Tag Archives: whooping cranes


Behind the Scenes at the Saint Marks Whooping Crane Pen

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

The Real Snowbirds

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Photographers wait for Whooping Cranes in Saint Marks

Photographers wait for Whooping Cranes in Saint Marks.

IGOR chip- habitat 150We don’t often discuss birds here, preferring instead to discuss many of the critters they eat along our coasts. But I see the bird prints in the oyster reef mud, and kayak by the pelicans in Saint Joe Bay.  They are as much a part of those habitats as the snails and the crabs.  And every winter, just as sure as you’ll see Ohio and Michigan plates heading south on I-75, you’ll see the flocks that lend the drivers of those cars the nickname us Floridians have for them.

But what happens when the birds forget the way down?  Sometimes, a species numbers get so low that juveniles no longer have the adults who know the way to lead them.  So they need a little help in reestablishing the route.

Possibly the most famous bird of this description brought me to a large field by the St. Marks River almost two years ago.  That was the first year that whooping cranes were flying to a secluded area within the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge, and I was covering the flyover for our dimensions program (it’s that video up there).  It seemed like it took forever for them to get there.  Starting from the cranes’ Wisconsin habitats, Operation Migration pilots in ultralight planes make the journey south in several short hops. For almost a month I received e-mails saying that they could arrive within a week, but unfavorable winds were keeping the birds grounded nearby in Alabama.  Finally, it was announced that they would fly in early on Saturday, January 17.

They expected it to happen between 7 and 8 AM, but advised people to get there early.  I was surprised to see the parking area half full at 6 AM.  It was 18 degrees Fahrenheit outside, and cars kept piling in.  Did I mention it was Saturday?  Over two thousand people made it out for that minute or two when seven birds and three ultralight planes flew several hundred feet over our heads and into their area of the Refuge.

Crowds wait for Whooping Cranes in Saint Marks

An enthusiastic crowd gathers to watch Wisconsinite tourists travel to their winter digs.

Yesterday, a group of five juveniles was guided in, over a month earlier than in the first year.  From the photos I saw, it was still a nice large crowd.  People love endangered birds, and the whooping crane is an impressive animal.

It’s ironic that a species whose existence as a whole seems so fragile comes in as a top predator in our local salt marsh habitats.  Its favorite food is blue crab, though it is an omnivore that eats other crustaceans, as well as clams, fish, frogs and small reptiles.  As we have seen over the last few months on this blog, they’re at a veritable all-you-can-eat buffet here.  Numbering only five, they aren’t a significant part of the coastal food web.  Yet.  But as long as we have healthy habitat to offer, and the Operation Migration folks keep teaching birds the way, they might become a more regular part of the Forgotten Coast winter.

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