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!

The Citizen Scientist and The Cow Pond Whoopers

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]

The Cow Pond Whoopers, as they take off for a day of whooping crane adventures. Photo by Karen Willes, January 4, 2015.

The Cow Pond Whoopers, as they take off for a day of whooping crane adventures. Photo by Karen Willes, January 4, 2015.

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.

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. (Photo by Karen Willes)

The Flyover of the Class of 2009, on arrival at St. Marks NWR, January 13, 2010. Up there, among the group are the future Cow Pond Whoopers. (Photo by Karen Willes)

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.”

The Cow Pond pair at dawn, March 6, the day before leaving on migration north. Compare the sizes: whooper to Canada goose! (Photo by Karen Willes)

The Cow Pond pair at dawn, March 6, the day before leaving on migration north. Compare the sizes: whooper to Canada goose! (Photo by Karen Willes)

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.”

Their leg bands identify the Cow Pond Whoopers; female, 15-9, is on left. (Photo by Karen Willes)

Their leg bands identify the Cow Pond Whoopers; female, 15-9, is on left. (Photo by Karen Willes)

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.

The Cow Pond (Photo by Karen Willes)

The Cow Pond (Photo by Karen Willes)

“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.

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 at dusk, March 6, 2015; the night before their departure on migration north. (Photo by Karen Willes)

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.”

March Madness for Whooping Cranes

UPDATED: Thursday, April 3   

As expected the eight “ultralight chicks” of 2013 took off for home – Wisconsin – Monday morning, leaving their wintering site at St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. On its Facebook page on Tuesday, Operation Migration, (the group that taught the chicks the migration route last fall) reported observations of OM pilot Brooke Pennypacker: the young cranes took off as a group, and they had a tailwind. Later in the day there were reported roosting in southeastern Alabama, having covered 150 miles on their first day of migration. On Wednesday OM said this: “We received a couple of PTT hits for whooping crane #1-13 last evening that place her approximately 130 miles north of the previous stopover.” Four other cranes are fitted with the sensitive PTT monitors and it is hoped more location information will soon be forthcoming.


Monday, March 31

Yesterday was highly anticipated, weather-wise, here in northeast Wisconsin, and it didn’t disappoint. A walk in an urban woods was full of sensory gratification: bright sunshine, mild winds from the south, and open water. Slush and mud puddles dotted woodland paths; melting snow was everywhere else, and maybe most welcome of all was the almost-forgotten fresh air smell of everything in the natural world coming out of its dormant state. It was the kind of day, I ‘m sure, that will bring more whooping cranes home to the state.


After a long, deep freeze . . .


After a day like that, I’ll be surprised if we don’t learn this week that the 8 “ultralight chicks” of 2013 have taken to the air down in Florida, departing for good from their protected winter pensite at St. Marks’s NWR. There have been a mounting number of whooping crane sightings already reported in Wisconsin this month (see the websites or Facebook pages of the International Crane Foundation or Operation Migration), but the return of these youngest whooping cranes in the Eastern Migratory Population is still awaited.


. . . Wisconsin is thawing out fast.



And it’s always a big deal. Though it happens predictably year-after-year, there’s always something so satisfying and breathtaking, really, about the return of the year-old whooping cranes who have just learned the migration route the previous fall by flying it with the ultralights of Operation Migration. I touched on the fall trip of the Class of 2013 in my first post here at The Badger and the Whooping Crane, calling the guided-migration their “final exam.” If fall’s guided-migration is really their “final examine,” their unaided migration back to Wisconsin this spring is truly a Commencement Exercise – their graduation into the real world as genuinely wild beings.

International Crane Foundation photo of the whooping crane winter pen site in Florida; taken January 2007.  The 8 young  whooping cranes of 2013, that were led to Florida by the Operation Migration ultralights, spend their nights in a protected wet pen like this one, until - on their own - they soon begin their first migration northward, back to Wisconsin.

International Crane Foundation photo of the whooping crane winter pen site in Florida; taken January 2007. The 8 young whooping cranes of 2013, that were led to Florida by the Operation Migration ultralights, spend their nights in a protected wet pen like this one, until – on their own – they soon begin their first migration northward, back to Wisconsin.

Until their flight back to Wisconsin, everything about their existence from hatching, to fledging, to fall migration, has been intensely managed by humans. (That would be mute, disguised humans, to be sure, so that the growing crane chicks, do not become imprinted on humans, or even comfortable near them.) Even once in Florida, where they are allowed to fly free after the momentous fall migration, they are still watched over by costumed-handlers, and coaxed into a netted enclosure ever night.

But one day soon, if they haven’t already, the young adult cranes of the Class of 2013, will rise into the moist gulf air with a new intention. They’ll set their course to the north and be gone. And they’ll be found back here in Wisconsin just days later. We’re waiting for them.


The Class of 2013 Takes Its Final Exam

That’s whooping cranes, we’re talking about here; the ones that make Wisconsin their home, and specifically, the 8 young crane colts that have been training to fly with ultralight aircraft since the day they were hatched.

As of October 2nd, this year’s class has been officially on migration – the real test of its long summer of training. This account at the Operation Migration website gives a good description of what it’s like to actually launch such an undertaking – convincing 8 juvenile whooping cranes to follow their airplane “surrogate parent” far from anyplace they’ve ever seen before. (And even though it was only 5 miles, a few of the cranes remained unconvinced.)

Since that precarious launch the group has successfully covered 120 miles, and currently remains camped out at the first stopover site in Illinois, waiting for the right flying weather.

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This necessary waiting makes the trip a long one, but we can follow it all through the field journal at the Operation Migration website. Days will become weeks, and then months, but sooner or later the young cranes and the ultralights will fly into St. Marks’ National Wildlife Refuge, just south of Tallahassee, in the panhandle of Florida, and the cranes that we think belong to us, will, for a time, be claimed by the Floridians.

This year, due to budget cutting affecting all government programs, one of the two wildlife refuges that have supported the whooping crane recovery program in Florida, has had to pass up the opportunity to host the cranes. This article in the Tampa Bay Times explains the difficult ramifications facing the manager of Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, which was scheduled to be the host site this year, and the disappointment felt by local fans of the formerly annual visits from ultralights leading the year’s newest whooping cranes.

(The image above, courtesy of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, shows an earlier class of cranes flying their first migration with an ultralight.)