Whooping Crane Whooping Crane

A Perfect Day
Joe Duff's Operation Migration Log Entry: Dec. 6, 2005

Joe Duff, team Leader, Operation Migration

It seems this entire migration has been one long weather delay punctuated by single days of great progress. Today [Dec. 6, 2005] we covered 97 miles in only 1 hour and 46 minutes. That equates to a speed over the ground of just under 60 miles per hour despite the fact that the birds were still flying at their normal 38 miles per hour through the air. At times my GPS told me we were traveling over 70 mph. Now why couldn’t we have more days like that!

Chris's First Day in the Lead!
Each day we designate one of the pilots to take the lead position. In truth it only means they make the first attempt at leading. They land next to the pen and give the handlers the signal to open the gate. Thereafter it’s anyone’s guess who the birds will fly with. Sometimes a few are slow to come out of the pen and they get left behind by the main flock. Or sometimes they will turn back to the pen and one or all of the chase pilots will intercept them. We can have all the birds on one trike or some birds on each. Chris Gullikson, our new pilot, was elected to fly lead this morning for the first time. It’s kind of daunting for someone who has never experienced it before. You raise your thumb to the handlers and try desperately to stay ahead of the 19 five-foot tall birds that come charging toward you. So Chris has been understandably reluctant to take his turn.

The remains of the early morning frost still coated the wings making slow flight a challenge, and as he took off Chris had to fly faster than he would have liked. As he turned on course the birds were a hundred yards behind. He flew some tight “S” turns and they slowly caught up. Below 900 feet the air was bumpy and it took 15 minutes to coax them above that level. In that forced climb some of the birds broke and the flock began to separate. If we can break the flock up into two groups, each will receive more benefit from the wing and their endurance will increase, so Richard moved in to pick up the stragglers. I flew chase for Richard while Brooke fell in behind Chris, and we continued a long slow climb up into a smooth clean tailwind.

Skipping a Stop!
We skipped one of our sites and headed for Terrell County, Georgia, 97 miles to the south. The rest of the flight was uneventful. A few times Richard had to fight with birds that had enough energy to challenge him for the lead. He had to muscle the wing to get enough speed to keep ahead of them, but for the most part it was one of those rare perfect days. As we approached the stopover we debated going to the next one. We were cruising at almost 70 miles per hour, but as the sun heats the earth it generates thermals that mix the air and bring the wind down to the surface. The longer we waited, the rougher our landing would be, so we accepted the double leg and began our descent. As predicted, the approach was rough and we had to work hard to get the aircraft down safely. All the birds landed and we led them off to wait for Mark Nipper to arrive with the pen. Brooke and I found a stream flowing through the field and the birds spent an hour of bliss probing in the mud. In fact, when the pen was ready, we had a difficult time convincing them to follow us out of the marsh. Each pilot carries a bag of grapes with them. One at a time we clutch the fruit in the break of our puppets. Once a bird spots this treat, they will eagerly follow you anywhere including into the pen. By noon we had the birds in the pen and the aircraft delivered to the local airport to be tucked away in hangars for the night.

Days like this are perfect. There just aren’t enough of them!


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

Copyright 2005 Journey North. All Rights Reserved.
Please send all questions, comments, and suggestions to
our feedback form