A New Chapter for Wisconsin Whooping Cranes

A new chapter for whooping cranes opens today, as Operation Migration’s last and final ultralight-led migration wrapped up in Florida yesterday. For OM, and its six young Class of 2015 whoopers, this has been the longest migration ever. As with the fourteen that preceded this one, it has had its own stories and dramas that define it.

The unexpected ending of this particular migration – finally boxing up the birds just 25 miles short of their winter pensite at St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge – might seem an ignoble exit strategy, but not really. It was a necessary strategy demanding extra-stiff-upper-lip-heroics from the crew that loved and lived and flew with the birds. It was just one more small detail in the drama of reintroducing an endangered species, long absent, from a particular landscape. And it was a necessity so that things could move along to the next necessary step.

This is a sight that people in Tallahassee had hoped to see one more 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)

This is a sight that people in Tallahassee had hoped to see one more 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. Ultralight pilot Brooke Pennypacker had two of the seven cranes “locked” to each wingtip. (Photo used with permission)

The prepared pensite was waiting for them at St. Marks, and there were people from Tallahassee and all over the region hoping to get a glimpse of the cranes and ultralights flying overhead. But mostly, for the birds, there was the calendar, saying “it’s February!” The birds needed to be at home in the wetland pen  where they are lightly monitored, and they will learn a few things about life on their own in preparation for their NEXT migration: their first independent flight north to Wisconsin. That migration will begin sometime in March, or possibly, April.

You can totally immerse yourself in more of the drama of this story at The Operation Migration Field Journal. Look especially at the posts where OM’s gifted pilots turn into gifted writers, as well. This is where you’ll learn from Brooke’s long musing report of his last flight (Day 102 . . . The Last Waltz) that “denial” is really just “hope spelled backwards.” (Who could not say ‘Amen!’ to that?)

You can learn about the competitive, not-really-a-team-player bird, #2-15, in Driving Miss Crazy. Or Joe’s description of clearing the trees at the end of the runway last Saturday, only to have his ultralight turned sideways by a blast of wind, and a few more thoughts about the conclusion of his avian aviator career – one of the world’s most unique job titles.

This older file photo depicts an ultralight training flight at Necedah National Wildife Refuge. (Photo courtesy of WCEP)

This older file photo depicts an ultralight training flight at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo courtesy of WCEP)

And read today’s post from Heather, “Carry On . . .” explaining how she joined up with OM 18 years ago, and began to post online about the work; how soon after people began following, and thus, “Craniacs were born!” And her final tribute to the reason for it all:

” . . .Whooping cranes – Regal. Noble. Majestic. Magnificent. Fly free my feathered friends. Live long. . .” she wrote.

Like all good stories, the new chapter for whooping cranes will begin with dozens of pressing questions. Like these: Without ultralight flights, what IS Operation Migration’s new contribution to the effort? What kind of future is there for the 100 whooping cranes in the eastern flyway stretching from Wisconsin to Florida? Will the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP) hold? Will WCEP continue to track and monitor these birds?

And:  What happens now to the costume-rearing technique? What IS really known about these Wisconsin whoopers’ so-called “lack of parenting skills?” Will the hundreds – no, thousands, probably – of craniacs spontaneously created as a byproduct of this project, remain tuned in? Where are the two new wild whooper families now? The ones that were sighted by Wisconsin birders repeatedly last fall at Necedah NWR?

This is the way young whooping cranes have been trained in Wisconsin to fly with ultralights and learn a migration route from 2001 through 2015. (Paul K. Cascio photographer, USGS Multimedia Gallery)

This is the way young whooping cranes have been trained in Wisconsin to fly with ultralights and learn a migration route from 2001 through 2015.    (Paul K. Cascio photographer, USGS Multimedia Gallery)

And, for that matter, just what IS going on with the weather – and is it “weather” or is it “climate?” – the thing that seems to have grounded flight after flight this year; and last year too, come to think of it? And, oh, by the way, what about the Whooping Crane Festival? Will there be one again in Princeton, Wisconsin, come September?

So many questions today! And these are the building blocks of tomorrow’s stories, waiting to be told.

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.    


Ask the Experts: News for Craniacs

The Wisconsin DNR held an Ask-The-Experts online chat this week about the whooping cranes of Wisconsin, (officially known as the Eastern Migratory Population, or the EMP).  This was easily the liveliest Asked the Experts chat I’ve witnessed, and indeed I found out later the DNR said there were 211 participants during the live chat, and 106 people (a number that will increase) who accessed within 24 hours after it was live.

These are “amazing numbers,” according to the DNR’s own assessment.  There were 137 questions submitted and answered by the following experts that were on duty for this chat: Davin Lopez, conservation biologist with the Wisconsin DNR; Karis Ritenour, whooping crane field technician at the International Crane Foundation; Anne Lacy, crane research coordinator for ICF; and Heather Ray, the director of development for Operation Migration.

A USFWS photo of a whooping crane pair with two tiny chicks at Necedah NWR in 2010.

A USFWS photo of a whooping crane pair with two tiny chicks at Necedah NWR in 2010.

This DNR-hosted chat is a great service, which recurs every fall, and I think in the spring, as well. You can learn a lot about the EMP and the people who manage it, the partners of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (or WCEP), just by tuning in. No whooping crane question is ever too simple, nor too complex.

Except for this chat: there was one question that surfaced repeatedly at the beginning of the hour, and was always deferred. Here’s the explanation:

Mum’s the Word on Operation Migration’s Petition to USFWS

It’s no surprise that many people who tuned in to ‘ask the experts’ were eager for new information about the future of Operation Migration and the Ultralight Light program. The recent public posting by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service of a new vision statement which recommends an end to the ultralight program, has received quite a bit of attention – not just on Facebook, but also in the mainstream media. Half a dozen questions about it were quickly submitted.

“I would imagine that DNR does not share the same sentiment that the FWS has . .” began one, to which Davin Lopez replied that WCEP partners will be discussing this in January, at the start of the group’s 5-year review. “Much to discuss,” he added, as he would to several more queries about Operation Migration’s achievements.

From the archives: Operation Migration's efforts to train whooping cranes to migrate with ultralights begins with the little cranes following the ultralight as it taxis along the ground. (USFWS photo)

From the archives: Operation Migration’s efforts to train whooping cranes to migrate with ultralights begins with the little cranes following the ultralight as it taxis along the ground. (USFWS photo)

Heather Ray, who is OM’s Director of Development and also a co-chair of WCEP’s Communication and Outreach Team, wore only one ‘hat’ for the hour – her WCEP one. She met each question about OM’s expertise and about the online petition campaign, (which OM launched as a way for its supporters to reach USFWS) with determination to focus only on WCEP. Six or seven questions that tried to probe the issue were all met with “we’ll be discussing this in January.”

So, the Audience Turned to Other Topics

And the questions flowed. Just a few examples follow:

Q:  Is there still an effort to establish a non migratory flock in the south? A: Yes, in Louisiana; it’s only a few years old, but there are 37 birds, and there were 4 nesting pair this year.

Q:  How do young cranes without parents find their way south? A: Direct Autumn Release birds and Parent-Reared birds are released near adult whoopers and sandhills with the goal of having them follow the adult birds on migration. Now and then, individual birds will strike out on their own, and in those cases they have migrated successfully and returned to Wisconsin.

What is the Rate of Success for the EMP?

There were a lot of questions about the EMP, and how it – this reintroduction of a migrating flock of whoopers – is really working. Just what is the rate of success?

Q: “Are we seeing some progress, and if so, where is the greatest success, if that can be measured yet?” Karis Ritenour answered: “This year’s hatching numbers were extremely encouraging. More birds are nesting, more eggs are hatching, and even having three fledged chicks this year was a step forward. It is difficult to know what is “expected” because there is so much we don’t know about the natural flock as well.”

What is the Size of the EMP?

More specific questions include:

Q: What is the current size of the EMP? A: There are 92 birds now. When the eight birds for this year’s Direct Autumn Release are fully on their own, they will be added to the total. (They will be fully released very soon, but until then they are monitored, kept safe at night, and receive supplemental feeding.) When the six young whoopers that are currently following the ultralights to Florida are fully on their own – that won’t be until they leave on their own for migration north next spring – then they too will be added to the total count of EMP whoopers. “These cranes use a large range of wintering locations across the southeast,” added Heather, who answered this question.

Why Don’t More EMP Whooping Cranes Migrate to Florida?

This is something that I had been wondering about – so few of them seem to return to Florida on migration – and others were asking about it. The Florida gulf coast was chosen for the EMP in winter because it replicates the gulf coast environment of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge where the wild flock has spent winters for all its known history.

A whooping crane pair at Patoka NWR in Indiana; during fall migration in 2010. (Photo by Steve Gifford; from the Flickr photo stream of Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership; used with permission.)

A whooping crane pair at Patoka NWR in Indiana; during fall migration in 2010. (Photo by Steve Gifford; from the Flickr photo stream of Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership; used with permission.)

But for the past 4 or 5 years, quite a few of the EMP cranes have spent the winter months in places as varied as southern Indiana, South Carolina and Alabama. Does the whooping crane partnership – WCEP – think that’s ok, we’re wondering? And the answer is, Yes! They’re doing just fine in the winter locations they choose. “By taking them to the Florida coast we show them the entirety of the flyway,” Anne Lacy explained, “and they can choose where they prefer on subsequent migrations.”

Whatever Happened to the Class of 2014?

Another question that has some craniacs scratching their heads, and worrying over, involves the ultralight-trained whoopers of 2014. Because of an extreme weather problem these birds had to be crated in Wisconsin and driven to Tennessee a year ago. Will they need to be “captured and crated again,”someone asked?

Not at all, we were assured. They’ve been on their own, wandering around Wisconsin through the summer months – “wandering” is the commonplace term for expected young adult crane behavior. The WCEP partners have complete confidence that these birds will decide for themselves where and when to migrate – and will certainly return to Wisconsin next spring.

The Next Post

This report is so long, and since there are several more topics that generated several questions, The Badger and the Whooping Crane will continue coverage of Ask the Experts in the next post.  It will cover questions about the toll predation is taking on the EMP, and about the prospects for future nesting in the “Wisconsin Rectangle.”  And there will be updates on two whooping cranes – first Whoopsie, then Kevin – that made news in 2015.

USFWS Would Ground the Ultralights?

As Operation Migration pilots moved an important step closer to a successful 2015 fall migration season today – leading their six cooperative whooping crane colts out of Wisconsin and on to Illinois – a co-partner with them in the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP) has made public its new vision for the partnership.

That vision seems to include a plan to end Operation Migration’s popular and highly visible ultralight-led migration in the near future.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is asserting the ultralight program is no longer helping achieve the goal of a sustainable eastern whooping crane population. Joe Duff, the CEO of Operation Migration, has responded with a statement of his own and documentation for achievements which he says are being ignored by the Fish and Wildlife vision document.

GROUNDED? (Photo courtesy, WCEP)

GROUNDED?   (Photo courtesy, WCEP)

[Click on the images to enlarge them.]

I’ll post links here to Joe Duff’s documentation in defense of Aircraft Guided Migration, as well as to the USFWS vision statement. At the end of this post I’ll do my best to offer summarizing points for each of those.

Making a Five Year Plan for Whooping Cranes

But first, here’s a little more background about the emergence of the Fish and Wildlife vision statement, as well as the 5-year planning process, and a look at what happens next. The USFWS vision statement notes that we are approaching “the renewal of WCEP’s 5-year strategic plan . . .” and that the vision statement was drafted to provide guidance for the new 5-year plan.

Both the Fish & Wildlife Service and Operation Migration are among the founding partners of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP); both are among the most visible of the partners. As a reminder, in addition to OM and the USFWS, the founding partners include:

  • The International Crane Foundation
  • U.S. Geological Survey Patuxent Wildlife Research Center
  • U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center
  • Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
  • National Fish and Wildlife Foundation
  • Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin
  • The International Whooping Crane Recovery Team.

According to Joe Duff, the USFWS claims no regulatory authority for the vision statement, but does want it to be the guiding document when all the partners meet in mid-January in the new year.

OM’s Rebuttal to the New USFWS Vision

Joe Duff makes a case that the Vision Statement that would eliminate his job is based on incomplete data, since it uses only population numbers from 2001 through 2010. And it ignores all the work done by WCEP from 2011 forward, he says. This includes establishing the new areas for whooping crane releases, and hopefully, for nesting, around Horicon National Wildlife Refuge, and the White River Marsh State Natural Area (an area now referred to by WCEP as “the Wisconsin Rectangle”).

WRONG? (Photo by ICF staff)

WRONG? (Photo by ICF staff)

And it’s bad timing, said Joe Duff, since, “We are now on the cusp of determining if these cranes can successfully breed in the black-fly-free habitat of the Wisconsin Rectangle.”

He also criticized the lack of any published Population Viability Analysis conducted “for either the UL or the DAR methods that have been used to release birds,” but said that Operation Migration, using the WCEP database, and other records, has employed PVA techniques to evaluate the birds released in the Wisconsin Rectangle since 2011. He can show, he said, that Operation Migration has developed the most effective method to date in terms of survivability and a host of other factors.

Duff and Operation Migration hope you’ll sign their petition (or access it at the OM Facebook page) asking the USFWS to consider all their data.

Joe Duff also touched on the more than $10 million in private funding that Operation Migration has been able to raise to help establish the EMP. ” . . . more than any other WCEP partner,” he said. “These are privately sourced funds that are not transferable to other projects and do not impinge on the fundraising efforts of other partners.”

What’s In the USFWS Vision for the Eastern Migratory Population?

*The “Vision Statement” of the Fish and Wildlife Service is a mixed bag of thin praise for the “many successful aspects of the reintroduction,” and long paragraphs defining strategies tried and not yet tried, and uncertainty about the population’s probability of meeting its number one objective: becoming self-sustaining.

There is also significant criticism of the captive-rearing techniques – for rearing whooping cranes that haven’t adapted as well to the wild, as USFWS believes they might. These techniques have been used for years at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, as well as Necedah and Horicon wildlife refuges and White River Marsh in Wisconsin, and also by both OM, and the International Crane Foundation.

MORE? (Photo, Courtesy WCEP)

(Photo, Courtesy WCEP)

And there is a much lamenting about “the population’s low reproductive success.”  That’s not hard to understand, as it is beginning to look like establishing a population of migratory whooping cranes in the wild, in Wisconsin, using captive-bred chicks, has been the “easy” part. (And I’m sure that’s relatively speaking.) Helping the population to fulfill that “number one objective,” and sustain itself . . . that’s the apparently insoluble puzzle that continues to haunt all who work with these whoopers.

And yet, to those of us watching from the craniac gallery it does feel like we are seeing instances of increasingly mature pairs successfully nesting, instances of perfect crane parents, instances of hope, like the great leap forward in the number of chicks hatched during the 2015 nesting season. It feels like these Wisconsin whoopers are so close! Could they perhaps, just need a little more time and human support?

Unfortunately, I don’t see much in the Vision Statement that deals with that kind of question. Or such hopes. But it does seem like everyone agrees that WCEP’s new five-year plan is still a work-in-progress.

This Could Be Yours: A 2-Week Vacation With the Whooping Cranes

Well, ok, it IS a Working Vacation, but for the right person – and maybe that’s YOU – this could be the adventure of a lifetime. Operation Migration, which is currently training seven of the whooping crane chicks of 2014 to follow their ultralight aircraft, is seeking a corps of volunteers, each to sign up for a 2-week stretch, to assist with the fall migration.

Come late September, or maybe sometime in October, the aircraft, the pilots, the whooping cranes, and a ground crew hauling lots of equipment, will leave the White River Marsh State Wildlife Area in Wisconsin and begin the long journey to St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge in Florida.

Ultralight training of juvenile whooping cranes in Wisconsin. (Photo courtesy, WCEP)

Ultralight training of juvenile whooping cranes in Wisconsin. This is a file photo courtesy, of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership. The class of 2014 cranes have not yet progressed to flying with the ultralight, instead – for now – they follow behind as the aircraft taxis along the ground.

It’s a journey of 1,100 miles but what makes it soooo long is the necessity of perfect weather for the cranes to fly with the ultralights.  The cranes could fly faster, but they are just learning the migration route and need the OM planes and pilots to teach them.  And the ultralights could make a more efficient journey without the cranes following. But since, for the purposes of this journey they are linked together, they will wait for perfect flying conditions. Sometimes that means day, after day, after day, of grounded cranes and planes.

Operation Migration's efforts to train whooping cranes to migrate with ultralights begins with the little cranes following the ultralight as it taxis along the ground. (USFWS photo)

Operation Migration’s efforts to train whooping cranes to migrate with ultralights begins with the little cranes following the ultralight as it taxis along the ground. (USFWS photo)

If you were chosen to fill one of these 2-week volunteer slots, you would be helping to drive the motorhomes and portable pen site equipment that accompanies the birds and flight crew. You would be helping to set up the stopover sites, and maybe helping to track an occasional straying crane. You would be working with the team – the only one in the world – that is using the ultralights to teach these endangered and beautiful birds the migration route that makes possible their reintroduction to Wisconsin.

Operation Migration has always relied on volunteers: “Apart from the three pilots and outreach staff,many of the bird handlers and tracking people are volunteers,” OM pilot Joe Duff explains at the OM Field Journal. And it has always required folks with a very open schedule and a desire to commit a significant part of their year to the cause of the whooping cranes.

Whooping Crane photographed by Dale Bonk in Dane County in November.

Two grown up whooping cranes photographed in Wisconsin by birder Dale Bonk in 2013.

Until this year, that is.  This year OM has decided to experiment with seeking a higher number of volunteers, for the much briefer commitment of 2 weeks.”Rather than asking you to give up an indefinite amount of your fall and early winter, we are asking you for two weeks,” said Joe. OM came up with this plan, in hopes that ” . . . a specific end date would make it simpler for people to plan ahead. . .” Joe is anticipating this will generate new interest in joining the migration team.  Many are willing to assist, he said, but have found it too difficult with the open-ended schedule and their own needs and obligations.

Whether you would actually consider this rare opportunity, or would just like to learn more about all that’s involved with it, go here, and read all about it at the Field Journal. Really, do. This is a fascinating part of the whooping crane reintroduction story.