As we await might be the last whooping crane class to winter in the St. Marks Refuge, we look back at a visit we took to the whooping crane site with Brooke Pennypacker, a dedicated crane handler with Operation Migration. We also look at the future of ultralight guided whooping crane migration, which Operation Migration is defending as they meet with partner organizations.
UPDATE – 1/25/16
This year’s ultralight guided whooping migration will be the last. Operation Migration will remain involved in the efforts to create a self-sustaining whooping crane population. The US Fish and Wildlife Service has explained the rationale behind the decision (you can read more on that below), while Operation Migration’s Brooke Pennypacker has written this touching post-decision entry to the OM field blog. From our interview with Brooke and in following Operation Migration over the last few years, I can see how invested he and the other OM staff are when it comes to whooping cranes. They have sacrificed a lot to raise, train and guide flock after flock of cranes, and I can’t imagine that they won’t continue to do so.
This year’s St. Marks flyover, likely to be this week, will be the last. A number of cranes have continued to migrate back to the Refuge after their initial migration, and under the new management regime, the hope is that they will be the ones to guide captive-raised chicks south for the first time. It will be years before the new practices can be judged to be successful, and even then, as in the case of ultralight guided migration, the results may not conclusively predict the long term success of the population. All I can with certainty at this point is that I know there will be dedicated people working their hardest to make it work.
Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
When I met Brooke Pennypacker, he brought with him an example of the many challenges faced by a whooping crane handler. The staff at the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge visitor center told us that Brooke was busy handling an issue in the crane pen, and that he’d be late. About 30 minutes later, he pulled up in an Operation Migration pickup truck. In the bed was a bundle of plastic fencing and white cloth from which an alligator tail protruded. Brooke had recently noticed the cranes move from their usual roosting spot, next to an oyster bar, to a spot on the other end of the pen. They were acting spooked. After spotting the young gator, he borrowed a seine net from Jack Rudloe at the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab, caught it, and wrapped it in his whooping crane feeding costume. All in a day’s job. Continue reading