It’s a rather warm 50 degrees this morning courtesy of the warm air pushing over us from the south. Rain showers will move in throughout the day and storms are predicted later this afternoon and into tomorrow.
Currently, it’s calm on the surface but winds aloft are from the south-southwest and a very strong 35-40 knots. We’ll be standing down for the day.
December 18, 2013
The morning was crisp but not cold with a touch of frost still forming. Seven birds took off with the trike, slowly turning to the north till we were above the trees then we slowly curved to the west and then south and were soon on course for Walker county.
We were flying along at a decent ground speed of about 30 miles per hour. A few miles went by and we quickly gained altitude when suddenly, for no apparent reason two birds veered off and headed back. The rest continued on but soon they too headed back and the now famous sky rodeo ensued with birds and trikes slicing through the air trying to find each other.
Out of the scramble I emerged with four birds on the wing heading east I decided to keep going and get these four birds as far away from the flying circus. They cooperated and a few miles out we turned very slowly on course. As the miles went by, we gained altitude and ground speed simultaneously and soon we found ourselves doing 65 miles per hour at 4500 feet above sea level. Having lost contact with Brooke over Walker county we decided to continue on for Chilton county and arrived there 45 minutes later.
|Date: December 18, 2013||Migration Day: 78
|Dist. Traveled: 101 miles
||Total Dist. 804 miles
|Location: Chilton County, Alabama|
Yesterday was another long day that included a skipped stopover, crating four cranes and a tire blow out.
Until Richard van Heuvelen has his lead pilot report ready, I’ll provide some brief details and some images.
Richard launched with seven cranes, as number 5-13 again decided to lag behind in the pen. They formed up very nicely on his wing initially, but soon after taking off a couple peeled off and Brooke Pennypacker moved in to lend them a wing. Shortly after this we heard on the radio that Richard had four and Brooke now had four as well because apparently during one of the many passes over the pensite, number 5-13 read his memo that said we would be flying today and made it out of the pen and into the air.
Just when we thought all was well and they were on their way, the radio chatter started up again: Brooke: ‘two just broke from me again’ Richard: ‘I’ve got these four locked onto the wing so I’m going to continue on course’ Brooke: ‘okay, I’ll see if I can round these two up again’ Brooke: ‘this sun is so bright that I’m having difficulty keeping an eye on them, they may just head back to the pen so get the costumes onto the field and you’ll have to crate them’ Brooke, ‘found them, let me see if I can convince them to get on my wing’ Brooke: ‘now my other two have joined the two that don’t want to fly’ Richard: ‘my birds are doing great and I’m 20 miles out from Walker County, what do you say we skip and continue to Chilton County?’ Brooke: ‘sure – go for it, I’m going to see if I can get these four back to the pen and the ground crew can crate then up for transporting by ground’
As Jo-Anne and I head back to retrieve four crates, I wondered which cranes didn’t want to fly. I’d put money on number 5-13 just because of his late exit from the pen. Sure enough after we suited up and began crating, there’s number 5-13 with his yellow leg band. Along with him are cranes 2-13, 7-13 and 8-13.
Crating goes quickly and smoothly and within 30 minutes they’re all boxed up and loaded into the vehicle with Geoff Tarbox behind the wheel chauffeuring them to Chilton County. Meanwhile, Colleen, Jo-Anne and I head back out to the field to break down the pen and get Colleen on the road.
Next it’s our turn to get our trailers ready to travel. We breakdown and pack up the Sierra RV and hook it up to the truck that I drive and when that’s ready to roll, we get the aircraft trailer hooked up to Jo’s truck. By 11:45 we’re ready to head out and begin the 2 1/2 hour drive south.
The stretch of Interstate 65 that cuts through Birmingham will rattle your teeth and your kidneys – especially when you’re hauling large, heavy trailers. Honestly, it’s worse than most of the gravel and dirt country roads we’ve been on since leaving our Wisconsin home base in October. Evidence of this is that just as I was exiting the highway, Jo, who was traveling 2 or 3 vehicles behind me was dodging black tire debris, along with everyone else on the road going 70 mph. I, of course, didn’t notice a thing as it was all taking place behind me.
As I took the off ramp, Jo radioed that I had blown a tire on the Sierra trailer and since I couldn’t exactly stop in the middle of the ramp and was on my way to a black water dump station about a 1/4 mile away, I put on my hazards and hobbled into my destination, texting Liz on the way to let her know about the tire and our location.
Within 30 minutes or so, we had dumped the RV and Richard, Brooke and our migration host had arrived and were changing the tire, while Jo and I continued to our stopover in her truck with the aircraft trailer.
Turns out this was the exact location where Joe Duff blew the exact same tire last year.
Four cranes flew 101 miles and the other four arrived by road… It’s always something.
The many weather sites we check multiple times each day, are unanimous this morning. Winds are the surface are calm, or barely there and from the north. Aloft they are 15-20 knots and also from a northerly direction, which will provide some push in the right direction.
Tune in later to learn where we end up.
Without a doubt, it takes a certain amount dedication to lead birds on migration with no finite ending date. Each member of this team must make some hard decisions before committing to that kind of responsibility. Just how much they are willing to give depends on many variables including how long they have been doing it and what, or who you are leaving behind. Living in tight quarters with too many people during periods of boredom or stress can take its toll. Limiting nine members to three vehicles means there isn’t much opportunity to alone time, while showers or a normal bathroom are not always available.
Normally we break for Christmas because there is only so much you can ask of staff and volunteers but this year they have all agreed to carry on. They may even fly on Christmas day, however, I will not be with them. I have been flying with birds for 20 years and participated in more migrations than anyone on the team even beating out Richard who has been with us from the start. I have a fourteen year old daughter at home whom I have not seen since early September. My wife of fifteen years has spent a large part of that time as a single parent. But there is a limit to her tolerance and my dedication. Brooke will take over my flying responsibilities and Walter has joined the team again to track from the ground. So apart from having to double back to pick up one of the trucks and trailer, they can easily carry on without me.
It took us 22 days just to get out of Wisconsin on this migration and another 24 to clear Illinois. Even the two stops in Tennessee took 22 days to complete. It’s not surprising then that some people have asked us in the Field Journal if we plan to drop the birds at Wheeler NWR as we did in 2011.
When you get up each morning in the same place for the better part of a month you get the feeling that things are not happening fast. From our perspective, it has been a long migration but everything is relative. The decision to end the 2011 migration came on February 4th and was dictated by the bird’s reluctance to follow us any farther.
That is not the case this year. The birds have followed us despite long periods on the ground and their only reluctance seems to be fighting headwinds, which never seem to end but cannot be blamed on the birds. Now that this selfless team of dedicated people are willingly giving up Christmas at home, there is a good chance they could make it on Christmas day. With a gift as precious as a Whooping crane and a aerial trip that takes months, Santa Clause has nothing on us.
Since our first flight with birds twenty years ago we have developed a complex protocol consisting of equal parts science, art, intuition and dumb luck. Still, it’s all speculation because, in truth, we have no idea exactly what lessons we are teaching, or more accurately, what they are learning from our efforts.
Yesterday morning was a good example. It was my lead and all the birds came out of the pen together except number 5-13 who simply refused. When the gate opens it creates a 20 foot gap in the pen that is aimed directly down the makeshift runway with a clear view of the departing aircraft and all of his flock mates. Colleen and Geoff coaxed with waving arms, tempted with grapes and pleaded under their breath but he stood there, ignoring their encouragement. It makes you wonder what stimulation overpowered his social bond to the other birds he has spent his entire life with and all the training to which he normally responds.
Apart from number 5, the birds launched perfectly. We circled to the north, headed on course and began a slow climb. The surface air was calm and I managed to keep the speed down to 35 mph without stalling the aircraft, but once again the winds aloft were working against us. Only a few hundred feet up, we were down to 29 miles per hour across the ground. The next leg of the migration is only 43 miles but the GPS told us it was more than an hour and a half away.
Still the birds have flown for longer than that so we settled in for a slow and steady flight – or so we thought. Generally, when we get a smooth takeoff and the birds are able to catch the wing early and stay there, they will stick with the aircraft, but not yesterday morning. Once number 5-13 was finally coaxed from the pen, all eight were lined up perfectly, and then they broke. It wasn’t the last bird in the row that has to work hard and has an excuse for turning back. Instead it was one of the lead birds. Soon they were spread out between me and the pen. At one point I had two and Richard had six, then we had three each with two missing.
Richard had landed to collect number 5 so some of the birds followed him. I managed to gather the rest and we again headed on course. Within minutes we went from four and four to none and none. Richard climbed to get out of the way while I tried to gather them. Four birds landed on the runway up from the pen but took off when the swamp monsters came out. Just then I intercepted the other four on their way back and we did a low pass over the pen to ensure they knew that landing there was not an option. All eight gathered on my wing and we were back on course. They followed perfectly so we began to climb, but the winds slowed us to 21 miles per hour.
We had been airborne for 40 minutes and still had 90 minutes to make the destination. Walter and Brooke were in the tracking van and drove back and forth trying to determine where we were and to stay under us. Less than five miles south, the birds broke again and another rodeo ensued. Each time they broke and headed back it took only a couple of minutes to lose all the ground we had gained in the last twenty.
Finally, after an hour, we decided that the birds were never going to stick with us for the entire trip and we called it off. By this time the pen was half disassembled and the ground team had to scramble to get the swamp monsters away and move the truck we had asked them to drive onto the runway as an extra determent. It had taken us an hour to move them five miles to the south but going with the wind on the way back, we covered that distance in only a few minutes. We landed with the birds and led them to the hiding place while the crew finished assembling the pen.
Maybe in the end there was no lesson in this effort. The birds were eager to follow us, except for number 5 on the initial takeoff. But as soon as we headed on course and our speed dropped off to a crawl, they turned back. Maybe they are just smarter than us and realized early that there is no reward in yelling at the wind. For wild birds there is no urgency to migration. They understand that it is wiser to save your energy for days when the wind helps instead of hinders. And maybe that morning was a lesson the students taught the teachers.