Sunday, October 18, 2009


One of my brother's favorite excursions was to the Middle-of-Nowhere, Indiana, to watch sandhill cranes fly south for the winter. His wife's family had a bit of a crane obsession, and they found an idyllic marsh where, every October, tens of thousands of cranes stopped for the night.

He would wax euphorically on the beauty and serenity that he found there, and one of my regrets is that I never drove 14 hours to spend a few cold and wet October days in this swamp with him.

At the beginning of this month, I attended the Society of Environmental Journalists annual conference in Madison, Wisconsin (an interesting affair on its own merits). Journalists being journalists, they spend one day of their conference checking out various environmental stories where ever they are. And for this year's meeting, one of the field trips was an exploration of the Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge and efforts to reintroduce Whooping Cranes into the wild. Needless to say, I jumped at the opportunity. (You'll find a few photos are at our Flickr page)

True to the spirit of the outing, the day was cold and wet. But I couldn't recommend it more. The International Crane Foundation is working closely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to repopulate the whooping crane species. At one point after world war 2, there were only 14; now there are several hundred.

When the cranes are hatched, scientists and staff dress up in hazmat suits with a crane head puppet attached to one hand -- the mommy cranes, if you will. They train the cranes to fly south behind an "ultralight" plane cranking out crane songs while wearing the hazmat suits. And then one day in October, when the weather is as right as it can be, they head south. They fly 30-60 miles a day, land in pre-arranged backyards or parks (the whole journey is elaborately choreographed), and then in the spring the cranes magically head back north on their own.

Climate change threatens the whole operation, of course. Rising sea levels are driving out the cranes' favorite winter food, blue crabs, from their winter wetlands. In fact, projection show that these wetlands, in Texas regrettably, will be under water by the turn of the next century.

But despite this ominous future and tenuous present, the reintroduction program has had much success. And, for a day, I felt wonderfully close to my brother.

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