Class of 2009 in Florida
Feb. 12, 2010
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Chassahowitzka NWR
The "Chass Ten" arrived at their winter site Jan. 20. Health checks/banding took place four days later. The ten juveniles were released on January 28 from the top-netted pen. But the peaceful release was soon interrupted by the loud arrival of six adult Whooping Cranes from the Class of 2008: yearling cranes 804, 814, 818, 824, 827 and 830. Five of these adult birds are last year’s tenants at the Chass pen site. The sixth bird wintered at the St. Mark’s NWR pen site, but chose not to go back there.

The Problem With Adults
Matt says, "We did not want the adults to harass the young chicks, receive any supplemental food, or lure any of the young cranes to their flock." So Matt, Sara and Eva began to drive them away. They spent a long day in costume defending the food and water stations from the six adults. (Costumed humans tower over even the largest adult cranes and with a proper turn of the head can strike fear in aggressive birds.) The adults, having received no food or welcome after hours of trying, retreated to an area south of the pen. They spent the night out of sight, defeated. But they are still coming back! They want to be here.

But they aren't the only adults around. Male #105 and his mate #501 just arrived. They'd spent more than a month on Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge in Tennessee. The trackers dreaded seeing #105 show up. Why? He has a history of going to the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park to visit the captive Whooping crane pair there. Last year, he took #501 with him. "Every time #105 visits the park, we must drop everything to capture him and transport him to a top-netted pen until we can relocate him somewhere else." The costumed humans have their hands full at Chass!

ICF aviculturalist Sara is Winter Management co-leader at Chass with Richard Urbanek, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Senior Project Biologist. Tracking Crew Chief Eva and tracker Matt are with them. They'll all take off to track the birds when migration begins.

Photo Eva Szyszkoski. ICF

Guess who arrived this week at the chick's Chass pen? Male #105 and his mate!

St. Marks NWR
All ten juveniles are behaving well and doing great after arriving January 13. They made it through health check and banding. Now they are free! Christine Barnes, a member of the winter monitoring team, shares more:

Set Free!
Release day was January 25 at about 4:30 p.m. The wetland was silent and still. A white-costumed figure moved toward the top-netted fence and slowly pulled open the gate. Out burst the eager young cranes. They quickly took off circling, flying out toward the bay and back over the pen, circling to the west, then to the east, back and forth, enjoying the "jailbreak."
Eventually they landed. The patient handler coaxed them back into the pen. The gates closed — but the top net was GONE. The young cranes are free to come and go!

Lesson One: A Safe Roost
A big pile of oyster shells is just below the water’s surface in one of the two large ponds inside the pen. This human-made ridge ("oyster bar") is a safe place in the water. A plastic crane stands stiffly at the end of the bar as a role model. A few cranes found that this was a great place to bathe. After baths, the costumed handler moved onto the oyster bar and the other cranes followed. One by one they claimed their night’s roosting space on the oyster-shell bar. This was their first lesson in using in the water as a safety defense. Any predator would have to reach the cranes by splashing through the water surrounding the roosting site. Roosting in water is like having liquid alarm system.

It was nearly dark. The handler waited for the "Harley kick:" Each crane jerks one leg as though starting a motorcycle, then tucks the leg up and goes to sleep. Then slowly and quietly, the handler slipped away. The young cranes were left to the light of the half-moon and their first night under the stars: no net!

Photo Mark Chenoweth,
Whooper Happenings

Operation Migration's Brooke Pennypacker leads the winter team that is caring for and monitoring the 10 juvenile Whooping cranes at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.