“It ain’t over till the fat lady sings” according to Yogi Berra anyway. But as usual, this “Field of Dreams Baseball Bard” had a point. That’s the reason I never indulge in celebration. I learned long ago that high fiving, chest-bumping-touchdown-victory dances only awaken the ire and anger of the fates. The fates are ambush predators, so if you find yourself walking through the jungle known as the “Crane Project’, you must do so quietly. Besides, when you work on a project where any hint success immediately begs the question, “is that a light at the end of the tunnel… or a train coming the other way”? which it usually is, you practice Quiet. So… when they ask me, “aren’t you excited and relieved the birds finally left on migration?” I just smile and change the subject. “Mums” the word, and I’m not talking about my Mum. Besides, it’s not really over until the birds make it back to Wisconsin. Then the old girl can sing her heart out.
The morning the chicks left St. Marks, I trudged out to the pen, food bucket in hand, to do the daily chores, but soon realized I had entered an enhanced pre-migration energy field. Very delicate and subtle, not lending itself easily to description. But you just know. The chicks approached me with that special air of indifference, indicating the disconnection was in full transition mode. Eyes that until now held familiarity and recognition… even friendship… now had that folk-songy “whatever we had once is gone” look. They were getting ready to go. Weather wise, the better migration day was predicted for the following day, but the line of thick overcast held just to the south, leaving the above clear as a bell, and the winds were shifting to the south earlier than predicted and beginning to rise, bringing warmer temps.
I decided right then that this time I would be in the pen with them when they left. This would be the culmination of an evolution of my experience with departures which, began six years ago when Bev spent all day, every day for two weeks prior to the birds leaving. She didn’t want to miss the departure. And she didn’t. Either did Joe from the St. Marks Photo Club and I. We stood in the blind, absolutely giddy with anticipation as the time came and the little piece of magic unfolded. Finally, off north they flew, carrying with them all the hopes and dreams of all the people that had worked so hard for so long to make that moment possible. But looking into the fish tank, and actually being in it are two, very different experiences.
As the chicks walked to the feed shelter to begin the now familiar pre-migration ritual, I took the opportunity to stand before each of them and mentally say goodbye. As I began, time seemed to warp and expand and resonate with surges of broad unexpected emotion. Goodbyes, after all, are never easy.
I thanked them on behalf of everyone involved for their cooperation and participation in the project, told them how proud they had made us and how very much we cared about them. I spoke briefly of the hope for the future and the joy they provided our supporters and how grateful we all were for their gift of all the wonderful memories. Lastly, I cautioned them about the dangers they were likely to encounter on their journey north. Migrations are dangerous undertakings for birds and the danger grows every year. The route is strewn with more and more power lines, while growing armies of windmills march across a landscape punctuated by rapidly growing numbers of cell towers. Predators abound. Coyote numbers grow exponentially and their range expands accordingly. And then there are the two legged predators. After the Sandy Hook School Massacre, so many Americans rushed to buy assault rifles and ammunition, you still can’t find .22 caliber ammo anywhere. And the sad reality is that a certain percentage of people with guns are going to shoot them at something. It’s just the human condition and of course their inalienable right. (20% of our WCEP whooping crane population has been shot)
Then there’s the continual loss of wetland habitat and good places to roost, due to human development and climate change. Simply put, the landscape over which the whooper historically migrated is gone forever and will never return. They would essentially be running a gauntlet… an X Game. I apologized that I couldn’t go with them. They were now the masters of their own fate, for better or for worse.
The last bird in line was fittingly #1. She had been my favorite from the beginning. Her very special something radiated every day, starting back at Patuxent when she used her personal magic to lead and teach the other chicks the value and wisdom of following, of placing their faith and trust in the white giants, of accepting her dominance and her example, all of which served to make the early training a relatively painless and effortless flow. Her intelligence countered that of poor little #2, our second of the three females, who was as dumb as a box of rocks. She later vacated her position as dominant bird to males #7 and #9 as their size and testosterone level surpassed hers. But by then the all important social foundation construction had been completed. She remained throughout the smartest and most able member of the group. Little did I know then she had only a few more days to live.
The process of separation and disconnection resumed and completed itself as the chicks collected up and walked off as one toward the pond, the wild call of migration visibly growing louder within them. Off I went to the blind to retrieve the Refuge’s new video camera just donated by the St. Marks Photo Club. Tom Darragh, Club President, arranged with club member Bert to bring the camera out to the blind the day before and give me a quick course in its use. Unfortunately for Burt, he soon discovered that trying to teach me to operate anything equipped with an ON/OFF switch was like trying to teach a two thousand cow to lay eggs. I just watched, looking like a dog watching television as he patiently explained the cameras little mysteries. Back at the feed shelter I slowly and quietly sat down, hiding in plain sight, to observe the performance…. too greedy for the chicks’ increased energy vibe and the “what was to come” to dilute it with distance. I raised the camera and began to video while the chicks performed the usual series of preparatory flights.
Then after a few short flights, followed by trips to the feeders, #3 began calling a raucous pre-migratory call, as if undergoing the exorcism of some migratory demon channeling through him. Their genetic blueprint, written millions of years ago and lying dormant within them, was coming alive, revealing itself and taking command. The call washed thick and turbulent over the other chicks until they were soon overwhelmed, drawn into a focused unison of preflight posturing and vocalizations, followed by a almost involuntary launch into the wild blue and towards the completion of their wildness. North over the tree line and into invisibility they flew as I raced to the blind for the tracking receiver and antenna. Moments later I stood out in the open, feeling completely naked without my costume, as I listened to the transmitter beeps diminish and soften until only #5’s faint beeps remained. Then it too was gone, replaced by the gentle breath of the wind through the tree tops. Time suddenly stood still. No sound. No motion. Just the deep feeling of foreboding and the almost painful ache of loneliness and sense of loss.
And somewhere up in White River Marsh the fat woman patiently waited in the wings to sing her song.
Postscript: About two weeks later, after a 20 hour straight through motor home drive from St Marks to Wisconsin, Bev and I awoke after a couple hours of sleep to the news that #1 was dead and that six of the chicks were not far from our location. Heather explained the sad details… possibly a power line strike, and that the location of #3 was not known. It is a great credit to her exceptional intuition and efforts and to the help of a kind and caring supporter in Kentucky that the loss of #1 was discovered. An hour later, Bev and I stood on a rural roadside observing through binoculars six of our chicks frolicking out in the middle of a Wisconsin ag field. How quickly it had all changed. Sad as we were at the loss of #1, we were even more discouraged by the reality that we have now only two surviving females from this year and only one from last year. Without females, no eggs, and without eggs, prospects for project success become ever more remote. Very sad indeed.
I called Geoff to give him the news. After a long period of silence, he spoke in a tone so quiet I could hardly hear him, “She was my favorite.”