Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Whoopers Make Unplanned Stop Near Eagle Optics Store


You can imagine our surprise when a call came in to Eagle Optics early this week to say that one of Operation Migration's ultralight aircraft and 4 immature Whooping Cranes had just landed at nearby Pope Farm Conservancy. Mike McDowell was on his feet and out the door within minutes with his digiscoping gear. I mean, how often do you get to be in the company of one of the world's most endangered bird species?

Operation Migration is an ongoing initiative to help with the reintroduction of the Eastern migratory Whooping Crane population. After months of training every year, the newly graduated class of immature cranes begins its trip in mid-October to its Florida wintering grounds, led by ultralights. The hope is, that once shown the way, the youngsters will return on their own in the spring. And doggone it, it really works. But as you might imagine, it isn't easy. This brings me back to that morning phone call.omcranespfc11

It was the third day of the trip which started in White River Marsh State Wildlife Area, and the 8 young cranes were being led to their next stopover point in Green County. But the flock got separated, and ended up in 3 groups. One group landed in Pope Farm Conservancy, about 3 miles from the Eagle Optics headquarters in Middleton. While the ground crew tracked the wayward cranes through their transmitters, the Pope Farm group rested until they were ready to go. Their pilot/surrogate parent (dressed in a crane costume to avoid imprinting on humans) kept the birds quiet, and unwitting hikers were kept at bay until permission was given to temporarily close the conservancy to the public.

Mike and Pope Farm's administrator crept into the woods, far enough away to avoid disturbing the cranes, and Mike was able to digiscope these photos of the rare visitors. Later that day, once the cranes had been reunited, they reconvened at their planned stop a few miles south of here in Green County. The Operation Migration website reported that conditions were too breezy for flight the following morning, so the cranes and their costumed handlers had a day off on Oct. 23.omcranespfc21

If you'd like to follow the cranes as they make their way south, click here to view the planned migration route.  At some sites, it's possible to see the early morning departure of the birds from designated Migration Flyover Departure Viewing Locations.  According to the website:
"As a rule, departures happen within ~10 minutes of sunrise, so you will want to be in place at the viewing site by that time.  Remember that our ability to fly on any given day is entirely weather dependent, and we rarely know more than a few minutes in advance of take-off whether or not we will be flying that day. OM crew will be on hand at Flyover Viewing Locations to respond to your questions. They will be equipped with aircraft radios so you can hear pilot transmissions and will have OM Gear available for purchase."

You can also compare the progress of the current fall migration with past years here--those plucky Operation Migration pilots have been leading cranes down this same route since 2001. Now, there is even a live Crane Cam so you can see the cranes in flight along their way!

Eagle Optics is a proud supporter of Operation Migration's work in preserving the Whooping Cranes. Will you help to keep this work going? Become a sustaining member, or make a one-time donation. Please click here to learn how.

Reflecting about his Whooping Crane encounter, Mike writes: "Hidden behind trees and dense vegetation at Pope Farm Conservancy, photographing the Whooping Cranes from over a hundred yards away was a thrill and a privilege. It was incredible to see these wonderful birds in the company of their pilot caretaker in the grassy field."

Godspeed, dear cranes. Oh, and please: stay together. All the way to Florida.

Nina Cheney
Eagle Optics Staff
Binoculars: Bring them. See what they bring you.


  1. can't wait to see my first fly-over of whoopers! Let their come-back be as successful as that of the Sand Hills!!!

  2. Great that the Whooping Cranes came so close. Shows they deserve all of the help Homo sapiens can provide. . . . Keep on keeing on. . . . .


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