Photos of nine young Whooping Cranes and their costumed handlers

11/15/2013 | 1

A young Whooping Crane preens at Horicon National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Tom Lynn

A young Whooping Crane preens at Horicon National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Wisconsin. Photo by Tom Lynn

As most readers of this website and our magazine know, Whooping Cranes have been learning a migration route from Wisconsin to Florida every year since 2001 by following ultralights piloted by our friends at Operation Migration. But did you know that the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership has used a second release method since 2005?

Each year, juvenile cranes have been released in the vicinity of older Whooping Cranes. The effort is known as the Direct Autumn Release (DAR) project, and it’s safe to say that it flies under the radar of the photogenic ultralight-led program. Here’s how it works:

Biologists raise each year’s DAR chicks at the International Crane Foundation (ICF) in Baraboo, following the same protocols used for the ultralight birds. To prevent the birds from imprinting on humans, handlers wear costumes designed to mask the human form. They carry crane puppet heads and never speak around the cranes, and the birds are housed next to adult Whooping Cranes that serve as imprinting models.

As the birds age, they are transferred to Horicon National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Wisconsin, their release location. Like the ultralight birds, they are tracked by radio and satellite telemetry after release.

This year’s class of nine juveniles arrived at Horicon in early September and was released near older cranes on October 24. As of today, they’ve joined up with an adult Whooper at the refuge and may fly south for the winter any day now. (Follow ICF’s Facebook page for updates on the birds.)

For the last five months or so, environmental photojournalist Tom Lynn has had unprecedented access to the DAR birds. He has a special permit to photograph them, and he intends to follow them with his camera when they begin their journey. To date, he has made many spectacular photos of the Whoopers and their handlers. A sampling is below.

Marianne Wellington, ICF’s senior aviculturist and chick-rearing supervisor and a leader of the DAR project, pauses in her crane costume before a wetland at Horicon shortly after sunrise.

Marianne Wellington, ICF’s senior aviculturist and chick-rearing supervisor and a leader of the DAR project, pauses in her crane costume before a wetland at Horicon shortly after sunrise. Photo by Tom Lynn

A young Whooper stands tall with a corncob in its bill while other birds forage at Horicon.

A young Whooper stands tall with a corncob in its bill while other birds forage at the refuge. Photo by Tom Lynn

Wellington takes the birds on a walk in the marsh on the morning of their release.

Wellington takes the birds on a walk in the marsh on the morning of their release. Photo by Tom Lynn

A juvenile crane shows off its colored leg bands.

A juvenile crane shows off its colored leg bands. Photo by Tom Lynn

The DAR cranes are released from transport crates at Horicon.

The DAR cranes are released from transport crates at Horicon. Photo by Tom Lynn

On the evening of their release, four young cranes circle below a cloudy sky, trying to get their bearings after sunset.

On the evening of their release, four young cranes circle below a cloudy sky, trying to get their bearings after sunset. Photo by Tom Lynn

About the photographer

Tom Lynn is an environmental photojournalist based in the Milwaukee area. He was a staff photographer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for 28 years, and his work has been featured in Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, Time Magazine, Newsweek, and other publications. Recently, he has photographed the Direct Autumn Release Whooping Cranes, an International Crane Foundation prairie, and natural areas downstream from a proposed mine in northwestern Wisconsin — a project that could become the largest open-pit iron-ore mine in the world.