Friday, July 8, 2011

Operation Migration, White River Marsh - 2011

This year, 2011, Operation Migration's training site moves from Necedah NWR to the WI-DNR's White River Marsh in Green Lake County, WI. The site is only about 35 min from my home in Ripon, so I'm helping (as a volunteer) to build the pen and prepare the site. From here, OM will lead the young whoopers on migration to Florida in the fall, adding a new generation to the Eastern flock of whoopers.

Each photo caption refers to the photo below it.
The photos here are mine unless otherwise noted.

Operation Migration co-founder Joe Duff (tan shirt) and volunteers Doug and Chris Pellerin prepare the pen for this year's cohort of young whooping cranes, near Berlin, WI, on Saturday 18 June 2011. Behind them, the newly-excavated pond begins to fill.

Progress on the pen, Tues 21 June. The roller is tamping down the runway where the young whoopers will learn to follow Operation Migration's (OM's) ultralights.

A busy and cloudy work site on Tues 21 June, looking through the dry pen from the runway. The near wall will be covered with steel siding; the far wall with chain-link fence. The gate at left of center will open into the wet pen (the pond). The structure in the middle will provide shade for the birds inside the dry pen. The dry pen will be covered with netting to keep birds in and critters out.

The pen site from the wet side (getting wetter). Steel panels on the three land sides will form a view block. The water side will be walled with chain-link fence, and the pond will be surrounded by a chain link fence to provide a two-section pen--one wet, one dry. Still lots to do before the birds arrive from Patuxent on 28 June, in Terry Kohler's Cessna Caravan.

Joe Duff and Martin Esters take shelter from an early afternoon rain squall in the pen. The sheet metal walls are all up and the shelter over the feeding area is almost done. Martin is a native of Germany and a recent grad of Ripon College who is helping at the site.

Weds 22 June: The weather has not been kind -- heavy rains Tuesday night soaked much of the site and Weds brought several squalls, some heavy, like this early afternoon squall roiling up the pond.

The chain link divider down the middle of the pen creates two separate feeding areas and with the addition of flexible fencing, allows OM to divide the pen in two if needed.

The metal panels are buried a foot in the ground to discourage predators who might otherwise dig under the wall. An electric fence around the bottom of the wall will provide added disincentive. Martin is backfilling the trench we dug for the panels. It had to be dug by hand because it was too wet to bring in a power trencher.

Day's end on Weds 22 June: The chain link is up on the water side; steel panels are all up on the other three sides. The tower on the left is the "crane cam" mast. Next up, the netting over the top and then the chain link enclosure around the pond. We may be swimming to put in the wet pen.

End of the day on Weds 22 June: OM's Heather Ray wades through the washout along what was supposed to be the access road from the parking area to the pen site. The runway is directly behind her; the land side of the pen is just visible over her right shoulder.

Friday 24 June: Arthur Bratton (left) is the chief film editor for "Saving the Ghost Birds," the video that will premier in Sheboygan in September. If you enjoyed the trailer, thank Arthur. He came up from Ripon early Friday morning to interview Joe and Heather and to film the site, and he stayed all day to help with construction.

Friday 24 June: Looking through the pen from the runway-side door. The netting is up over the dry pen.

Friday 24 June: Joe Duff and Geoff Tarbox hang the chain link for the wet pen. Joe (mostly) and Martin Esters did a superhuman job on Thursday putting in the poles for the wet pen fencing, driving them by hand and sheer cussedness.

Friday 24 June: Joe and Geoff hang the chain link on the wet pen.

Friday 24 June: Chain link is a pain in the *%$#@! to work with but the water was nice.

Friday 24 June: The site was still pretty wet, especially in the high-traffic areas. Saturday and Sunday promised warm, dry weather, which should help dry it out. By Saturday afternoon, Joe was able to get his pickup to the pen over the access road without getting it stuck--but just barely!

Friday 24 June: Arthur installs the controls for the electric fence.

Friday 24 June: That's me building a shelf to hold a 100-gallon water tank that will provide fresh drinking water for the cranes.

Friday 24 June: Arthur Bratton and Martin Esters tie off the top netting on the wet pen. Joe and Jeff had waders; the rest of us waded in in shorts or swim trunks.

Friday 24 June: Jerry Reetz mows the runway. Despite all the rain (3+ inches in as many days this week), the runway is in good shape--flat, firm, and mostly dry.

Friday 24 June: Overview of the pens. Geoff and Martin are attaching clips for the electric fence on the wet pen.

Saturday 25 June: "Odd Jobs Day," finiishing off various bits and pieces before the cranes arrive on Tuesday. I got into several projects and forgot about my camera. On Sunday, Joe will paint the dry pen in camo and I'll go out and take more pictures. This fellow, a Viceroy butterfly, hung around while we were building the doors for the runway-side gate.

Sunday 26 June is warm and sunny--another odd-jobs day. I took the day off to get some client work done but my wife Christal and I went out to the site early afternoon to take photos. Joe and Geoff were at lunch. This was taken from the south end of the runway.

A closer view of the pens. The camo paint is on site. Joe was planning to paint the pen Sunday afternoon.

The crane cams and their trailer. The cams were operating on Saturday but not yet uplinked to the Internet.

Sunday 26 June: Inside the dry pen looking toward the wet pen. The enclosure in the center covers two feeding stations divided by a fence. Flexible fencing at front and back can divide dry pen in two in case one or more of the birds need to be separated.

Looking into the wet pen from the dry pen gate. On Friday, the deepest part of the pond was about mid-thigh-deep on me (I'm 6 feet tall) -- too deep for cranes. But it is shallower near the dry pen and the water level is slowly dropping after a week of rain.

Sun 26 June from the north end of the runway. The brown mat is mowed grass; there's green grass underneath it.

White River Marsh Wildlife Area is a 12,000 acre property in northwest corner of Green Lake County and northeast corner of Marquette County, owned and managed by the Wisconsin DNR. It consists of open marsh/wet meadow, swamp hardwoods/tamarack swamp, upland prairie/oak savannah, and shrub carr.

White River Road--a "Wisconsin Rustic Road"--crosses the White River Marsh and provides access to the pen site. I've seen lots of songbirds, a handful of sandhill cranes, a Great Blue Heron, and a dozen or so turtles while driving in and out along the road. Once the cranes begin flying behind the ultralight, there will be designated public viewing sites along this road.

Along White River Road, through the wildlife area.

Sandhill crane family--2 adults, 2 chicks--spotted on the way to the pen site.

I didn't see the chicks, either, until I looked at the images on my computer, and noticed that these two little guys were moving around between shots.

Orange Hawkweed, White River Marsh

Blue Flag Iris, White River Marsh

False Indigo, White River Marsh

Monday 27 June: Another "odds & ends" day, busting fannies to get ready for the chicks' arrival early tomorrow afternoon. The weatherman promised thunderstorms but delivered only a few pitiful drops. Forecast for tomorrow is sun and more sun!

27 June: On the way back from lunch (Yea! Country Inn!), Joe and I spotted two bald eagles alongside the road -- one adult on the ground and a juvenile that flew right over the car. All I could say was, "Wow!" (Naturally, my camera was back at the pen site.) This is the southeast corner of the pen, with storage cabinet and water tank.

27 June: "Crane Paradise" awaiting its occupants. Two feeding stations in the foreground, a water pan in the background.

27 June: "Crane Paradise," or should we call it "Crane Hilton." Private beach, lake view, open-air dining room, large screened porch, secluded site, housekeeping staff, gated community . . . sounds rather posh to me.

These doors lead to the runway. The birds arrive tomorrow (28 June) and Joe has invited me to come along in costume and help with the transfer. I will try to take lots of photos. I'm really excited!

While we prepare the site, the chicks are being captive-raised at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, MD, using a strict "Wildness Protocol" -- no contact with humans unless the humans are wearing crane costumes, no human voices, no human artifacts. That ensures that the birds are as wild as possible when they reach Florida. (Photo, courtesy of Operation Migration)

Tuesday 28 June: Ten whooper chicks arrive at the Oshkosh airport aboard Windway's Cessna Citation, from the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, MD. Each bird is in its own crate. Thank you to Terry Kohler and Windway Capital Corp., Sheboygan, WI, for donating the flight.

The crates are carefully--and silently--transferred to an air-conditioned van and driven to the pen site, about 40 min. away. Here, at White River Marsh, International Crane Foundation (ICF) veterinarian Dr. Barry Hartup talks with Appleton veterinarian Dr. Lisa Peters and ICF intern Jana Braun, a 4th-year veterinary student from UW-Madison.

Joe Duff backed the van most of the way to the runway before it got stuck (A few days ago, this part of the access road was under a foot of water. See the "washout" photo above.) The crates were carefully lifted out and carried to the pen -- in silence. The only sound was a recording of brood calls played to reassure the birds.

Dr. Peters and ICF staffer Annette Aeschbach carry one of the birds up the runway to the pen. I did help carry the birds--I wasn't JUST taking photos. :-)

We set each of the crates in the shade inside the pen until all of them were brought from the van.

Once all the crates were there, we lined them up on one side of the pen, closed the pen doors, and put on our crane "helmets."

Joe Duff and Geoff Tarbox opened the crates and the birds emerged--a little cautiously--to the sound of the brood calls. The rest of us stood quietly along the walls of the pen. I could take photos but had to keep the camera covered as much as possible with the sleeve of my crane suit.

Joe tapped at the water pan to attract the chicks' attention and encourage them to drink after their long trip from Patuxent.

Recorded brood calls (a kind of loud "purr") and the crane-head puppet reassure the chicks and encourage them to follow their costumed "foster parent." You can hear crane brood calls and unison calls at ICF's

Two of the chicks spread their wings and show off their black wingtips. Is this perhaps a dominance display? Pecking order is a central fact of the chicks' lives and it will shift again and again as the chicks mature.

OM's Geoff Tarbox led the chicks briefly through the water gate into the wet pen.

Most of them followed him into the shallow water at the bank.

Leading and coaxing them back into the dry pen took a little longer. "Herding" the chicks is counterproductive -- it only makes them more reluctant to go where you want them to go.

Back at the van, we wasted no time getting out of our crane "burkas." Even in Tuesday afternoon's moderate temperature, the suits were awfully hot and stuffy. I have a much greater respect for the handlers who will work in them all summer. Jana Braun, Lisa Peters, and Annette Aeschbach load empty crates back into the van, which had to be towed out of the soft dirt.

Meanwhile, the newest cohort of "ultralight whoopers" begins the next chapter in its tale. You can follow the fun, live, at

The last 11 days have been an amazing adventure for me and I am deeply grateful to Joe Duff and OM for allowing me to be a part of it.

This post and photos, Copyriight © 2011 - David Sakrison - You may reproduce my photos for non-commercial purposes, with photo credit to David Sakrison - Photos from the International Crane Foundation or Operation Migration cannot be reproduced without written permission from ICF or OM.