Summoned from Sleep, by Cranes

Photo by Karen Willes

Only occasionally do you see them dance!  Photo by Karen Willes

Photo by Terry Parker

No matter how cold…..Photo by Terry Parker

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?

Waiting for whoopers with Claire Timm and Ann Morrow

Waiting for whoopers with Claire Timm and Ann Morrow

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?

Karen Willes...self portrait

Karen Willes…self portrait

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?

Photo by Karen Willes

Whooping cranes are so much bigger than sandhills.  Photo by Karen Willes


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.



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Summoned from Sleep, by Cranes — 12 Comments

  1. Such an inspirational story. Thank you Sue. I saw the two cranes last year, but have not yet ventured out to see them this year. I’m grateful to Karen for her dedicated advocacy for these remarkable endangered birds.

  2. Karen Willes is a remarkable person. Everything she does is with passion and excellence. How wonderful that the birds have drawn you two creative souls together, Sue.

  3. Have you seen any predators such as bobcats or coyotes taking an interest in the birds? Have they been reported in the neighborhood? They’re certainly common in suburban Tallahassee these days. Do the birds have a wet area or island of some sort where they can overnight in relative safety? I recall that there have been losses to predators on SMNWR and have visited the Bosque del Apache NWR several times. There coyotes and bobcats can often be seen stalking or feeding on Sandhill Cranes.

  4. Grayal, these are good questions! I know the birds roost in the water to avoid predators such as coyotes. But for specifics, I refer you to Karen Willes (

  5. To answer Grayal’s question, yes, a very healthy coyote was viewed about 5:15 PM last night, March 2. The cows were running something along the ridge line behind the pond and it stopped long enough to confirm, and photograph, that it was a coyote. It is the only one I have seen there this winter but residents have said they regularly hear packs howling during the night. The cranes roost in the edge of the pond, standing up. The “good part” is that if challenged, the cranes can fly!

  6. Karen, Thanks to you and others for looking out for these two and putting up signs to educate people about the importance to keep their distance. They can easily be tamed by humans if offered food…and on the other end of the spectrum, they could be at risk of predation if spooked off their roost at night due to very limited crane habitat in that area.
    I played a small role in their early lives and I desire to see them live long lives and raise many chicks. As you know, reproduction has been very poor due to a variety of reasons – most notably black fly disturbance at Necedah – but even in the absence of black flies, their reproductive success has been low. I am hopeful that a change in release techniques and a blackfly suppression program will someday allow these cranes to self-sustain themselves.

  7. Thank you for a great article about Karen and her dedication to these 2 special birds. You have a better chance of winning the lottery than seeing a Whooping Crane in the wild and we have 2 that have chosen to winter with us here in the Tallahassee area!! But what would really show the success of this Eastern Migratory Population (EMP) would be for them to successfully fledge a chick and bring it down here with them one winter! Now, wouldn’t THAT be an amazing thing to see! As Chris Gullikson mentioned in his comment(above) there are many issues with reproduction within this EMP. We can only hope that answers to these issues will be found soon…for the sake of our “Cow Pond Cranes”, the EMP, and for sake of the species as a whole which came precariously close to extinction a mere 70 years ago.
    In the mean time, we can all enjoy this special gift that comes each winter. And I, along with many others spearheaded by Karen, will continue to educate our friends, family, and the neighborhood about these winter visitors in hopes of making their winter home a safe haven!

  8. Just wanted to thank you for this lovely story and to also send my gratitude to Karen for her dedication. Both are gifts to us all.

  9. I should write a whole new story about the work Claire Timm has done as a crane ambassador! She is a teacher who has turned on so many grade school children and their parents to the cranes, and I am honored to know her. Thank you, Claire!