The Cow Pond whoopers are gone now from Florida. Gone, but not forgotten. There are dozens and dozens of new cow pond craniacs – many in the immediate area of the cow pond, southeast of Tallahassee, and others around the country and in Canada – who are hungry for news of this whooping crane pair as they make their migration north to the breeding territory in Wisconsin.
If there is news about them from somewhere along the migration route you can be sure that Karen Willes will have it, and will share it through social media for all the others. Karen, a retired choral music educator and music minister emeritus for East HIll Baptist Church in Tallahassee, is also a photographer who has spent many hours capturing dramatic images of the Cow Pond Whoopers.
Gradually, though, her photographic interest in the whooping crane pair has expanded to other efforts on their behalf – in particular the effort to document their days and nights at the cow pond, and to spread awareness of the endangered whooping crane species. Along the way Karen Willes has become a citizen scientist, and evidence that her efforts are succeeding can be found in all the new craniacs waiting for news of this pair.
[All the images accompanying this post are the photos of Karen Willes]
If the news doesn’t come from someone reporting sightings of them along the migration route, the Cow Pond Whoopers should be building a nest back in Wisconsin soon enough, and the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership will report it, and Karen will pass that on to anyone who might have missed the report. And if a chick should result from that nest, and if the whooper parents raise that chick to fledge, and it accompanies them on their journey back to the cow pond, that would be like the Trifecta or the Triple Crown or the Grand Prix, for the cow pond craniacs.
But with or without a wild chick of their own, this pair of whoopers is almost certain to return to its wintering grounds on the humble “cow pond” just east of Tallahassee, when the fall migration season comes round again. And when that happens, news of their arrival will spread fast and they will be joyfully welcomed, as the rare, royal visitors they are.
Who Are these Cow Pond Whoopers?
On January 13, 2010 the 82nd day of their first migration from Wisconsin to Florida, 10 young whooping cranes touched down at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge just south of Tallahassee. The young cranes, including #15, a female, and #11, her future mate, were part of the Class of 2009, which had been trained in Wisconsin by Operation Migration pilots to follow their ultralight aircraft. Since the previous October they had been following them all the way to Florida, thereby learning a migration route they would use ever-after as free, wild whooping cranes.
In the enthusiastic crowd of 1500 who came out to watch a flyover of the cranes and ultralights, was Karen Willes with her camera, photographing the scene. Little did she imagine then that two of the birds in the group she was watching would come to so preoccupy her winter months.
After two months of lightly-monitored freedom at St. Marks NWR for this Class of 2009, a group of eight of them banded together and began their first, unaided migration back north. They left at midday March 24th, and were recorded back at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin on April 1, 2010. Both cranes 11-09 and 15-09 were part of that group. They returned to St. Marks in late 2010 and came back to Wisconsin in Spring 2011 in similar groups.
But after the fall migration back to Florida in 2011, and during the early months of 2012, the duo of #11 and #15 seemed to transition from two individual birds in a large group, into an established pair with an established territory in Florida that centered on the Tallahassee-area pond. Confirmation of their pair bond came after they returned to Wisconsin in March 2012 and were discovered building a nest together.
They were observed incubating an egg on April 27th, but by May 6th the egg had disappeared. This was not unexpected for “such young and inexperienced parents,” according to The Journey North’s biographical notes on these cranes.
Their Winter Territory
Back in Florida again, the pair spent their winter nights – most of them anyway – roosting in that shallow pond in the middle of a pasture. This is on the very edge of suburban Tallahassee, and the cranes share the field and pond with about 100 cows.
A gathering of humans with cameras and binoculars is often on the edge of the field; “usually 12 to 15 people when the weather is good,” according to Karen Willes. Many of them live in the area, but there are numerous visitors from other states and Canada as well, she said.
Is this an unusual location for cranes to adopt as their winter home? I asked Karen that question, and she gave me a map to really “see ” the area. “It’s a VERY unusual location,” she affirmed. “Move the map around to see how close it is to the middle of town. Also look to the right of the pond to see how much open land there is . . .There’s LOTS of room for them to forage then return to the pond to roost.”
This is the kind of situation that gives nightmares to the professionals in the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP). “It’s an understatement to say that we have been alarmed and amazed at their choice of wintering ground,” wrote Brooke Pennypacker, in a Field Journal entry a year ago. An OM pilot, Brooke is someone who knows these cranes better than anyone. He knows full well the dangers they face in the wild, and the danger, posed by living too close to the human world.
A Job for A Citizen Scientist
This was also a situation that would require, ideally, very close monitoring, which would be impractical, if not downright impossible, for the partners of WCEP to provide. And this is where the citizen scientist inside Karen Willes began to emerge.
Karen was already familiar with the work of Operation Migration. She followed their work in the news when they first brought crane chicks to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife refuge at Crystal River. Once OM began to bring some of the cranes to St. Marks, not that far from Tallahassee, in 2008, Karen was there for the flyovers.
“Except for 2013, I’ve attended every flyover,” she wrote in an email. “It’s an event that brings out many people, on early mornings, often quite cold, for a chance to see the young cranes as they follow the ultralight aircraft to their winter home at St. Marks.”
When she learned that two cranes of 2009 were roosting at the cow pond, Karen, who lived nearby, began to photograph them often during the winter of 2011-2012. Karen told me that she’d been “interested in photography for many years but the addition of a long lens has made wildlife photography and bird photography, in particular, much more accessible and successful.”
Last year, she said, she added digiscoping to her photography skills; that’s using a spotting scope and photographing through it. Now she also has an adapter that allows her to attach her iPhone to the scope, and show live and closeup images of what the cranes are doing. “That, in particular, was a way to share the whooping cranes with people,” she said.
Wearing Many Hats for Whooping Cranes
It wasn’t long, though, before Karen also found herself drawn increasingly into new roles on behalf of whooping cranes – as an educator of the human visitors, and protector of the cranes. As more and more people found out about the Cow Pond Whoopers, Karen carved out a larger presence for herself at the cow pond. “I never tire of watching them, and sharing information about them with visitors,” she said.
Karen answers many questions for visitors, and she also provides them with information-to-go: printed cards with contact information for Operation Migration and other agencies, but also with information that is specific to the Cow Pond Whoopers, including websites where interested people can pull up the life histories of these birds. Although she has had input from others, Karen has basically designed and paid for these materials, and others, herself.
To protect the birds from too much human activity Karen has done several things. “I arrive early and stay late so that people who might want to get closer to them ‘to get a better picture’ would have no reason to because it is too dark for their photographic equipment.” She has also designed signs with information about the endangered species that these birds are part of, and the reasons it is necessary for asking people to keep their distance from them. With permission from the property owner, the signs are posted at intervals along the property line.
“We have asked people to stay behind the signs and not approach the fence in order to keep distance from the birds,” she said. Karen explained to me that the distance from the birds is, at most 200 yards, (a bit less from certain perspectives) which is the Officially Approved Distance that people who encounter a whooping crane in the wild are asked to observe. It seems amazing, but Karen said that in four years of closely watching the Cow Pond Whoopers, “they have never acknowledged people, nor reacted to anything we do.”
Documenting the Cow Pond Whoopers
For the last two winter seasons Karen has taken on yet another citizen science task: documenting the details of the Cow Pond whoopers daily comings and goings. “I went to the pond twice a day as often as I could and noted the time they left in the morning and the time they returned in the evening. My notes read like an airline schedule — 6:57 a.m. departure / 5:33 p.m. arrival — along with any unusual happenings or other wildlife in the area. I documented them all winter, November 30, 2013 through their last day — March 7, 2014.”
When she couldn’t be at the pond, Karen had a crew of helpers, including members of the Apalachee Audubon Society to take turns on “Whooper Watch.” Two years of data for this whooper pair have now been sent to both Operation Migration and the International Crane Foundation. This year the cranes arrived late, January 3, 2015, but again, left on March 7th. Karen continued to visit the cow pond in the evening for a few days into the next week, on the chance they might show up again, and to share what she knows with the others that inevitably came, still hoping to see the cranes.
As visitors came to realize that the cranes really had left on migration, Karen said they began to reflect on the unique opportunities they had been witnessing. Some had known about the cranes but had not really paid attention to them — until this year. They thanked her for her commitment to the birds and for the information she provided as they “learned something” they didn’t know before. That was exactly what she wanted to hear! “I hope others will catch on to the need to document the birds in their areas,” said Karen, “so we can have lots of citizen scientists out there to educate visitors and protect these birds.”