The Man Who Saved the Whooping Crane

Preface: After having read Kathleen Kaska’s book, “The Man Who Save the Whooping Crane: The Robert Porter Allen Story”, I needed to know more about this man who, if it hadn’t been for his dedication and perseverance, there probably wouldn’t be whooping cranes today.

While searching for every morsel of information pertaining to the whooping cranes before and during Allen’s time, I often thought of what a wonderful adventure and treasure hunt Kathleen must have had doing her research for the book. I contacted Kathleen to ask if she would like to write a short article outlining her feelings and experiences while researching “The Man Who Saved the Whooping Crane”. Immediately, she responded with “yes” and that she would love to. Below is an account of her adventures, which she has graciously written for us.

Thank you, Kathleen for sharing the life of Robert Porter Allen and your adventures of researching and writing the book.

Pam Bates, Whooping Crane Conservation Association ———————————————-

The Man Who Saved the Whooping Crane: The Robert Porter Allen Story

by Kathleen Kaska

By the time I began writing about the life and adventures of Robert Porter Allen, several decades had passed since he traipsed through the Canadian wilderness in search of the whooping crane’s last nesting site.

I first became aware of Allen’s work while designing an environmental/ecology unit for my

Whooping crane on Aransas Refuge, TX
photo by Daniel D’Auria

seventh-grade science class. The school librarian provided me with a National Geographic video about the efforts that had been made to save the whooping crane from extinction. The video briefly touched on Allen’s contributions, but it was enough to peak my interest. A few weeks later, I headed for the Texas coast to see the cranes on their wintering grounds at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. I’ll never forget that cold morning when I stood on the deck of the Wharf Cat tour boat gazing at those majestic birds through my binoculars—they simply took my breath away and at that moment I, too, wanted to make a difference in the whooping crane’s survival.At the time, I was also writing for Texas Highways magazine. When I returned home, I fired off a query to the editor, offering to write a story about Allen and the plight of the cranes. While researching the article, I realized that Allen had all but been forgotten. I felt his contribution to the world of ornithology and his story about his efforts to save the whooping cranes were too important to be lost. I decided to turn my research into a book.

Allen died in 1963. Considering all the time that had passed, finding someone who knew him well enough to paint a vivid picture of the Audubon ornithologist seemed an impossible task. I called the Florida Audubon chapter, located at the Tavernier Science Center, and learned that his daughter, Alice Allen, was living in Tavernier. I called her and introduced myself and told her about my plans. A few weeks later, I was on a plane to Florida.

Alice was only a young girl at the time her father had been named the director of the Whooping Crane Project in 1946. She was most generous in sharing her recollections of her father’s work, but I needed a wider perspective. I then visited the Science Center where most of Allen’s correspondences, published articles, photographs, and hand drawn maps are kept. Thanks to resident biologist, Pete Frezza, I even had the opportunity to motor out into Florida Bay to Bottlepoint Key where Allen had conducted his spoonbill research in 1939.

I had enough information to write the book proposal, which I eventually sent to University Press of Florida. By the time I received word of the book’s acceptance, my husband and I were on a two-year across-country retirement trip. Coming along with us on the trip, and taking up too much space in the truck of our car, were my research notes, tapes, and books. Over the next several months, I wrote the book in while on the road.

After it’s publication, I began giving presentations, which I entitled “On the Trail of a Vanishing Ornithologist,” named after Allen’s award-winning book, On the Trail of Vanishing Birds. That road trip provided me with the opportunity to visit sites I was writing about: Allen’s hometown in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania, Cornell University where Allen was enrolled in the early 1920s, Hopper’s Landing in Texas where Allen lived while working on the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, and what proved to be invaluable, a second trip to see Alice and visit the Tavernier Science Center. Alice had uncovered more photos and information. Dr. Jerry Lorenz, the director of the Audubon Center and Flamingo Research Project and Allen successor twice removed, provided me with Allen’s research journals. These journals not only contained detailed accounts of his research, but also personal information; his feelings about being away from home and missing his family; his frustration with delays in moving forward with the Whooping Crane Project; his views on captive breeding program; anecdotes of his travels, which gave me a greater insight to his charismatic personality and sense of humor.

Most of the locations we visited were on our agenda. However, one particular serendipitous event led to an unbelievable experience. While traveling through Florida just south of Tallahassee, we noticed Wakulla Springs State Park, a hot spot for birding, was only a few miles away. We made a slight detour and upon arrival, checked into the historic Wakulla Spring Lodge for a two-night stay.

That afternoon on the birding boat tour, I met Betty and Lou Kellenberger, wildlife photographers and whooping crane devotees. They told me about the Whooping Crane Festival coming up that weekend at St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge. Representatives from Operation Migration (OM) and the International Crane Foundation (ICF) were speaking. That’s all I needed to hear. We added two more nights to our stay so I could attend. Although I missed seeing OM ultralight pilot, Brooke Pennypacker, I met Joan Garland with ICF. I told her about my book and she invited me to tour the ICF in Baraboo, Wisconsin later that year.

Looking at our map and calendar, I realized the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, the location where OM trains whooping crane chicks to migrate, was nearby and that we’d be driving through the area during the time the Class of 2012 chicks would be training. About a week before we arrived in Wisconsin, I emailed Joan and asked if we could watch one of the training exercises. She made a few phone calls, and on the morning of August 12, my husband and I stood in a bird blind with pilot Richard van Heuvelen and lead technician Barb Clauss, both dressed in crane costumes, as they explained the morning’s training plan. Richard left to revive up the ultralight while Barb prepared to released the chicks. Watching those gangly young whoopers rush out of their pen and take to the air was one of the best moments of my life. I had to choke back tears. My husband, who’d spent years listening to me talk about OM, turned to me and said, “Now, I get it.” There were tears in his eyes, too.”

Visiting these sites, discovering Allen’s journal, and watching those chicks fly was just what I needed to give The Man Who Saved the Whooping Crane: The Robert Porter Allen Story, that special emotional element to transform the book from a mere biography into a true-life adventure story.

The book was released on September 16, 2012. Shortly afterwards, I received word that it had been nominated for the George Perkins Marsh Award for Environmental History.

Here’s an excerpt of the book:

 It was April 17, 1948 in the early hours of a muggy Texas morning on the Gulf Coast. The sun at last burned away the thick fog that had settled over Blackjack Peninsula. The world’s last flock of wild whooping cranes had spent the winter feeding on blue crab and killifish in the vast salt flats they called home. During the night, all three members of the Slough Family had moved to feed on higher ground about two miles away from their usual haunt. The cool, crisp winter was giving way to a warm balmy spring, the days were growing longer, and territorial boundaries were no longer defended. Restlessness had spread throughout the flock.

 As Robert Porter Allen drove along East Shore Road near Carlos Field in his government issued beat-to-hell pickup, he spotted the four cranes now spiraling a thousand feet above the marsh. He pulled his truck over to the roadside and watched, hoping to witness, for the first time, a migration takeoff. One adult crane pulled away from the family and flew northward, whooping as it rose on an air current. When the others lagged behind, the crane returned, the family regrouped, circled a few times and landed in the cordgrass in the shallows of San Antonio Bay. It was Allen’s second year at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. He had learned to read the nuances of his subjects almost as well as they read the changing of the seasons.

 In the days preceding, twenty-four cranes left for their summer home somewhere in Western Canada, possibly as far north as the Arctic Circle. This annual event, which had been occurring for at least 10,000 years, might be one of the last unless Allen could accomplish what no one else had.    The next morning when Allen parked his truck near Mullet Bay, the Slough Family was gone, having departed sometime during the night. That afternoon, he threw his gear into the back of his station wagon and followed.