Today my job was to lead the birds to the next stop but mostly I was inspecting crops. I think I landed in two corn fields, one soy bean field and a cotton patch. Luckily, all of them had been harvested.
The morning started with calm, cold air and lots of optimism. For the first time in what seems like months the conditions were perfect. It was 28 degrees, which is balmy compared to the last few nights when all of motor homes and trailers froze solid.
It was my lead and after I left Carroll County airport, I turned on course and picked up a nice little push from the smooth north wind. Our next stop is a little beyond the range of birds that have not flown in weeks so we have two interim stops at 15 miles and 35 miles. I landed in the corn stubble next to the pen, turned on the vocalize and gave the thumbs up to Geoff and Colleen to release the birds. With a 20 foot wide gap in the pen created when the gates are opened, they all came out together. I slowed and turned right allowing the ones at the end to catch up. We passed between two trees and circled back to gain altitude or least enough to clear the forest to the south. That effort to climb took three such circles.
Number 10-14 dropped out at the end of the field and as we passed by, the others followed one by one. I landed again and gave them a few moments of rest. When we launched this time I noticed my vocalizer was not working even though the light was on.
In this go around, they did clear the trees and we headed south. We began to climb but then one bird would fall back and around we would go.
Several times they collected on the wing and for moments, looked like experienced birds. I pushed them up to clear the next ridge and was almost there when one broke and the others followed.
You could see their loyalty to each other was stronger than the one to the aircraft. That is not surprising considering how seldom they get a chance to fly with it.
Number 4-14 dropped out in a large cotton field but this time the rest kept going. Each time they were on their own for even a few seconds, they would head for one open expanse or another. They would begin a descent and bleed off all the altitude we had just gained.
Once more we landed to regroup. I let them rest while Brooke talked the ground crew into where number 4 was way out in the cotton stubble. I worked to fix the vocalizer but could not find the problem.
We launched again and flew over our Jamboree motorhome. I realized that was our viewing site and Jo Bellemer was down there answering questions. They must have seen ten fly-by’s.
On one of the turn backs, we passed over Heather who had just begun a long trek out to get number 4-14. He took off with us to join his friends but it was not long before they landed again. I landed on the farm road which was slightly smoother and walked back to them. All but number 4 had landed on the other side of a deep ditch so we tossed grapes to get them over it.
All but number 4-14 landed on the far side of a deep ditch that separated the cotton field.
By this time they had been flying for 47 minutes and we were still only a mile away. The wind was picking up and ambitions to go even 15 miles were fading fast. The plan was to attempt once more to launch but to lead them back to the original pen. That would save boxing them and re-teaching the lesson we were trying to avoid.
While Heather and Geoff coaxed the birds over the ditch, Brooke, Walter and I talked on the radio and weighed the options. The plan was to fly them back but we also talked about moving the pen to this site.
The problem was that it was open and in sight of the house and we didn’t have permission. Jo-Anne Bellemer knocked on doors and found very compliant and generous owners who didn’t mind that we were trespassing.
I walked west to the tree line to see if there was a place to hide the birds while we set up the pen. I found a perfect low field with trees hiding the sight line and a smooth surface from which to take off. With the wind picking up and the birds still on the far side of the ditch a hundred yards from the aircraft, plan B turned to plan A.
Walter came out to see the location and agreed that launching the birds again into rough air would likely scatter them and force us to box at least some of them.
So Heather and Geoff held the birds were they were, Colleen began knocking down the pen, Brooke flew back to the airport and headed over to help with volunteer John Gerend, Walter plotted us a route into the new field and Jo Bellemer drove the Jamboree back to camp. I took off and landed once more in corn stalks to help with the move. The pen was packed, cleaned and on the road fairly quickly and it was only a short drive to the new site.
I flew back to the airport and pulled corn, beans and cotton husks from the prop guard. We only managed to get the birds a mile but they had 47 minutes of exercise and nobody had to be put into a box, not even me. They are now at a new site and tomorrow’s weather looks promising. Plus I know the the crops in four fields in rural Tennessee pass the bird’s inspection.
Ed. note: Geoff and I spent 2 hours in the cotton field with the cranes where I was able to capture the following images.