Hope that common sense will prevail

The annual WCEP partnership meeting is taking place today and tomorrow and thousands of people are on edge. Why? The future of Operation Migration hangs in the balance.

A quick background as we understand it: In a vision document outlining the approach for the next 5 years, the USFW claimed that Whooping Cranes reared under the Ultralight-guided method (UL), used by Operation Migration, aren’t as likely to reproduce as cranes reared with other methods, such as Direct Autumn Release (DAR), in which the birds are captive-raised then released with other Whooping Cranes or Sandhill Cranes in the autumn.  It also claimed the UL method was more expensive and less “authentic”.

It is very smart to periodically reevaluate the efficacy of programs like these. There are a lot of resources at stake.  Many people from all groups in the partnership have invested their time, energy, and love. And, most importantly, the survival of an entire species hangs in the balance.

A few points we believe should be considered as the committee meets:

  1. The data should be considered holistically.  In the USFW vision document, only old data (since 2010) was used to determine program efficacy. That means there is 5 years of newer data that hasn’t been considered. Once that data is incorporated:

    Based on data gathered from the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP) database , UL crane survivorship is 75% vs. 59% for the Direct Autumn Release (DAR) method, and thereafter, annual adult survival is 92% for UL cranes vs. 84% for DAR cranes. Based on these data, the probability of UL cranes surviving to the earliest confirmed breeding age (three years) is 63% vs. 42% for DAR cranes. Projecting survivorship to 10 years of age, UL cranes are three times as likely to be alive as DAR cranes (35% vs. 12%).

  2. UL could prove to be the best method.  While each method has advantages and drawbacks, when looking at key factors (such as how long the cranes survive and whether they can mate and migrate successfully), UL’s recent numbers are the best so far.
  3. OM’s story is resonating and it is entirely privately funded. Beyond methodology, Operation Migration has managed to bring both money and attention to the cranes and their situation. There is something magical about the ability of humans to push themselves to innovate in order to save another species.

It was OM that drew us to Wisconsin. It was OM folks who introduced us to the WCEP and sent us to Baraboo, WI to visit the the ICF (where we joined as members) and see all the collaborative efforts underway to help cranes.  And it was OM’s unyielding base of support, the aptly named Craniacs, through their passion, dedication, and kindness, that warmed our hearts more than we could have imagined. We left Wisconsin feeling hopeful that the birds had a chance because different groups of people were able to work together to ensure their survival.

And our continued hope is that after taking a hard, fair, holistic look at the data, and really considering the pivotal role OM plays as ambassadors for Whooping Cranes,  the USFWS and WCEP will reach a common sense decision:  Give OM more time to fly.



A Middle East peace story you haven’t heard

There’s a small piece of land, roughly the size of New Jersey, in the center of the Middle East, just a sliver along the Mediterranean Sea…a land that has seen and, continues to see, more than its fair share of conflict and strife…a land rife with many well known old stories of power struggles, attacks, defenses, mistrust, and blame that are still debated with vigor to this day.

And yet, there is another story of this land that you probably haven’t heard. The land, of course, is Israel and the story is about man vs. nature.

Like most stories from this land, this one begins with a struggle.  In this case, a high stakes struggle for resources. On one side, there are migrants on a long annual voyage to escape barren winters, to travel to warmer climates where they can find food and respite.  These migrants travel thousands of miles to find a safe place to eat and rest before they continue their journey.  If they don’t make the journey, they will starve and die.  These migrants are Common Cranes (aka Eurasian Cranes, or, in Latin, Grus Grus).cranes up closecranes in low flight

On the other side are farmers who work the land and whose entire livelihood depends on growing and harvesting crops every season. Farmers who, over many years, have learned how to grow thriving crops in a difficult environment. Farmers who live and work in the midst of a dizzying sociopolitical situation.  Farmers who have to worry daily about the threat of aerial attacks – not from cranes – but from their human neighbors to the north.

And, like many situations in this region, this one, too, seemed impossible to solve.  The farmers need to grow food on their land.  Every square inch (centimeter if we’re being true to the region) counts.  And the cranes need to eat food, especially food that doesn’t require a lot of energy to obtain.  And yet, in this case, hope, compromise, and collaboration won the day.

In the 1950s, as Israel was starting out as a country, a tract of land in the north, called the Hula Valley, was a swampy wasteland festering with malarial mosquitos.

Map of Hula Valley and surroundings (source)

Israel began a major public works project to drain the swamps with the hopes that the land could become farmable.  The results of the drainage, however, were abysmal.  Water in the region (that flowed down to major water sources for the whole country) was no longer filtered by the marshland and became polluted with chemicals.  Top soil, no longer anchored by foliage, blew away, making agriculture incredibly difficult.

In the early 1990s, part of the valley was flooded again in a major rehabilitation project.  The restored lake, Lake Hula (in Hebrew, “Agamon Hula”) and wetlands became, once again, a major stopping point for birds migrating from Europe and Asia down to Africa. 

It is then that the battle began.  Just as farmers were able to work the land again, migrating cranes came by the thousands each year and decimated their crops.  Historically, in general, land owners have handled problems like this by shooting or poisoning the avian intruders.

But that wasn’t the case here. Instead, a consortium of groups (Israel Nature & Parks Authority, the JNF, Agamon Hula, the farmers of the Hula Valley, the Upper Galilee Regional Council and government ministries), found an innovative way to work together.  It was aptly named “The Crane Project.”

Each year,  the project moves through 3 stages.  From the Agamon Hula website:

  • Stage I is implemented during the first half of the fall season (the end of September through mid-November) – the cranes are permitted a limited stay in those fields where the summer harvest has been completed.
  • Stage II is implemented during the second half of the season (mid-November through December) – the cranes are then denied foraging throughout the valley’s fields.
  • Stage III is implemented during the winter months- a feeding station is opened where food is spread out across the field according to need, simultaneously protecting the newly seeded crops. Steps are taken to keep away any undesirable birds from the feeding station and an effort is made to reduce the quantity of food at the station to its absolute necessary minimum.”

We visited Agamon Hula during Stage 3.  According to our guide, 8 tons of feed are given to the cranes each day.  Because they have a dependable food source, they don’t spend nearly as much time grazing on the agricultural fields in the valley, thus relieving the farmers’ woes.

Thanks to this ingenious solution, Agamon Hula has become one of the top birding destinations in the world and eco-tourism has taken off, benefiting many people living in the area.

Regardless of how you feel about the human conflicts in Israel and throughout the Middle East, we hope to leave you with the beauty, rapture, and awe that one experiences when witnessing 40,000 cranes together in one place.

The cranes arrive in early afternoon for feeding

cranes in flight

three cranes in flight
Three cranes flying together are usually two parents with one child.
cranes in crowd 2
About 40,000 cranes (give or take 1,000)

Click to expand the photos below

At dusk, they arrive at the lake to roost

cranes over empty lake
The calm before the roost.

cranes in the water

cranes in water 2

cranes in water 3
The water provides a safe, predator-free zone where the cranes can rest.

cranes in water 5

P.S. If you love cranes as much as we do, you’ll enjoy our posts about Whooping Cranes: Us Saving Them Saving Us and Operation Migration: Behind the Scenes.


Whooping Cranes: Us Saving Them Saving Us

It’s a story of destruction, redemption, and hope. It’s a story about the balance of all living things. It’s a story about some tall, shy, trumpet-sounding, mostly-white, beautiful birds who were brought to the brink of extinction by us…who are slowly being saved by us…and who may be saving us after all.


According to fossil records, Cranes have been around for about 12 million years (give or take a million).  They have inspired humans for generations; through folk tales and legends they have symbolized happiness, wisdom, longevity, and prosperity.  

Here in New York City, cranes symbolize prosperity too.  We see them every single day, extending their long necks to pick up bits of wood and steel off the ground and bring them to the highest heights. All kidding aside, construction cranes were actually named after the bird.  And, at 220 feet in height, New York City now has the tallest freestanding construction crane it has ever seen. Sigh.


Speaking of tallest, the Whooping Crane is the tallest flying bird in North America.  It stands at 4.5-5 feet tall with a wingspan of 7-8 feet (that’s the same or wider than Lebron James’ wingspan!).  This summer, when we heard about the Whooping Crane Festival in Princeton, Wisconsin, we jumped at the chance to learn more about this majestic creature.


As we drove from NYC to Wisconsin, we felt thrilled that we were going to see the rare Whooping Crane with our own eyes.  To hear its renowned Whooping call. To watch its elegant dance. To witness its slow, graceful step-by-step wading through still waters. There are only about 600 of these gorgeous Grus Americana in existence today and the chance to see one up close is an amazing opportunity.

Before humans populated North America, it is believed that Whooping Cranes were quite abundant, numbering about 15,000-20,000.  Their habitat ranged from Utah in the west to New Jersey in the east. By 1850, as people moved West and larger scale agriculture exploded, their population had decreased to about 1500. By 1941, due to continued habitat loss (wetlands being drained and repurposed for agriculture) and unregulated hunting (not just for meat, but as trophies especially as the birds became more rare), there were only 21 Whooping Cranes in existence.  To give you some perspective, that’s the same size as the Duggar’s nuclear family! We know who we’d rather see more of…


In 1967, Whooping Cranes were declared an Endangered Species (this is NOT required for the Duggars) and conservation efforts started in earnest.  Though many efforts in the past have failed (and they have been incredibly creative), conservationists have learned a lot and are starting to see great success. The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, a consortium of groups working to restore a self-sustaining, migratory population of Whoopers to eastern North America, details some of the efforts currently underway (including raising, training, releasing and monitoring).  

One of the founding members of the partnership is the International Crane Foundation, which is the only place in the world one can see all 15 species of cranes, 11 of which are endangered.  We got to visit them in Baraboo, WI.

From the Black Crowned Crane of Africa…


 to the Brolga from Australia…


…it’s easy to see why Cranes have captivated humans for so long.  But the biggest takeaway for us was a deeper understanding of the impact that the cranes’ habitat loss has on all of us. 

“Like a canary in the coal mine" as one of the Festival-goers stated, the demise of the Whoopers was a stark warning that we had been rapidly losing our marshes and wetlands.  Among other things, The ICF works around the world to restore wetlands in order to save all cranes (don’t miss their masterful video Cranes: Symbols of Survival, narrated by Tom Brokaw)…but the reality is that those habitats also play a vital role in human survival.  From the EPA: “…wetlands provide values that no other ecosystem can, including natural water quality improvement, flood protection, shoreline erosion control, opportunities for recreation and aesthetic appreciation, and natural products for our use at no cost.” 

So are we saving the Whooping Cranes or are they saving us? Turns out, the answer is both.


(this sign hangs at ICF near the Whooping Cranes)

In our next post, we go behind the scenes with Operation Migration.  In the meantime , pop some popcorn and check out their Crane Cam (on 24-7) to start get to know the 2015 class of six young whoopers. Warning: this is completely addictive!