Mary Lou and I got out about 15 minutes before sunrise on the morning of February 10th, hoping to see the male Whooping Crane #15-12 ("Cypress") that was the subject of my earlier post, A Lonely Whooping Crane. I had expressed concerns about the lone crane's survival skills, and thought it might be in jeopardy if left without others of its kind.
We had missed sighting it the past 3 days, and our neighbor Scott also had not seen it at the spot the crane liked to visit, just across the street from his home. As usual, Mary Lou walked up ahead of me while I took a few "shots in the dark..." well, semi-darkness. She continued the full 1 1//2 miles into the wetland preserve and then returned home at her customary fast pace.
An immature Little Blue Heron hunted along a row of sedges. Under-exposed, I liked the color cast by the filtered light of dawn in the still air.
This Osprey was silouhetted against the sky, and when I processed the shot I had to push the brightness all the way up.
I kept vigil, hoping I had gotten there before the crane departed for its foraging grounds. Looking towards the Everglades, to the west over the lake, the sky had a pre-dawn glow. I tried to overlook the deep tracks in the mud flats, created by the ATV riders. The crane usually emerged from a field just in front of the green trees to the far right in this photo.
My cell phone rang. It was Mary Lou, telling me that she had met two wildlife specialists at the entrance gate, Jeanette and Ricardo, from the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership. They were asking about the crane. She related that I was about 1/2 mile up the gravel road, looking for it. The gate was locked and they could not access with their truck, so they rode their bicycles in. On the way in, they picked up the signal from Cypress-- in the direction of my neighbor Scott's home. Jeanette was carrying the receiver and antenna when she pedaled towards me. This crane did not carry a satellite locator, so ground reports were important to allow the researchers to know the general area in which they might track it with the short-range equipment.
I texted Scott and he confirmed that the crane was indeed on his front lawn. We entered the Harbour Lakes subdivision and encountered the crane just across the street from Scott's house.
Jeanette spent over an hour gaining the crane's confidence. Several times it appeared spooked when pedestrians and especially those walking dogs came by. She fed the crane green grapes and corn.
It stepped in and out of the snare but Jeanette wanted a perfect capture. Her body language calmed the crane. She never walked directly towards the bird, but rather approaced it at an angle and usually looked away from it.
Several feral Muscovy Ducks and White Ibises joined in the feeding. Auto traffic increased as parents transporting children to schools and commuters heading to work moved by rapidly. We had to divert pedestrians, as the crane showed signs of being alarmed and prepared to fly. Then, the crane started walking away, across the road.
Jeanette donned a white sheet similar to that used when the cranes are reared, as it hides the human form.
The crane actually came running to her! Within minutes the crane was captured. Here is a short video showing the entire sequence of events (Correction-- my lens system is 420 mm, not 720 mm-- I use a 300 mm + 1.4x extender).
Scott took this photo of Ricardo and Jeanette at the conclusion of the capture. It is ironic that it was Scott who first photographed the crane after its arrival in the wetlands, and now he took the final photo to document its departure. (© 2013 Scott McPherran, used with his permission).
Soon Cypress was safely on his way to join a mixed flock of adult Whooping and Sandhill Cranes in the Lake Okeechobee area.
The female crane #13-12 ("Tussock") recovered and was earlier released in Tennessee (See the interesting local newspaper account here). A US Fish and Wildlife news release with a video link may be viewed here.
While I am excited about the possibility that an Eastern migratory population of Whooping Cranes may be established by this program, I must admit to some concerns about this captive-bred crane. These birds are shielded from human contact while they are raised. They are fed using crane puppets and not exposed to human handlers unless the latter are draped in white sheets to hide their identity. (View WCEP slide show on training captive cranes.)
Perhaps it would be better if they learned to fear humans at some point before being released into the wild. These two birds permitted many people to approach them very closely, including youngsters on ATVs. Lacking fear of humans, they visited suburban lawns and even walked up to people. Might it have been a good idea to teach them that humans should be avoided? What if the first people they saw shot off firecrackers or clanged pots and pans to frighten them? Perhaps this would discourage them from approaching human habitations, and yet permit them to adapt to a more urbanized winter habitat.