This migration has had its share of ups and downs. We first left Princeton with a perk in our step when all but one of the birds made it to Stop 1. But the next time we flew, all the birds would rather they migrate back to the White River Marsh pen. In order to move them ahead, we had to box them and move them to Stop 2, just to get them away from familiar territory. From there, it sort of went downhill.
There’s always the long down days from all the unfavorable weather. But even when we got a break in the weather, the birds wouldn’t play ball with us. They’d land in fields and marshes a couple miles away from the pen… If we could get them that far. It felt like the migration of 2011 all over again, where there was always a bird on the ground somewhere. And if you were lucky, it was someplace that was accessible.
Things took a turn for the surreal when we tried to set up the (what turned out to be the first) pen at Lodi and there was a hunting blind right smack dab in the middle of where we needed to be. All we could do is unhitch the pen and leave the hunter to his business and hope we didn’t disturb any prowling dear in the area too much with our coming and going. And once we were in Lodi, it seemed like we were never meant to leave.
Even with good flying weather, we didn’t get much further than the outskirts of town. That was also the harrowing time when 2-14 and I re-enacted the Blair Witch Project, which I’m not so glum about anymore, but still would not consider my finest hour.
When the words “interim stop” was used, I almost thought that was our migration’s swan song, even when we got the birds there successfully. Last time we used those words, it was January of 2012, and we couldn’t get the birds to Walker County, Alabama to save our souls. That was the migration that was ultimately scrubbed when we relocated the cranes to the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge.
Even though the birds made it there successfully, it seemed destined that we would never leave Columbia County, Wisconsin, as one polar vortex after another kept shutting us down. Up until we moved the birds to Tennessee, I’ve never seen spirits so low.
Even after we arrived at Tennessee, our bad luck stayed right on our heels. The weather wasn’t as favorable as it was supposed to be and our birds brought their bad attitudes with them, and would not lock onto the wings or climb for all of King Midas’s gold. We ended looking for a few more interim stops, and ideal locations were far and few in between thanks to the Natchez Trace Forest nearby. Though eventually, we dug up two of them.
Only the next time we flew, our birds wouldn’t fly that far. We only got them a half a mile and that was only because we couldn’t get them to climb over the trees back to the pen. The birds just happened to land at a spot that turned out to be an ideal place to hide them and we settled for that. By then, I was going out of my skull.
Next time we flew the birds out of their mini hiding spot, I was at wit’s end. The birds kept landing, and the pilots kept “resting” them (I didn’t know how much rest they needed after not even flying a mile, which to me was yet another bad sign (though I’m sure I was hardly the only person who thought that). After the second or third rest, I did something I don’t do very often. I prayed. I just didn’t know what else to do. I just knelt down in the back of the pen trailer, and just asked my friend upstairs to just do what was best for these birds. I didn’t have to wait long for an answer. Not more than a few seconds after that, the birds all locked onto the wing and we got them not to the first interim stop, or even the second. We got them all the way to Hardin County! That wasn’t a slam dunk. That was a world record as far as we were concerned.
I wish you could’ve seen the hugs and tears of joy and the grins on Colleen’s, Heather’s, Jo-Anne’s and my faces as we packed up the pen. If there was ever a crowning moment of heartwarming for all of this year, or any year for that matter, this was it.
And from there, it was nothing but smooth sailing. There was never any doubt as to whether or not the birds could make the next stop. Aside from a few down days at Winston, Chilton and Pike counties, we were moving by leaps and bounds. The migration I foresaw as dragging on well into the New Year, is now over and done before Christmas, which is always a treat for me.
I was disappointed that we had to keep boxing 4-14 and 10-14 so they could be flown separately. They certainly got more and more leery of me as time went on. But on the other hand, we couldn’t afford to have those two decoying the other five cranes down. And ultimately, it was what the flock needed, especially when we left Georgia.
I can’t remember a time I was so proud of my birds. The flock that went from zeroes to heroes. The flock that brought us to the brink of insanity and despair all the way back to tears of joy.
If there was ever a tale of inspiration and dreams coming true on any migration, this would be the year for it. And even though I’m not a religious man who likes keeping his work and his faith separate (I can’t emphasize that enough) it’s nice to know that prayers do get answered when you need them the most.
Despite all of ups and downs this year had to offer, I will always be glad that I was part of it, and that I’ve been part of this wonderful organization for six years.