Whooping Crane
Whooping Crane Whooping Crane

From Rodeo to Roundup: October 23, 2006
By Joe Duff, Operation Migration

Cranes are creatures of habit. I am sure they woke in the morning expecting to spend the day foraging in the muck just like they have spent the last week - until they heard the sound of our engines. Maybe they were content in their pen and familiar with their surroundings and the sound invoked annoyance instead of the usual excitement. Maybe when the gates were opened they were not all that crazy about following Richard’s aircraft into the cold bleak sky. That would explain why so few of them wanted to participate.

There is a makeshift runway cut into a pasture next to the pen to allow us to launch the birds directly from the enclosure. Richard took off to the west, and although the birds appeared to make an effort to follow, the line was strung out for at least a 1⁄4 mile, and several birds simply landed.

We circled, corralled, and intercepted, but there were too many to gather so Richard landed with a few birds on the main runway a hundred yards to the west, and waited of the rest to join him. We radioed the ground crew to don their swamp monster costumes to flush the birds that had landed next to the pen. Eventually they too joined Richard on the big runway. With all the birds away from the pen and concentrating more on the aircraft, they all took off and we headed for the ridge.
This 800 foot obstacle is only a few miles to the south and forces the birds to climb hard to clear it. Half way up they began to break off and Richard had to turn parallel to the ridge to collect the drop outs. When they all formed on his wing he would try again, but soon his long line of bird had dwindled to only few.

Four broke off and I chased them, but before I could catch up, they landed in a field. I circled and called the ground crew but they were too busy dealing with the birds that were now returning to the pen. Our top cover pilots Don and Paula Lounsbury were soon on station and able to watch the birds while I headed east to find Richard.

Meanwhile Brooke was collecting a few more, while Chris was still on the ground draining his fuel. Apparently over the last few days of rain, some of the moisture collected in a fuel tank and his engine refused to start. He had to empty the tank, flush the carburetors and replace the fuel filter before he could join us.
I found Richard farther to the east still struggling to clear the ridge. He was down in a valley and suffering the abusive winds that were rolling over the top. After a few more circles he finally had enough altitude to turn on course. Unfortunately three birds could not keep up and I tried to collect them.

Richard headed south while the three birds and I made it to the crest of the ridge. They were spread out so far that I could not collect them all, so I decided to land and gather them together. The field I chose was covered with 10 inch high grass matted in wet snow. It was smooth enough, but I had to use full power just to taxi the trike. I sat for 15 minutes to let the birds catch their breath when I saw Brooke fly right over head with 7 birds on his wing.

Richard was a few miles ahead with 4 birds and Brooke was on course with seven. I had three but was still stuck in the field. Don and Paula were circling 4 others, and Chris was still cleaning his fuel system.

When all my birds appeared to have recovered I took off to the east and circled back to let them catch me. Number 604 and 619 each found a wingtip and climbed with me, but number 602 was unwilling or unable to follow and landed back in the field.

I headed on course and radioed GPS coordinates to Don and Paula - who relayed them to Chris, who, after a champion effort, was back in the air. With only two birds I was able to climb steadily and eventually reached 2500 feet.

Richard was up at 1500 feet, but Brooke was struggling to get his birds above a few hundred. At 2500 feet, I had picked up a good tailwind and was covering ground at 50 to 55 miles per hour. Meanwhile Chris had given up trying to encourage 602 into the air and instead landed next to him. He tried to get the bird to follow him but eventually had to abandon it to the ground crew who would load it into a crate and drive it to the next stop.

Now free of 602, Chris headed on course and Dona and Paula went looking for Brooke. They found him sitting in a field with all 7 birds ten miles from our destination. I flew high overhead while Richard was almost at the pen site. A mile from Stopover #4, one of his birds decided to land on its own, so Richard landed with the other 3 and walked them into the pen. Then he headed back to collect the errant 611.

I circled down from 2000 feet as I approached the pen site, while 19 miles out, Brooke was again forced to land. Each time he landed to let the birds rest, he lost more on the take-off and Chris would try to collect them.

Richard flew to where we keep the aircraft and tied them down against increasing winds. Then we recruited our landowner host to drive us north. We were headed for the last known coordinates of one of Brooke's drop outs, 614, when we saw him (Brooke) flying over head. He was on his way to the destination with 4 birds in tow.
Eventually Richard, our landowner and I rendezvoused with Charlie Shafer who was driving the Wisconsin DNR van and tracking birds with the large antenna sticking out the roof. We were able to locate 620 and loaded him into a crate. He joined 623 who was already riding in the back of the van. The crated birds were approaching their limits of confinement so we headed back to our destination. Once these two birds were safely in the pen, Richard and Charlie headed north to try and find 614 while Brooke, Chris and I headed south to Stopover #5 to set up the pen.

During all of this effort the rest of the ground crew back at our last location were collecting birds that never really got started. They crated them and returned them to the pen. Eventually 6 birds were crated and loaded into our small motorhome and Marie Brady drove it south. That meant the crew was now able to disassemble the pen and prepare the camp to move south.

Unfortunately our trailers and motorhome had been sitting in wet soggy grass for the last week and several were stuck. This added insult to an already very long day. Eventually Charlie and Richard found number 614 and delivered him to the pen.
By 6:30pm or so, all the bird were finally at the new site. It was a very long day for all of us, and a very testing one for some of our inexperienced crew. Quite a day. But in the end, all the birds were safe; all the crew uninjured; and all of the vehicles are reusable. Now, on to the next challenge.

Journey North is pleased to feature this educational adventure presented in cooperation with the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP).
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