Anyone who has ever gone to sea in a sailboat knows what it’s like to be “becalmed.” The wind that propels the boat forward and gives it purpose suddenly drops away leaving it and all aboard floating around like a fishing bobber that’s somehow broken its tether, completely at the mercy of current and tide. “A painted ship on a painted sea…”
And so on day 28 of “The Adventures of Mutt and Jeff,” we continue our daily vigil, sitting in our van/blind watching the two young protagonists pretty much do what they did yesterday and the day before and the day before that, as if caught in some kind of time warp. The windshield has become a TV screen with the channel locked on a test pattern as the world of the chicks explodes with all the drama and excitement of drying paint. In fact, it is all we can do to suppress our involuntary squeals of excitement as the chicks traverse the windshield from one splattered bug to another. Gripping Drama! And it takes more than a little bird expertise to discern where today’s episode ends and tomorrow’s rerun begins. Could it be the fates have secretly placed us unwittingly in syndication?
The set of our little “Truman Show” is a very large corn field already nuked by combine and disc. At bird height, this harvested field is vast and no doubt stretches from horizon to horizon, bordered to the north by cranberry bogs and wetlands. Most of the waste corn has already been consumed by the large numbers of sandhill cranes, ducks and geese that moved on two or three weeks ago. And of the four adult crane pairs that earlier frequented this field, only 24 & 42-09 still show up though not every day and not for the last four days. The temperatures have been much warmer than normal and higher than average rainfall has protected the neighboring corn fields from harvest.
Meanwhile, Mutt and Jeff wonder about, exploring their new world with the innocence and wonder of infant aliens. Foraging occupies most of their waking hours and their beaks lead them on their daily journeys across and around the field. Fortunately for us, their tawny brown plumage of adolescence is giving way to inevitable adult white, making them as easily visible as chalk on a black board against the dark, disc’ed soil. Their every move is easily observed even hundreds of yards away.
Mutt, #29-16, is older than Jeff, #39-16 and therefore much whiter and the first to catch the eye. In fact, of the nine Patuxent parent reared chicks, Mutt is the oldest and Jeff is the youngest. Big brother and little brother. Little sister, #34-16, was predated two weeks ago, having met the same sad fate as 32 & 37-16 released in Outagamie and Juneau Counties respectively. And in this case, Big Brother really does seem to know best. Mutt leads and Jeff follows. Mutt is far more alert and wary than Jeff. More independent and… macho.
Visiting Sandhill’s quickly learn just how sharp his beak can be and quickly learn to move aside at his advance as hundreds of Canada geese look on with indifference. It is Mutt that stands transfixed with a Charles Manson-like gaze at select intrusions while goose hunters and their guns’ loud reports are not even worthy of his glance. Nor are low flying military jet aircraft. And the threats that suddenly flush clouds of nearby geese and Sandhill’s into the morning sky do not phase either of them. They simply adhere to the mantra that innocence is bliss.
Unfortunately, the situation holds no bliss for us… especially when we arrive every morning well before daylight to find our little pair roosting in this ag. field, completely exposed and doing their best imitation of coyote bait. They must have slept through that most important of all classes, “Water Roosting Made Easy for Dummies.” And with ideal wetland roosting opportunities only a hundred and fifty yards away, it makes us more than a little crazy that they don’t use it. In fact, each morning when we arrive, we are absolutely amazed that they have made it through yet another night. The local coyotes must be unionized and out on strike. Or perhaps God really does protect drunks and little children… and young whoopers. One can hope.
But the situation is not without hope. Both Mutt and Jeff are becoming better and better fliers. When first released, their attempts at flight were comical. They would periodically leap skyward as if by accident, their wings clawing the air for the first time as they did their finest imitation of a pair of spastic spiders that had accidentally fallen into a swimming pool. But in the days that followed, little by little they improved as their short flights in ground effect built their confidence and ability. “So this is what these wings are for”! you could almost hear them exclaim. Slowly but surely they have added to their “Frequent Flier Miles.” In fact, yesterday morning, they flew more than two miles and back. It wasn’t exactly an Atlantic crossing, but it was progress.
As far as “Adoption” by adult whoopers goes, I’ll save this subject for my next update. Suffice it to say no luck yet. But we take solace in the fact that of the 11 chicks released, of which 8 are still alive, only one chick has possibly been “adopted” by adult whoopers so far. But we haven’t given up hope.
And so our fingers, toes and all other available appendages remain crossed as we continue to squeeze every bit of luck out of the universe with the hope that Mutt and Jeff will eventually “get it” and take their place as worthy and competent citizens of the natural world. Just how this will happen is very much up in the air, but whatever happens, we will be here to report and document it. Stay tuned.
Now, will somebody please turn on the fan!