Readers’ wildlife videos: The final guided flight of the whooping cranes (and blackbird lagniappe)

February 16, 2016 • 7:45 am

Tara Tanaka is now our Official Website Wildlife Cinematographer™ for her plethora of wonderful digiscoped photos of the beasts and birds of the field and air. In honor of her title, I’m putting up two of her new videos today. Be sure to watch them on full screen, enlarged and with the resolution set to 1080 p High Definition status (after clicking the arrows to enlarge, click the “HD” symbol at the bottom and set to “1080”).

The first video shows the final guided migration—yes, the last one ever—in which endangered whooping cranes (Grus americana) will be led by an ultralight aircraft to their wintering grounds in Florida from their summering site in Wisconsin. The people involved in this effort, “Operation Migration,” are stalwart and dedicated, and I hope their efforts will not be in vain. I’m not sure why they’re ending this program; perhaps a reader can tell us why. The latest notes on the program by Joe Duff, including photos of the release of the “class of 2015” graduates, can be seen here, and you can donate to the program here ($10 gets you a wristband and entry into a lottery for binoculars).

At any rate, Tara filmed the last flying leg of the trip on January 30. Note below that because of bad weather, 6 cranes were hauled the last 23 miles in a truck. Tara’s notes follow above her great video, the best I’ve seen of this program (note that the ultralight pilot is wearing a crane suit and the plane is painted to resemble a huge crane!). Don’t miss this video!

With emotions swinging from the low of knowing that there would be only one more flight after this one for Operation Migration, to the thrill of seeing the Class of 2015 appear on the tail of the ultralight, back to sadness as they disappeared in the distance — I was fortunate to witness and capture this video of them as they left Climax, GA this morning. Their final stopover is in Leon County before they fly their final leg to their wintering grounds at St. Marks NWR. For those unfamiliar with Operation Migration, you can read more here.

After they were picked up by the ultralight and were disappearing into the distance, they started to spread out, and within a few seconds all six headed off to the left and had to be regrouped. I don’t know what happened between the time that they disappeared at 5:44 in the video and when they reappeared at 5:46 when they can be seen headed back our way, but we were treated to another close fly-by before they made a much more well-behaved exit.

There were a lot of trees, but fortunately I was shooting the video using manual focus, so I was able to keep the birds in focus even when they were behind the trees. A large tree trunk even got between the birds and the camera twice, but I just kept panning and they reappeared again on the other side.

It sometimes appears that the prop is going very slowly, or even stops or goes backwards – all of which is just an illusion resulting from the frame rate of the video relative to the speed of the prop.

UPDATE 2/6/16: In what had to be one of the most difficult and selfless decisions of the OM program, it was decided to crate and drive the 6 cranes the last 23 miles to their winter home at St. Marks NWR. Conditions looked favorable on 2/6, but when the winds proved much too strong that morning, the decision was made to not delay the release of the cranes any longer. I thought I was filming the next to the last flight, but as it turned out, this was the last flight that Whooping Cranes will make following an ultralight, at least for the foreseeable future.

This video was shot in 4K using a Panasonic GH4 mounted on a Swarovski STX85 spotting scope using a Digidapter – a method called digiscoping.

I’m not sure what the blackbirds below are nomming in the water; perhaps a reader can identify the corn-like objects.

In 2009 we reported 130 Rusty Blackbirds [Euphagus carolinus] in our yard, and I believe that we had as many as 180 in 2007. The species has seen sharp declines over recent years. I’ve been seeing 1 or 2 Rustys this year, then as many as 5 in the last few days, but yesterday I was photographing Wood Ducks when I saw at least 20. In the past, there has been a strong predominance of females, but yesterday there were more males than females. Their “rusty gate” sounds can be heard in the background, mixed in with some Red-winged Blackbirds, and two Barred Owls at the end. This location is on the edge of a 45-acre cypress swamp in northern Florida.

This location is on the edge of a 45-acre cypress swamp in northern Florida.

This video was digiscoped in 4K using a GH4 + 20mm/1.7 + Digidapter mounted on a Swarovski STX 85 spotting scope using manual focus.

Tara’s flickr site is here, and her vimeo channel here.


16 thoughts on “Readers’ wildlife videos: The final guided flight of the whooping cranes (and blackbird lagniappe)

  1. Thanks for all you kind words in your introduction of these videos Jerry, not to mention my new title!

    There are a number of efforts underway to increase the population of Whooping Cranes, and a meeting of all of the parties recently decided that until they find out why the Operation Migration birds are not living and breeding more successfully in the wild, that they would terminate that part of the effort.

    The corn-like objects in the water of the second video are, well, corn. We feed it to the Wood Ducks and the Rusty and Red-winged Blackbirds have found it too.

    1. So it looks like this program is being stopped because it was part of a larger program of human-assisted rearing of cranes. But too many of the cranes that graduated from the program grew up to not be sufficiently successful as parents. That is too bad, since the effort was done very carefully.

    2. It has been a heroic effort to increase the crane population, but if it isn’t working, it’s back to the drawing board.

  2. My parents kept a flock of bantam chickens in our rural yard for decades. I noticed that new mother hens always failed to raise their first batch of chicks. Sometimes it took two or three tries before they learned not to kill their own chicks.

    This is anecdotal, and I have no idea whether it is relevant, but I noticed one of the main reasons for discontinuing this program is that the crane chicks had a poor survival rate, and there was suspicion that hand raising the birds deprived them of some critical learning experience.

    My unprofessional guess is that when the population was large, it could survive unsuccessful broods, and that the birds eventually learn to parent.

    1. This is a good point, I think. Birders commonly describe how young bird parents make a # of fatal errors but then they start to get it right.

  3. Imprinting in birds such as cranes and geese makes perfect sense when the fist things the chicks normally see on hatching is the parent bird that incubated them. It becomes somewhat incongruous (though handy if you want to guide them on migration) when they imprint on humans or other ‘inappropriate’ models.

    I believe that conservation workers involved in rearing cranes for release in the wild go to considerable lengths to ensure the cranes do not imprint on them e.g. by using adult crane puppets to parent them.

      1. “Submit”
        Wordpress doesn’t have a way to turn on delivery to your email other than to create a comment. If you don’t have anything to say, but want to see what others are saying, this creates a dummy comment. That gives the opportunity to check the “Notify” box under the entry window.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *