Ultralight-led Migration Ends: Will a New Role Begin for OM?

So. Joe Duff had this to say this morning

                                                             “That’s All She Wrote”

Yes, it IS the bad news that every craniac fervently hoped not to hear this week:  the end of the ultralight flights – and Operation Migration leading a new class of young whooping cranes from Wisconsin to Florida each year.

The Fly-Over of the Class of 2009, on arrival at St. Marks NWR, January 13, 2010. Among the group are the future Cow Pond Whoopers. The Class of 2009 was one of the very biggest of UL classes. One of the females of this class did raise a chick to fledge in 2015. (Photo by Karen Willes; used with permissioin)

The Fly-Over of the Class of 2009, on arrival at St. Marks NWR, January 13, 2010. This was one of the very biggest of UL classes, and includes some well-known birds.  Among the group are the future Cow Pond Whoopers. This past year one of the females of this class did raise a wild chick to fledge, #10-15. (Photo by Karen Willes; used with permission)

Joe Duff wrote a spectacularly detailed, clear summary of the week’s events leading to this decision, and he dispatched it swiftly so we wouldn’t be left waiting; and wondering. He described the science being looked at as possible answers to the EMP’s slow progress – or as some think, no progress –  in becoming a self-sustaining population.

(What would a self- sustaining population be? One that reproduces itself.  Why can’t the EMP reproduce itself?  That’s where the scientific theories that Joe wrote about, are needed; the theories that are being developed; and will need to be studied and tested.)

Joe also said this: “. . . (during the meetings last week)  we focused on ways to keep released birds with adult role models for as early, and as long as possible “

Somewhere in this Decision is a New Role for OM

And he said:  “There are many ways that Operation Migration can serve within WCEP, including developing a new, less invasive release technique at White River. Those options need to be explored, and expanded.  He mentioned “moving forward” and “clearing hurdles.”      

This WCEP decision, and Joe’s response to it, trigger a number of questions waiting to be asked, and I did get one answer earlier today when OM responded to question/comment I posted on their Facebook page.  

Me:  I hope this means you aren’t all going away!? And OM responded:  “Definitely not going away!” That’s an answer that is definitely going to console some disappointed followers of OM through the Field Jounral, Crane Cam and more.

Others Comment on the End of Ultralight Migration

Here is just a very small sample of comments left on Joe’s post today:

From Mindy:   “You have made such a contribution to the Eastern population and the whole species.  No one can ever take that away.”

Willie said:  “It is rare to see such a level of commitment by humans to save another species . . . I will continue to support Operation Migration any way that I can.”

And Mike:  “A sad result for such a well-coordinated effort. I live in Hardin County, TN and twice during the last three years I have witnessed a flock of the birds migrating north on their own. I thought how lucky I was to see something so rare.”

Here’s Denise:  “Heartbroken. But how can we help support OM? Please let us know.”

“Making a Huge Mistake,” says Wildlife Biologist

And finally, this lengthy quote is from comments left by Robert, a wildlife biologist, retired from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources.

“For years I have been tracking the efforts to introduce a second, self-sustaining population of whoopers,” said Robert, and his words, the ones that follow here, form a pretty good summary of what The Badger and the Whooping Crane has been thinking. “It is obvious,” he continued, “that the Eastern flock is having issues with raising recruits to fledgling stage. However, to just give up on the aircraft-led migration seems at this stage  to be rather short-sighted . . . I have heard of no other methods that comes close to the OM record of successfully getting birds into a second migrating population.

“So the Eastern flock will just be abandoned to wither away like the Florida non-migrating population while birds are pumped into Louisiana with the same or worse problems.  . . . I just think the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership is making a HUGE mistake in canceling OM without a better answer in place.”

Whooping Cranes Wait in Georgia while WCEP Meets in Wisconsin

Just about every craniac on the planet must be wishing he or she could be a fly on the wall during the meetings of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership this week.  These meetings, somewhere in Wisconsin, have been planned for sometime now, to work out the details of the partnership’s vision for the next 5-year plan for the Eastern Migratory Population of Whooping Cranes. Certainly, for the craniacs, their hearts are there, even though their eyes and ears can’t be.    

What’s next for the Eastern Migratory Population – the 100 or so wild whooping cranes that now call Wisconsin home? That’s what’s being decided.  And the fate of the ultralight-led migrations that Operation Migration has provided (for anywhere from 6 to 20 whooper chicks) each year since 2001, is one of the many items – and a big one, most likely – that are on the agenda.

GROUNDED? (Photo courtesy, WCEP)

                                Grounded? (Photo courtesy, WCEP)

This year there are six young OM-trained whooping cranes  – almost adults now – and they are waiting in southern Georgia, a hop, skip and a jump (140 miles, to be precise) away from their target destination, St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. But the birds will wait at least until next Sunday, while the pilots and senior staff of Operation Migration participate in the meetings of the partnership they help direct.

Writing at OM’s Field Journal, the group’s Head Pilot Joe Duff outlined the tough choices necessitated by the conflict between the ongoing migration and the WCEP meetings. In it, he talks about the stresses of the weather-delayed, longer-than-usual migration: these include stresses on staff, the need for added volunteers, the strain for hosts that have agreed to provide space for motor homes, trucks and vans, and a safe and well-hidden place for a temporary pen for the birds – all for an uncertain amount of time.

Photographer and Citizen Scientist, Karen Willes, made this lovely photo of the arrival of the Class of 2014 over the town of St. Marks, in December a year ago. Yltralight pilot Brooke Pennypacker had two of the seven cranes "locked" to each wingtip. (Photo used with permission)

Photographer and Citizen Scientist, Karen Willes, made this lovely photo of the arrival of the Class of 2014 over the town of St. Marks, in December a year ago. Ultralight pilot Brooke Pennypacker had two of the seven cranes “locked” to each wingtip. (Photo used with permission)

And Duff talks about the effect on the birds, waiting in the pen for the right weather, and the human plans to coincide. Will they be eager to follow the ultralights after a long stay in one place?  Or will their flight be numerous attempts at a crane rodeo – rounding them up in the air and on the ground – when the right day finally comes again?  In the end, Duff and his crew made the only decision – “Standing Down Till Sunday . . .”  they probably could.

And what will there be to report when Sunday arrives? Watching this reintroduction of whooping cranes into the wild, using Wisconsin as their nesting territory and Florida, ideally, as a wintering one, you could see the project as a race – a marathon, for sure. And the finish line seems to be getting close, but isn’t quite in sight yet.

There were plans made in 2011 to introduce the cranes into a new nesting territory in Wisconsin, and the success of that plan hasn’t begun to be tested. In a few more years, it would seem to this non-scientist, that the scientific studies might be expected to flow from this new breeding area.

Although ultralight-led migration is just one component of the re-introduction, it was the essential component at the beginning, and has never stopped being a key component. And the pilots and support staff of Operation Migration have always done a job for the birds that has seemed over and above the call of duty – again and again. To give up on this re-introduction and the WCEP partnership now – with so much already invested and so many successful components in place – would seem like . . . well, just giving up. Who’d want to do that? Hopefully, though, that won’t be what happens.

Ed. note:  If you’d like a fuller explanation of the WCEP partnership, Meet the Partners for Whooping Cranes is one resource for it.    


Monday Morning Blogging: Ray Zillmer and the Ice Age Trail

This is one of a series of posts about conservation losses in Wisconsin in 2015.  It looks at the loss of state funding for a dozen or more conservation non-profit organizations. This is my attempt to learn more about each of the organizations, and to write about their history, their programs and services, – what they do for the state of Wisconsin.

Not too long ago I found an “old friend” I thought was missing – it was a book – 50 Hikes in Wisconsin by John and Ellen Morgan! It fell open in my hands to the dedication page: “To the Ice Age Park and Trail Alliance and its army of unwavering volunteers . . . .”  It ends with “In Memory of Ray Zillmer.” I was instantly reminded that yes, I did want to write about the Ice Age Trail Alliance.

I wanted to write about them, in part, because they are one of the conservation-minded groups to lose state support in 2015, but also because they are derived directly from the single-minded perseverance of one man with an idea. And single-minded though he could be, in pursuit of an idea, that man – Raymond T. Zillmer (1887-1960) – left more than one story to be told.

A National Park Service outline of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail.

A National Park Service outline of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail.

Zillmer was a lifelong Milwaukeean – except for his student years at Madison and one at Harvard – and an intrepid adventurer. He was a husband and father, and active in civic organizations and the state and local Bar Associations. No doubt though, it was his involvement with the Izaak Walton League that best reflected what drove Ray Zillmer: a passion to get outdoors. And not just to hike or camp.

Zillmer went mountaineering, and exploring, and trekked through unmapped parts of British Columbia for 2 and 3 weeks at a time, year after year in the 1930s through the mid-40s. Then he published long accounts of these trips, such as “The Exploration of the Source of the Thompson River in British Columbia,” in American Alpine Journal, and others in the Canadian Alpine Journal. At the end of his life the American Alpine Journal said this about Zillmer:

“Exploration and elucidation of new country were more important in his eyes than mere climbing, and he carried out punishing journeys at an age when many another would have sought easier activity.”

As intense as those experiences must have been, Zillmer is also credited by the Morgans (in Fifty Hikes,) and others, with a deep appreciation for the natural wonders of the world wherever he could find them.  “In particular,” write the Morgans, ” Zillmer was intensely enamored with the rambling hilly area just west of Milwaukee where he would go on weekends with his family for adventuring.” This favorite haunt of Ray Zillmer’s would become the southern unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest

The Kettle Moraine State Forest, Southern Unit; the sign face north.

The Kettle Moraine State Forest, Southern Unit; the sign face north.

As early as 1933, Zillmer was named “Man of the Year,” by the state chapter of the Izaak Walton League for his work in the development of the Kettle Moraine State Park.   From 1941-49 he was chairman of the Kettle Moraine Committee for the Izaak Walton League of Milwaukee  and from 1954-58 he held the same role for the state chapter.

There is much in those years that is covered extensively by another blogger, Drew Hanson, (also a hiker, formerly of the IATA staff) at Pedestrian View. Hanson writes:  “During the 1940s-1950s, Ray Zillmer hounded Wisconsin governors and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources . . . to focus more resources on land acquisition of a corridor of land in the Kettle Moraine. . . .(Zillmer) was considered an authority on the subject and a persuasive advocate.”

As one gets to know more about Zillmer, it becomes obvious that during those years he also began to see the conservation of the Kettle Moraine as the most important work of his life. He said exactly this in a letter, July 1, 1948, to Acting Governor Oscar Rennenbohm, Again, from Drew Hanson’s blog, Pedestrian View:

In the Northern Kettle Moraine, October 2013. (A "Badger & Whooping Crane" photo)

In the Northern Kettle Moraine, October 2013. (A “Badger & Whooping Crane” photo)

“Zillmer introduced himself and the Kettle Moraine State Forest: ‘I have given a great deal of my time to the Kettle Moraine project. . . . I would like you to give consideration to extending the purchase area so that the northern and southern areas are connected to form a line 100 miles long. As far as the State of Wisconsin is concerned this will be one of your most important acts.  I consider my own efforts in the promotion of this project the most important contribution in my life’. “

Sometime in the next decade, Zillmer’s personal vision for the Kettle Moraine began to grow into something larger. Instead of just a state project he began to hope for the creation of a national park – the Kettle Moraine as its nucleus – that would include a long, 500-mile hiking trail tracing the outline of the presence of the glaciers as they receded from the land. In December of 1958, Zillmer founded the Ice Age Park and Trail Foundation – the forerunner of the Ice Age Trail Alliance of today.

A snowy ski trail in the Kettle Moraine State Forest. (photo by the WI DNR)

A snowy ski trail in the Kettle Moraine State Forest. (photo by the WI DNR)

Of course he couldn’t have known then, but in that action he was passing the torch to the future. Zillmer was dead two years later, and from that day to this, the story of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail has grown by many chapters, including detours and delays, but with the torch always being carried forward by the board members of the IATA, by its staff, and by the volunteers and hikers by the millions.

With Zillmer’s death, the Milwaukee Journal reminded the people of Wisconsin and those in the conservation movement nationally that they were “deeply indebted to Mr. Zillmer. His boundless energy and his dogged determination in behalf of worthy causes . . .” had become legend.

Conservation Losses in 2015 Tell a Different Kind of Story

The conservation news – the conservation history, really – that was made in Wisconsin during 2015, was most definitely a “different” story – as in, it was a completely different kind of story than the one we’ve long been known for here in the Badger State. In brief, it’s the news of the state’s marked shift away from supporting things related to conservation.

It’s a big story – there were many, many items in the state budget, proposed by the Governor, that directly affect the state’s natural resources.  And it’s a sad story for many, and certainly for everyone who works in, or contributes in other ways, to the many things related to natural resources within the state.

Winter . . .

Winter . . .

And, of course it’s a political story.  All of that – big, sad, and political – put it beyond the scope of this blog.  Not that only “happy” stories are told here at The Badger & the Whooping Crane; but whooping cranes exist here in Wisconsin – and thus, this blog exists – because of the excellence of the state’s natural resources; not because they’re in sad shape, or threatened with such.

There are other blogs and sources for the politics of the situation. (The Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters is a good source for info on all legislation that affects natural resources. Another, the Wisconsin Budget Project is a good source for most aspects of the budget in general.)

Spring . . .

Spring . . .

But it does seem not-quite-right for a blog that concerns itself with the state’s natural resources, to never mention the biggest, baddest conservation story of 2015. So, how to talk about it? I’ve been mulling this over for months, and now, in the new year, I think I’ve found a way to tell a small – and hopefully illustrative – part of this story.

For quite a few years now there have been something called capacity grants that involve contracts between the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to various conservation non-profit groups that work on such things as the Ice Age Trail, and shoreline issues, land conservation, etc. All those grants – and with them, the partnership agreements between the DNR and citizen-led nonprofits – have now been eliminated.

Summer . . .

Summer . . .

Although that is but a small part of the state budget, it’s one that affects just the kinds of groups that are often talked about here at The Badger and the Whooping Crane; the very groups that play an important part in keeping up the excellence of the state’s natural resources. These are groups like the Ice Age Trail Alliance (which I wrote about earlier this week, and will again soon) and the Gathering Waters Conservancy, a Wisconsin Lakes association, the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin, and another 8 or 9 more.

Fall . . . There are seasons within season in Wisconsin. And plenty of reasons to get outdoors. . . and lots of groups that want to help you do that.

and Fall . . . There are seasons within seasons in Wisconsin. All you’ve got to do is get outdoors. . . there are lots of groups that want to help you do that.

I don’t know much about the others yet, but I’m looking forward to learning about them. Who they are, what is their purpose, what are their programs? I want to learn and share something about the history of each one, and what they mean to other Wisconsinites.

What are we losing by denying the state funding, that these groups had come to depend on?  I don’t know that I’ll really learn the answer to that, but I am looking forward to just knowing more about each group. I hope you’ll read and learn along with me.

Monday Night Blogging: Wisconsin’s Own Scenic Trail from the Ice Age

This is the first of two posts I’ve planned on the Ice Age Trail. It’s also the first of a series of posts The Badger & the Whooping Crane will feature in 2016 about how various Wisconsin outdoor and natural resource entities are dealing with a drop off of the state funding they have long relied on.

The Ice Age Trail Described and Located

The Ice Age Trail is a one thousand mile footpath that meanders south from Potawatomi State Park (in Door County), to counties on the Illinois-Wisconsin border (Walworth, Rock, and Green), then it heads north up to Langlade and Lincoln counties, and turns due west toward Interstate State Park in the St. Croix River Valley. As it wanders through the state, the trail follows the edge of the last continental glacier in Wisconsin.

An Ice Age Trail sign, just east of the Wisconsin River on S.R. 33 in Portage. It marks the the 2.8 mile Portage Canal segment of the trail.

An Ice Age Trail sign, just east of the Wisconsin River on S.R. 33 in Portage. It marks the 2.8 mile Portage Canal segment of the trail.

Wherever you are in Wisconsin, you’re never that far from a segment of the Ice Age Trail. It travels through seven state parks or recreation areas, the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, the Point Beach State Forest and all units of the Kettle Moraine State Forest. This link to the Wisconsin DNR page on the Ice Age Trail has more information about the trail’s intersections with state lands and other state trails.

Partners for the Trail

The trail and the non-profit organization that was part of its founding – the Ice Age Trail Alliance (IATA) – share a fascinating, and mostly under-the-radar, decades old history, which I’ll be writing about here next week.

Although the sign (in the photo above) is placed right next to this view of the Wisconsin River, it parallels the river only a short distance . . .

Although the sign (in the photo above) is placed right next to this view of the Wisconsin River, it parallels the river only a short distance . . .

In addition to the Ice Age Trail Alliance, the trail is maintained and managed by a partnership that includes the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the National Park Service. The Ice Age Trail is considered part of the Wisconsin State Trails system, and is the only one designated a State Scenic Trail. It is also designated a National Scenic Trail, one of eleven to earn the title.      

A “Bump in the Trail,” and a $25,000 Surprise

The Ice Age Trail earned national attention at the end of October when it was a winner in the online Michelob Ultra Superior Trails Contest.  According to Paul A. Smith at the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, trail managers and their organizations were invited to submit grant proposals to the Anheuser-Busch company in partnership with the American Hiking Society.

. . . . . before it meets the Portage Canal and follows it through Portage in the opposite direction - northeast, toward the Fox River.

. . . . . before it meets the Portage Canal and follows it through Portage in the opposite direction – northeast, toward the Fox River.

Ten were selected for the online voting contest which ran throughout September and October, and the top vote-getters – the Ice Age Trail and the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail – each earned half of the the $50,000 prize money.

This must have been a most-welcome surprise, as it helps the IATA plug about one-third of gap caused by the loss of state funding this year.  A blog post at the IATA’s website, August 28th, described the loss of funds this way:  “We hit a bump in the trail. . . . the recently passed Wisconsin state budget threatens the Alliance’s work on the Ice Age Trail.” A $74,000 capacity grant that the Alliance had applied for and received each year for more than 15 years was no longer available. The IATA asked for donations of money to help meet its commitments to its 2,300 volunteers and 1.25 million trail users.

Happy News for the New Year: From the Cow Pond!

Happy New Year! Here is an update to one of The Badger & the Whooping Crane’s most visited posts – and the longest one ever – about the Cow Pond Whoopers – a special pair with an unusual winter territory near Tallahassee, FL – and Karen Willes, Citizen Scientist; it was published in March, 2015.

Not long after my post about them, the cow pond pair returned to Wisconsin, nested and hatched a chick. Their fans in Tallahassee and the many who follow them through Karen’s posts on Facebook, had cause to be jubilant, but it didn’t last long. Like many vulnerable creatures in the wild, the chick survived only a short time; even worse, for the whooper fans, this popular pair split up, and Mrs. Cow Pond Whooper (known specifically as 15-09) is following another mate.

The Cow Pond Pair at dusk, March 6, 2015; the night before their departure on migration north. (Photo by Karen Willis)

The Cow Pond Pair, 11-09 with 15-09, a year ago, when they were still a pair; the male, 11-09, is now back at the cow pond near Tallahassee, but single this year.  [Photo collage by Karen Willes]

The fate of the male of the pair (11-09) and of future visits of whooping cranes to the cow pond on the edge of Tallahassee was uncertain. But Karen Willes, busy with birding, and the Apalachee Audubon Society, and other citizen science activities that occupy her days, held out hope for more whooping crane visits during the 2015-2016 migration season, and male 11-09 did not disappoint. Late in the afternoon of Christmas day 11-09 swooped in to reclaim “his” cow pond, and delight the Tallahassee craniacs who had been on the lookout for just such a moment.

Karen missed the precise moment by just 30 minutes. She had just passed the pond on an outing, “but nothing was there,” she told me in an email. “About a half hour later I got a call from a resident who lives directly across from the pond. As soon as I saw her caller ID, I knew . . . . We immediately went to the pond and put out signs. So the documentation began on Christmas Day!”

At "The Cowpond," whooping cranes 15-09, on the left, and 11-09. Photo by Karen Willes, used with permission.

Another photo of the former cow pond pair where it’s easy to distinguish the male, 11-09, by his identifying color bands which read, green-white-red (top-to-bottom).          [Photo by Karen Willes]

Karen’s interest in the whooping crane pair wintering so close to her home began with photographing them and has steadily grown in different ways. Two years ago she made sure there were signs around the area, and information cards about whooping cranes that people could take with them. In this way she educated people about the plight of this endangered species, and explained the need for curious onlookers to keep a respectful distance from these birds. From there Karen’s interest developed into keeping records of the comings and goings of the cow pond duo, and their various behaviors, using her proximity to them to observe and document the habits of these wild creatures.

Then Karen submits her work to the professionals she has come to know at the International Crane Foundation and Operation Migration. this helps them keep track of, and better understand, the behavior of the wild whooping cranes they are working to save.

But back to 11-09: what’s next for this lonely-guy, single whooping crane? Karen sees some hope for him finding a mate in Florida. “There are five whoopers from previous years already at the pen at St. Marks,” she said. “He knows the way to the pen (about 25 miles to the south) . . . Perhaps if he decides to strike out on his own, he may find a lovely mate down there. That is our hope!”

St. Mark’s, of course, is the national wildlife refuge that is the destination for the young ultralight-led cranes, and “the pen” is an enclosed wetlands area where the young birds are lightly monitored until they leave on their own first migration north in the spring. Some of them, like 11-09, always return to this part of Florida.

The Cow Pond (Photo by Karen Willes)

And this is the cow pond, with one of the signs provided by Karen Willes in the foreground.  [Photo by Karen Willes]

Meanwhile, 11-09 has been spending nearly every day since his Christmas arrival foraging around the cow pond, and delighting the visitors that have been gathering as the word of his arrival – and Karen’s Facebook posts about him – have spread. Though without a mate, he seems to have plenty of companions – even attracting a cohort of nine sandhills to his territory earlier this week. There are also ducks, geese, and yes, even the cows, that he’s interacting with! You too can follow this bit of wildlife drama from afar by checking Karen Willes’ daily posts to Facebook. If there’s any news of 11-09 finding a new whooper mate to join him at the cow pond, I’ll be sharing that right here, too!