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.    


6 thoughts on “Whooping Cranes Wait in Georgia while WCEP Meets in Wisconsin

    • And yours, as well – a great article! And you guys are such new, and devoted followers of OM – that is so delightful. Hoping and hoping for Operation Migration to continue long enough to “cross the finish line.” I honestly don’t think it’ll take that much more time and flights to get this whooper population more firmly established. And SO much has already been invested – why stop now?

  1. I don’t think that the population in Wisconsin is large enough at White River Marsh to abandon the program there yet. The Necedah population has nesting problems due to the black fly, and the Horicon DAR birds are mating with sandhills. I think the best hope for the Wiscsonsin migrating flock is White River Marsh.

    I have pictures of two different male whoopers at Horicon who think they’re sandhills, one dancing for a sandhill mate. But the whoopers I photograph at White River Marsh prefer their own species (although they will forage with a few sandhills who they’re willing to tolerate), and I have pictures of them dancing with fellow whooping cranes.

    That’s why I think the White River population needs to be at a sustainable level before the ultralight program is discontinued. Whooping cranes naturally migrate, and the Louisiana population is non-migratory. Also it’s very close to the Aransas program geographically. WRM is their best chance of making a MIGRATORY whooping crane population self-sustaining.

    • Hi Pam! Thanks for reading here and taking the time to comment. I always enjoy your posts at HoriconBirds.com.

      I so agree with you about the need to get the White River Marsh population on firmer ground before stopping the ultralight program (And I think, increasing the few whooping cranes now at White River Marsh, will benefit all the cranes wherever they are in Wisconsin.) Let’s hope!

  2. Write letters to USFWS by e mail or snail mail and tell them your opinion. Also write Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership and International Crane Foundation as they are also part of the deciding group…..Let them know how you feel!

  3. Thanks Mindy, that’s good advice for one and all. And you’re right about the partnership – it should not just be USFWS making this decision, I wouldn’t think. The other partners – those at the crane foundation, the WI Department of Natural Resources, Patuxent National Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, as well as Operation Migration, itself, should all have “a say” in this.

    This blogpost and an excellent one from TwoHawksNYC (click on their name in the comment above for a link to their post) have both been shared – via social media – with USFWS-Midwest, WCEP, and International Crane Foundation. I’m sure they’ve heard from many others – and hopefully are continuing to hear from more!

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