Experts” live, online chat devoted to Wisconsin’s whooping cranes. These online chats, offered by Wisconsin’s DNR, occur more or less weekly on a variety of outdoor and wildlife topics. Everyone is welcome to stop by and discuss, via their submitted text questions, Wisconsin’s wild ginseng harvest, or bow hunting, or snow boarding, or bald eagles, to name just four examples of the numerous topics covered. You can check out all of them and what’s-scheduled-when for yourself at this DNR Ask the Experts web page.

The experts at the Whooping Crane chat included Heather Ray of Operation Migration, Eva Szyszkoski and Sara Gavney Moore of the International Crane Foundation, and Davin Lopez, DNR whooping crane coordinator. They fielded a wide selection of whooping crane questions submitted by 24 active participants – everything from the basic (How many whoopers are alive right now? About 600.) to a discussion of changing nest phrenology (I’ll explain; that comes later). It was a delightfully informative hour!

A number of the questions submitted were migration-related and fielded by OM’s Heather Ray. I’m reporting on those today, and later this week I’ll post again about other whooping crane issues covered in the online group chat.

So for now let’s look at migration issues. These are pressing this year since the ultralight migration is having such a time of it, just getting out of Wisconsin! Persistent lousy weather has kept the planes, and the cranes, grounded night after night, and on 3 of the 4 days that flights did take place, the cranes haven’t come together as a cohesive flying unit. (You can read details from one example of that here, in OM’s Field Journal.)

Crates for Whooping Cranes as a Last Resort

Heather didn’t address the weather problems (and no one had asked), but she did express confidence in the cranes’ ability to overcome the slow start to this migration and become good fliers And she dispelled a few rumors that have apparently been “flying” around.

Curt, a participant, inquired about a rumor that many Operation Migration cranes are being “transported by car. How many miles have they flown and been driven?” he wanted to know. “We’re currently only at mile 47 of the southward migration so those that have been crated haven’t missed much,” said Heather.

Another, Tommy, left this comment: “A lot of chat today about the OM birds not being able to make a 2-hour flight.” Expecting that now would be a bit of a stretch, responded Heather. “This early in the migration, the longest flight this group has ever had has been 42 minutes.”

(The 42 minute flight covered 28 miles. You can check the 2013 Timeline at the Operation Migration website and see for yourself that, in general each flight gets longer in miles – so, longer times, too. Eventually the cranes will be making 50 and 70 and even 100 mile flights.)

This older file photo depicts  an ultralight training flights.  Four whooping crane colts follow the aircraft at Necedah National Wildife Refuge sometime before 2011. (Photo courtesy of WCEP)

This older file photo depicts an ultralight training flight. Four whooping crane colts follow the aircraft at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge sometime before 2011. (Photo courtesy of WCEP)

Heather had also expanded on the subject of crating earlier in her response to a question from Nana: ” . . . how does this affect imprinting of their proposed route?”

“It really has little effect,” said Heather, “as typically they make the return trip as a group. That said, we prefer each crane to see as much of the route as possible on the trip south.” In another answer she had said that the birds don’t enjoy the crating process, and that should serve as a motivator. “They’ll get with the program eventually. We’ll crate only as a last resort,” she said.

More About the Class of 2014 Ultralight-trained Whooping Cranes

The chat also provided more information about the individual birds that makeup of the Class of 2014 ultralight chicks. A question was asked about dominance among the birds, particularly in flight, and Heather was quick to identify two strong birds; both #3 & #8-14 are birds that “appear very dedicated to the aircraft.”

And, there was a question about the health of Peanut, or crane #4-14, “the one that had the leg injury?”

“Actually he seems fine. No limp at all,” said Heather, noting that “he’s “loving the attention from the ladies.”

There are several unique things about 4-14, including his nickname. OM-trained whoopers are always known specifically by their numbers reflecting the order in which they hatched, and the year. But this year, #4, the only male in a flock of 7, and at one time the smallest of the group, quickly acquired the nickname, Peanut, and tradition and protocol to the contrary, it seems to me that the name has stuck.

In late August, Peanut, sustained a soft tissue injury near his hock joint – it is a theory that perhaps he injured himself jumping around wildly during a strong storm. He had to be removed from flight training for several weeks, and then was trained separately to decrease chances of re-injury. On the first migration day he flew for 7 minutes, alone with one of the aircraft, after the other chicks had been led to the first stop of the journey. With few migration days since then, #4, aka Peanut, has had few chances to really fly. At this point Heather said, “he needs to build up some endurance.”

Come Follow These Cranes

Near the end of the online chat Heather offered this parting “factoid” of interest: Among the 7 chicks are 2 sets that are full siblings: numbers 2 & 3-14, along with #9&10-14 are sister cranes.

Follow this developing story. One of these days, the foul weather of September and October will clear. And with a day or two of real migration miles logged, Peanut and the 6 Girls will at last experience flying high and free in the wake of their surrogate parent ultralights. If you’d like to learn more about the mechanics of long-distance bird flight, and birds flying with ultralights, Joe Duff recently published a piece at OM’s Field Journal, that goes into the precise details of what he calls “the art and science” of flying with birds. You’ll learn a lot!

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