We heard an odd sound in the park the other day…it sounded like fast morse code clicking. Turned out, it was none other than a gorgeous European Starling. Who knew they make over 10 different calls and can mimic other birds’ songs/calls…including the Red-tailed Hawk Keer?
After hearing great reviews of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Eastern Pennsylvania, we decided to check it out for ourselves. The sanctuary is located about 2-3 hours away from New York City (or a bit faster if Justin Bieber is driving you in his new Ferrari). The sanctuary is situated along a major migratory corridor for raptors and other birds, and attracts an average of 20,000 hawks, eagles, and falcons each year. We visited on a beautiful October day; the autumn colors were just starting to show and a nice NW wind gave us hope that we’d get to see a bunch of raptors.
We started up the most popular trail, the mile-long Lookout Trail. After only a third of a mile on an easy path, we arrived at the South Lookout…
…which includes a guide to help you identify who you might see along the ridge.
We continued along the trail which started to get a bit steeper and rockier.
The final stretch to get to the top was a bit steep. Thankfully there are steps and railings. And, as always, we encountered bird lovers of every age and ability along the trail…always an inspiring sight.
The view from the North Lookout is gorgeous: green mountain ridges and a valley dotted with farms down below.
We had a decent day in terms of sightings: an American Kestrel, some Bald Eagles, a Peregrine Falcon, a couple of Sharp-shinned Hawks, a Cooper’s Hawk, some Black Vultures, and many Turkey Vultures. Thankfully, our friend and talented photographer Jean Shum joined us and was able to get some nice shots:
A Bald Eagle adult and juvenile that explored the area north of the ridge for quite some time, flying together in harmony…
…an American Kestrel that was watching us too…
…a Cooper’s Hawk catching a wind gust…
…and a soaring Turkey Vulture.
Sitting at the lookout for hours, waiting serenely for birds to soar by, with fellow watchers pointing binoculars at the sky, quietly helping each other locate each oncoming avian…it was hard to imagine the place as it was in the early 1930s.
Back then, the lookout was a hunting spot where migrating raptors were shot from the sky by the thousands. A major reason for this, according to the Hawk Mountain website, was that in 1929, at the dawn of the Great Depression, Pennsylvania’s Game Commission placed a hefty $5 price tag on the goshawk’s head (which is about $70 today). Sadly many people didn’t mind the slaughter because hawks, eagles and other birds of prey had a bad reputation at the time. They were seen as vicious killers and even baby snatchers (a tradition of hoaxes that continues to this day).
And, yes, that is THE Thomas Edison. We’re glad he found other ways to spend his time.
A local photographer and conservationist Richard Plough was alarmed by the daily slaughter. He tried various ways to stop the shooting, including speaking at a meeting of the Hawk and Owl Society in New York City…but all to no avail. In June of 1934, Plough was contacted by Rosalie Barrow Edge, a New York spitfire socialite-turned-activist. Edge loved raptors with a passion and, after hearing Plough speak at the meeting, she called him, “He told me Dutch farmers were shooting these poor wayfarers by the thousands. I went to the scene and it was awful, awful!” (from a New Yorker feature about Edge in its April 18, 1948 issue).
Mrs. Edge found the owner of the mountain, leased it for two years, and eventually purchased it for $2500 (quite a steal at about $45,000 today, about the same price as the ever-useful Pedal Pub from Hammacher Schlemer). She immediately stopped all hunting activity and turned the mountain into the first sanctuary for birds of prey.
Instead of daily slaughter, they started a daily count of migrating raptors. This became the world’s longest running tally of migrating raptor populations. Even more significantly, the counts from Hawk Mountain provided valuable data to support the pivotal book Silent Spring (1962), which “spurred a reversal in national pesticide policy, led to a nationwide ban on DDT for agricultural uses, and inspired an environmental movement that led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.”
Hawk Mountain continues to do important work in education, scientific research, and conservation, and provides a peaceful panorama from which to observe the majesty of raptors.
Operation Migration is known for the iconic photo of young Whooping Cranes flying in formation behind an ultralight aircraft.
Most people we have spoken to about OM said, “Oh yeah, like Fly Away Home!” And yes, the film Fly Away Home is based on the work done by Bill Lishman and Joe Duff who are the co-founders of Operation Migration…but the reality of OM is so much more.
Let’s begin with a quick overview of the equipment. The ultralight aircraft, known in OM lingo as the “trike”, is a Special Light Sport Aircraft (more background here for airplane enthusiasts).
OM has flown with a few different aircraft over the years and they continue to make modifications to make their trips more effective and efficient. One of the hoped-for improvements is to use a clear material on the wings to more easily keep track of the birds while in flight.
The most interesting modification is the electronic game caller which emits the brood call that an adult Whooping Crane would make to let her chicks know where she is and keep them close…
Then there are the costumes, known as “Tumes” in OM lingo. They are an essential part of rearing the young chicks. In order to prevent the birds from imprinting on humans, any time an OM staffer interacts with the chicks, they are silent and in a Tume.
The Tumes have also evolved over time. The most recent ones look like a cross of a Storm Trooper with an old-school Halloween ghost.
Luckily none of the birds have seen Star Wars or ghosts so they aren’t taken aback. In order to simulate the experience of being raised by another Whooper, the Tumes also include a strikingly realistic adult Whooper head and hinged mouth. These “puppets” are used to give food such as grapes to the young Whoopers and to teach them to forage on their own via mimicry.
From Egg to Migration-Ready Flying Powerhouse
Until there are enough Whoopers to ensure proper genetic variability and a large enough population to be self-sustaining, the Whooping Crane eggs are laid at captive breeding locations. They are brought to the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland.
Now, the goal is to rear them so that they’re used to hearing the engine of the ultralight and interacting with the Tumes. Before the eggs are hatched, and just after, aircraft engine sounds and the brood call are played near them. This is taking that Mozart for Mothers To Be thing to a whole new level. As laid out in their detailed protocol, the young chicks are slowly introduced to the aircraft. First, it has no wings and doesn’t move, then it moves, then the wings are added, etc. Bit by bit, the chicks adjust to their avian foster mother and the silent Tumes.
Before they can fly, the birds are then transferred to their next temporary home at White River Marsh Wildlife Area to begin flight training. They are housed in an enclosure that includes a dry pen and a wet pen.
Again, they are given time to slowly adjust to their new habitat and to the trike.
One Fine Flight Day
The Whooping Crane Festival was full of fun activities but our favorite, by far, was watching the flight training. Every morning of the festival (and every day until migration, weather permitting!), a group gathers at the Flyover Viewing location to ‘ooh’ and ‘aaah’ in unison (while some turn into waterworks, more on that later).
Besides the addictive CraneCam that we mentioned in our last post, there’s a third way to experience the flight training. Near the pen, there is a “blind”. It’s a very small camouflaged structure…
…from which silent, non-Tumed viewers can watch the Whoopers and ultralight take off and land.
At the festival Dinner we had the pleasure of sharing a table with some wonderful people, including Ann Gillis who generously gave up her spot to go the blind so we could have the opportunity. This was a highlight for us and a kindness that we will not soon forget.
This was our experience…
We met the Tume-wearers for that day: Doug, John, and Colleen. They were far more chipper than we were at $%@& in the morning.
After letting us conduct primary research on the equipment…
…Colleen and Doug went to the pen while we were escorted into the blind. Then, we, along with the Whoopers, waited with anticipation. Doug later told us they often excitedly peck at the door when they hear the trike approaching. The trike circled in front of the pen…
…and when Joe, the CEO/pilot, gave the ready signal, then Doug and Colleen opened the gates and the birds literally ran directly into take-off. The trike had to get moving to keep up!
And remember we mentioned waterworks? Well, that sight alone had one of us spouting enough tears to save California from its drought. It actually earned her the nickname, “The Blind Baller” which is not too shabby as nicknames go. It really was such a beautiful moment.
The trike and whoopers flew around for about 20 minutes, occasionally in view from the blind…
…with Joe providing regular updates about their speed, altitude, and what the cranes were up to: sometimes trying to overtake the aircraft and sometimes flying in a perfect line behind the wing.
Eventually, the whole cohort landed and the Blind Baller slowly flooded White River Marsh.
Then, Joe, Doug, and Colleen spent some time with the birds, giving them grapes via puppet to reward them for a wonderful flight.
It’s hard to put into words what made this whole experience so wonderful. The Whooping Cranes themselves are majestic. The way they learn to trust and interact with these silent, Tumed humans and a whooping Ultralight aircraft is magical.
But what we didn’t expect was how blown away we were by the people working to bring Whooping Cranes back from the brink. Every single OM employee wears many hats and pitches in wherever they’re needed (the stories we heard could fill a book!). And then there are the volunteer Craniacs such as the 2015 Volunteer-of-the-Year Mary, who makes every Tume by hand, modifying it for each person’s needs (she should be very proud that the costumes are now on display at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum).
Their tenacity, their passion, and their ability to continue their work tirelessly every single day – to battle any and all obstacles (both man-made and natural) – to do what any rational, thinking person would have said couldn’t be done… They work so hard literally saving an entire species (and all of us) one bird at a time and they do it with gusto, creativity, and a strong sense of purpose.
A lot of people talk about making an impact, making positive change on our planet but these people embody it. And the best part is…we can all help!
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!
The Whooping Crane Festival has wrapped up and we have so much to share that we’ll be breaking it into a multi-part series. As we migrate back to New York City, we’ve been reflecting on everything we learned and how inspired we have been.
Before we get into the full story, we’d like to dedicate this poem to the Operation Migration team and all the Craniacs out there.
White Marsh Dawn
The fog hangs low in pockets, still, The sun a line behind the hill, The crows snack roadside, get their fill, The morning breathes a sigh.
And in the marsh, hear life’s refrain, The birds, the bugs, the critters reign, No wind, no rain, good day to train, It’s time to take the sky.
Tumes and Wellies* on, can’t be late, Trike’s in sight, we’ve got a date, Whoopers, eager, peck the gate, They just can’t wait to fly.
The trike’s a go, the whoopers free, They rumble tumble out with glee, They run, they jump, and whoop whoopee, No time for a goodbye.
From down below, we see them soar, They slide, they glide, first aft then fore, They form a line and flap no more, Fly low and then fly high.
And now the sun is glowing bright, As man, machine, and crane take flight, Through grit, invention, and pure might, All odds we can defy.
Weather permitting, the 2015 class of 6 young Whoopers will start their guided fall migration this Sunday, September 20. More from us soon as well.
*Tumes and Wellies = the white cosTUME and Wellington boots that Operation Migration folks wear when they work with the cranes.
We temporarily traded the big city for the open country to whoop it up at the annual Whooping Crane Festival in Princeton, Wisconsin. There is no better way to see the great work being done by Operation Migration and the WCEP. It is truly breathtaking.
Some photos from this morning’s training flight just after dawn:
Don’t worry, you won’t have to crane your neck…we’ll be bringing you more on this story so keep your hawk eyes open.