DEEP PUDDLE

It’s like the man said, “You don’t know how deep the puddle is until you step in it.” And every day on migration, we step into another puddle. First we dip in our toe, then our foot, and before long we find ourselves completely submerged discussing marine biology with Jacques Cousteau.

But the key to a successful migration is momentum. It is the magic carpet which carries us over the daily challenges and takes the sting out of daily disappointments. It gives our endeavor its rhythm and flow and stride. It is robust yet delicate and fragile. It is hard won and yet easily lost, and once lost, so difficult to regain.

We arrived here in Alabama in December with momentum. Since then, time and inactivity have striped us of it, and each new flying opportunity is a struggle to get it back.

In our case, our momentum is based on one thing….the birds’ willingness to follow the aircraft. Simple as that. But their desire to follow diminishes as the days become weeks and no migration legs are flown. The spaced repetition we employed to impose our blueprint upon their natural one has faded, and so our work must begin again. That’s just the way it is and this morning was no exception.

But writing an update describing the experience so soon after taking the plunge is a little like asking a post delivery mother to write an essay on childbirth while the doctor is still counting her baby’s fingers and toes, or Abbot asking Costello who’s on first. So here goes another try at that puddle.

Finally!!! Did I say Finally???? Finally, we had a real, honest to goodness fly day…something we have been dreaming about for what seems forever…which, as everybody knows, is a long, long time. The air on the way to the bird pen was sweetly smooth except for the hint of turbulence caused by our own anticipation. Would the birds follow? That was the nagging question, because as I said, the key a successful migration is beautifully, maddenly, unbelievably simple: the birds just have to follow the aircraft. Would they follow today? The last two tries did not go well, gaining only about 9 miles of migration.

Geoff pulled open the pen door as I swooped in for an aerial pickup, and six birds lifted skyward though one left late and remained low. Two birds remained in the pen and refused to join the effort, so the seven and I headed off . At first the birds formed up well, and aside from the usual coaxing maneuvers, things looked promising, though #12 began her routine of catching up then dropping down.

After a while, #7 began her routine of breaking off and heading back to the pen taking another bird with her. I turned back to round them up, but after several such exercises I left them for Joe. Richard, meanwhile, dropped down and picked up #12 and headed for Walker County.

All went well until #5 got the urge to turn back, and back we went to recover him. He’d get back on the wing for a while then again turn back, losing altitude then climbing back up and regaining his position on the wing. Losing sight of him in this rough terrain was not an option.

Then another bird began to break back with him each time, and it was time for me to remove him from the equation. I found a private airstrip and radioed Caleb and Hudean to meet me there. The plan was to land, crate #5, and take off again for the next stopover site with #1, #3 and #4.

However, it was later decided to set up a pen at the grassy airstrip and hold the birds there for the night. Richard dropped off his bird to join the others. While the pen was being erected I hid the birds in a nearby field where they enjoyed a couple of hours of grubbing, ant hill sieges, and exploring, while I, dressed in my cold weather flying gear, sweated away a few of the too many pounds I have gained on migration. Then Joe arrived and we led the birds to the pen where Caleb awaited. By early afternoon they were joined by #7, #9 and #10.

We gained little in mileage but have hopefully have made a positive gain in our effort to recover some momentum. Now we wait for another good flying day and another opportunity to sound that puddle. Now, where did I put that wet suit!

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