The Class of 2014’s Happy Ending to Spring Migration

All five of the young whooping cranes of the Class of 2014 have been successfully returned to Wisconsin after weeks of wandering in southern Illinois and into Kentucky. The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP) had already determined months ago that because of the unusual circumstances of the fall 2014 migration there might be a need to assist the young cranes with their return trip, and WCEP partner, Operation Migration, had volunteered to do it. That the five made it on their own, in the company of one adult whooper, as far north as Illinois by early April was a decided plus. But their Illinois arrival was followed by storms, and their adult companion left for Wisconsin without them. Then came too much of what ultralight pilot Joe Duff called “their peregrinations back and forth across the state . . .” It was obvious that they were lost.

In a capture-and-rescue mission by Operation Migration – two missions, actually, and both read like scripts for an award-winning action-drama film – the birds were located, tracked, coaxed, and contained, then driven back to Wisconsin in the dead of night. When they were released, free and wild, near last summer’s flight training site at White River Marsh, they emerged from their travel crates at dawn, “fresh as daisies and began dancing around together in joyful exuberance.” Those are the words of Brooke Pennypacker, their OM ultralight pilot, and, for one chilly night, their long-distance driver. “They looked,” he added, “as though they had just traveled through some magic portal and found themselves in the past and the future, both at the same time.”

I’ve written about these Class of 2014 cranes and their plight before, two posts down this page. The links included here in this post will connect you to the eye-witness accounts at The Field Journal of Operation Migration. They describe in exquisite detail the long hikes through difficult terrain, tall grasses, and forests nearly impassable with brambles; the scaling muddy embankments, the wading through streams and ponds, and swimming to an island to rescue a crane trapped in vegetation so thick she could not open her wings to fly.

That was one of several small but critical rescues within the bigger picture of getting the lost cranes back to Wisconsin. On another island the OM crew arrived to find crane #4-14 being stalked by coyotes. In addition to the long hikes, small boats and airplanes have a place in the story, too. I encourage you to follow the links and read more about this – it’s action-and-drama-with-wildlife writing you won’t be soon forget.