Every winter sunrise, a mated pair of highly endangered whooping cranes rises from an unremarkable cow pond on the edge of Tallahassee. Prompted by the light, they stretch their vast pearl wings and take flight. In the privacy of the undeveloped wetlands and fields of the eastern county, they forage, dance and preen.
Most evenings, the two birds return to the safety of the same shallow pond. Most nights. But whether they do or they don’t, Karen Willes will know.
“The angel of night
Lights a candle in my soul…
And summoned from sleep
I am drawn to the One
To the One who waits for me…”
This beautiful lyric by Velma Frye and Macrina Wiederkehr comes to my mind whenever I think of Karen Willes’ vigil. This recently retired choral director and organist is now a fierce protector of cranes. For the past two years, from December until March, she has watched over these same two birds. That means Christmas morning and New Year’s Day, she’s at the cow pond before sunrise. That means seven mornings and nights a week, whether it is 20° or 65°, raining or not. And if Karen can’t be there for some reason, she’s part of a social network of fellow “craniacs” that get the job done.
Thanks to a massive recovery effort, the reintroduced eastern population of U.S. whooping cranes now includes over 100 birds. They breed in Wisconsin and winter near wetlands from Indiana to Florida. But dreadfully, more and more whooping cranes over the past few years have been shot by vandals. How can we assure their safety?
On behalf of the cranes, Karen Willes made friends with the human neighbors across the street from the cow pond. She made signs to keep visitors from getting too close to the birds’ comfort zone, and an educational pamphlet. Many other concerned people have joined her.
On several bitter cold nights this winter, I visited Karen at her post. We chatted until the whoopers arrived from the south, flying very low and close together. As they stepped down from the air into the pond, we watched them drink water, preen, and settle to roost.
I was surprised to find myself becoming as interested in Karen and other bird lovers protecting the cranes, as in the animals themselves. So I asked her to share in her own words what motivates her to do this particular unpaid task.
SC: Karen, do you remember a moment when you decided to devote yourself to these particular whooping cranes? Or was it more of a gradual process?
KW: This mated pair was taught to fly by following an Operation Migration ultralight aircraft from Wisconsin to St. Marks NWR in 2009. I started photographing them here at the pond in the winter of 2011-2012.
The cranes have continued to migrate back and forth, and have chosen to overwinter here! Because people can see them closely enough to appreciate their grace and beauty, they have become great ambassadors for crane conservation.
SC: Was it your interest in photography that drew you to cranes, or vice versa?
KW: Whooping cranes are so rare and yet here are these two, virtually, in our back yard. I never tire of watching them and sharing information about them with visitors. I have a long lens and camera body capable of capturing images in low light, and a spotting scope. Having that equipment available at the pond makes every day interesting and enjoyable, and creates new “craniacs,” too! My role as a protector evolved later. I learned to arrive early and stay late at the pond so that people who might want to get closer to them would remain behind the signs and keep a safe distance from the birds.
SC: Karen, what motivates you to do what you do? What keeps you going when the weather is terrible, or the cranes don’t show up, day after day after day?
KW: My determination to see that the cranes are documented for their entire winter is why I check for them even in bad weather. And the need to educate those who live here is so important to their survival.
SC: Are these cranes on your mind even when you’re not with them?
KW: Yes! Will they return in the evening? Where might they be during the day? Are they safe? To see them fly in at nightfall is always a delight and a relief!
What One (or Ones) can summon you from sleep (as in the song by Velma Frye)? The news brings us word of elephants killed for ivory, rhinos for their horns, polar bears deprived of their ice. I mourn these creatures, and yet feel powerless to help them from where I live.
But I am learning from Karen Willes and the other lovers of whooping cranes, how much good we can do, two endangered birds at a time, right here in our own backyard.