As we know, 17 Whooping Cranes perished when a powerful storm ripped through central Florida, striking the birds' winter home at Chassahowitzka NWR. Only one crane, number 15-06, survived the ordeal. Tally Love, a tracking intern with the International Crane Foundation, was first to spot the lone survivor after the storm.
I was lucky enough to meet with Tally late last summer, before the winter's turn of events, while she tracked Whooping Cranes at Necedah NWR in central Wisconsin -- the Florida birds' summer home. Along with Associate Editor Matt Mendenhall and Photo Editor Ernie Mastroianni, I was there to get an exclusive look at the tracking process and learn more about the Whooping Cranes at the refuge. With my trusty camera in tow, I also hoped to get some great photos of crane tracking in action for a feature story we had planned for a future issue. The story is in our April issue, which will be on newsstands Feb. 27.
I quickly learned that the day of a crane tracker is long, tiring, and dusty. Tally told me that on a normal day, she'll put over 200 miles on the tracking vehicle, bouncing down the dirt roads of the refuge and on nearby state-owned land.
Our first stop was a cranberry bog just outside of the refuge. Tally turned the tracking antennae from left to right, using the cleverly constructed vise-grip handle pictured here, trying to pick up the signal coming from a crane's radio transmitter. The sharp, metallic signal grew louder as we drew closer to the cranes. The birds were difficult to find, but we eventually spotted two in a low irrigation ditch. Tally made note of their location, and we moved on to avoid disturbing them.
Our next destination was a field at the edge of a heavily wooded area. We drove slowly down a dirt road obscured by low-hanging branches and blocked with padlocked gates. Tally had to stop the truck to unlock and relock the gates each time we passed through -- a tedious, but necessary task to keep the private roads private. We drove along a small creek, startling a Great Blue Heron. I had never seen one so close -– its wings were huge, a beautiful slate-gray, and its neck was tucked in typical heron fashion as it flew beside us, matching the speed of the truck.
When we arrived at the field, we caught a faint, scratchy signal -- barely recognizable against the radio static. Tally couldn't see the bird, but the signal told us that it had to be there, somewhere. She climbed on top of the truck for a better view through her binoculars, and looked toward a far-off tree line.
While Tally scanned the field from a higher spot, I crouched low to the ground with my wide-angle lens to get this shot, published in April's feature story. I like how the image packs everything in the frame: the dusty road and shadeless field; the little white clouds against a hot August sky; and Tally, perched atop the big pickup, hoping to see the white flash of a crane.
She never did spot the bird –- it might have been past the trees, just out of sight. But one thing is certain: The people who work with the Whooping Cranes are passionate about what they do, and I was honored to get a glimpse of their work. -- J.E.