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.
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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.
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.