Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Operation Migration - Inspiration For Us All!

Does this picture look strange to you? If it does, then you are not familiar with Operation Migration and the work they do every year with whooping cranes. Mom is a bird lover and she especially likes cranes. Each year along with her fellow former docents from the zoo, they travel to Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Refuge in Indiana to witness sandhill cranes flying into the refuge to roost for the night. Jasper-Pulaski is just one stop on their migration route from Canada to Florida and seeing thousands of them fly into the park is magical. Occasionally a whooping crane will fly in among the thousands of sandhills, but Mom has never been there when it's happened.

As of today there were almost 11,000 at the refuge. During the peak of their migration through the refuge, mid-November, up to 20,000 cranes will arrive at sunset, calling as they land in open fields. It is truly a spectacle to see but as you might have guessed, dogs are not allowed. Yep. I don't get to go on Mom's trip. I am a little upset, but I understand that I might scare the cranes and I wouldn't want to do that. Mom's trip is scheduled for this Saturday and I will be resting at home while she is gone, anxious to hear all about the cranes. You can read all about last year's trip here.

Back to Operation Migration. Whooping cranes are the only crane native to North America. Larger than their cousin the sandhill crane, whooping cranes were on the verge of extinction in the 1940's primarily due to habitat destruction, hunting, and shooting by farmers who saw them as destructive to their crops. There were only 15 left in the wild and things were looking very bleak. Incidentally, though the sandhill crane is not threated as a species, the three southernmost subspecies are quite rare. The most abundant subspecies, the lesser sandhill crane, is hunted today in several states across the U.S.

The days of the whooping crane seemed to be on the verge of collapse when organizations dedicated to wildlife conservation stepped up and collaborated to bring them back. Efforts were slow at first but gradually, after many protective measures and educational awareness of the situation, their numbers increase. The situation was still tenous at best, but work continued to ensure their survival.

The only known migratory flock of whooping cranes back then were those that nested in the Northwest Territories of Canada and wintered at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. Fearful that disease or human disruption might knock out this flock, leaving only captive birds in zoos and breeding facilities in the U.S., the Whooping Crane Recovery Team established a non-migratory flock in Florida in 1993 using cranes hatched in captivity. This flock of 30 cranes call Florida their permanent home today.

After the success of the non-migratory flock in Florida, the Recovery Team decided to establish a second migratory flock in 1999. They determined that the flock would be taught a migration route with central Wisconsin as their northern most point (near the International Crane Foundation), with the west coast of Florida as their wintering grounds. Ultralight-led migrations would be used to reintroduce the birds to their wintering grounds with the hope that they would retrace the route they took in the fall from Wisconsin back to Wisconsin in the spring to breed. Operation Migration was then born and has been working hard to establish this new flock.

Fast forward to today, its ninth year establishing the new flock, and there are now 77 migratory whooping cranes in the wild in eastern North America. This includes the first whooping crane chick to hatch in the wild in Wisconsin in more than a century. Hooray! Yippee!

But the work continues today. The Recovery Team has established a target number of at least 125 individuals, including 25 breeding pairs, migrating every year via this route in order for the flock to be considered self sustaining. There are only about 500 whooping cranes in existence and only 350 of those are in the wild. A lot of work still has to be done to bring these gracious birds back from the brink of extinction and that's what the dedicated individuals at Operation Migration do. Each and every day of every year they work with the whooping cranes so that you may one day see them in the wild.

This year's cranes to fly with Operation Migration consist of 20 birds that left the Necedah Refuge in Wisconsin on October 23. Captive bred at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, MD, and at the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, WI, these cranes will following the ultralights, traveling over 1,200 miles to their winter home at the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, located approximately 65 miles north of St. Petersburg, FL. After wintering over in this 31,000 acre refuge with 250 species of birds, 50 species of reptile and amphibians, and 25 species of mammals including the endangered West Indian Manatee (how cool is that?), they will retrace their migration back to central Wisconsin next spring where they will hopefully breed.

These dedicated people set up camp on each leg of the migration, stay with the birds, and then break down camp once the birds are airborne and on their way to the next stop over point. This is hard, back breaking work that few people are willing to do, but that must be done. Mom knows first hand how hard field work with endangered species can be, but for her it is the most rewarding work she's ever done.

In her latest book Hope For Animals and Their World, Jane Goodall talks about her experience flying in an ultralight alongside the cranes. Her words echoed what most of us would feel given the same experience:

"It is hard for me to describe the emotions that went through me as I sat there behind Joe (the pilot). I felt so much part of the whole scene, flying in that frail little machine above the wildlife refuge, the other ultralights like huge birds, each with its cranes strung out behind, the glory of the morning with its after-rain freshness and rising sun and golden clouds. The reflection of plane and cranes shone in the calm surface of the water below. I developed a new feeling for the cranes themselves on an almost spiritual level of connectedness."

This connectedness the Jane felt is what we all need to feel in order to save endangered species from extinction. Mom is always telling me that you can't teach someone to save an animal until you teach them to love it and I believe this to be true.

This year's flock is currently at their stopover point in Winnebago County, IL, about 1 1/2 hours from our house. They arrived there last Thursday and have been grounded due to unsuitable flying conditions. No chances are taken with the birds and when conditions are not perfect, they don't fly. Tomorrow's forecast looks good and Mom has talked Dad into going out there tomorrow morning to see the cranes take off and fly toward their next stopover point, LaSalle County, IL. Keep your paws crossed that the weather cooperates and that the cranes can fly. Mom has wanted to see this for so long and is so excited at the prospect of witnessing it tomorrow.

This short video is a public service announcement from Operation Migration. Mom tears up every time she watches it because she knows that only with the work of truly dedicated individuals do these birds have a chance for survival. Please watch the video and prepare to be inspired.


Tweedles -- that's me... said...

There is only one word


Pearl said...

That is so cool!!!
I am SOOO hoping your momma gets to see some of that today!!!!

Stubby said...

Hi Tweedles! Awesome is right. Wasn't the video cool? These birds are amazing and must be saved. They teach us so much about ourselves and about the environment.

Stubby xoxo

Stubby said...

Hi Pearly Poo! It is cool! Unfortunately, after I posted this yesterday, Dad came home and told Mom that he had an early morning meeting and couldn't go see the cranes. Mom was going to go by herself but she wasn't comfortable driving that far in the dark.

The cranes tried to fly this morning but they had to turn back, so they are still there. Mom and Dad are going to try to go Friday if the cranes are still there.

Stubby xoxo

dw said...

I've heard about this for years. I didn't know that they stopover in our area though! :)

Stubby said...

Hi dw! The cranes are still here. The pilots had lots of problems today, but they have fixed everything and if the weather cooperates they will try to fly again tomorrow.

Mom has to work early tomorrow morning so if they leave tomorrow she will have to wait until next year to see them.

Stubby xoxo

Melissa and Emmitt said...

hi stubby!

oh this is so amazing! i learn so much from you!

m & e

Stubby said...

Hi Melissa & Emmitt! It is amazing and as long as people continue to dedicate themselves to endangered species, they have a chance.

I'm so glad you learn from me. I learn a lot just researching ideas for the blog so it's a win-win for everyone.

Stubby xoxo