Editor’s Note: This Field Journal posting brings to an end the store of migration tales penned for you by 2012 volunteer crane handler, Julia Anthony. Too well we recall the events of day that she recounts in this article, and, the heart palpitations it gave us all.
Julie joined the migration team mid September and we send her a big thank you not just for all her work with the Class of 2012, but also for her frequent and consistently terrific Field Journal entries.
THE BIG GREEN MONSTER by Julia Anthony
At our second to last stop the pilots had to relocate the pen at the last moment. The new location was at the end of a new airstrip, which was under construction, and right next to a cotton field.
We had a busy day. That morning I had released the birds, helped pack up the pen onto the trailer, then driven the white van hauling the equipment trailer to our new stopover location. We settled the RVs in, putting the leveling jacks down, plugging in power etc. Part of the crew went to check out the next stopover location leaving Joe, Geoff, and I to finish up the work at our current stop.
Geoff and I laid out the trike wing frost covers to dry in the sun and moved on to helping Joe switch out the wings on his trike. Before long it was time to do the afternoon roost check and I volunteered to go alone since Joe still needed Geoff’s assistance.
By this point in the migration, evening roost checks had become fairly routine. We check each bird for visible injury and listen for breathing problems or coughs. We check, and if needed, fill the water and food containers. If the camera is running we shut it down and collect the laptop so it can be charged overnight.
On this night I confidently went through the chores. The only thing that worried me was that the birds seemed a little unsettled. There were some loud bangs and motor sounds coming from a distance. The birds peeped and jumped at the strange sounds. I thought maybe someone was cutting down a tree.
I finished all my work and then walked out to the cotton field to see if I could see any activity that might explain the strange noises. From the pen you could only see about a third of the field. As I came around the trees that blocked the view of the rest of the field, I found, to my horror, that a huge green combine had been moved into the end of the cotton field!
I walked a distance away from the birds and took out my phone. Joe was the first call but he didn’t answer. Geoff was the second. He told me that Joe was talking to the father of the man who owned the airstrip we were using and that he had called to let them know about the harvesting. Geoff told me that he and Joe were on their way and that I should go back in the pen with the birds and try to keep them calm.
About that time, the man Joe had been speaking to on the phone pulled up on an ATV. He said he had tried to get them to stop combining the cotton, but the fellow on the combine was just an employee and the farmer who owned the field could not be reached. (This poor man was trying desperately to help us, but I was thinking about other things. Even though there was a diesel tractor roaring I kept asking him to lower his voice. It’s funny how ingrained not talking around the birds had become.) I wish now to thank him for his efforts and to apologize for being so short with him.
By this point I remembered the visual barriers (The pens are made up of 6×10 panels of wire mesh on a frame. The visual barriers are the same size but have a camouflage cloth stretched across them. Each pen trailer carries four visual barriers We use them to help block things we don’t want the birds to see, or as a windblock. I told the man that Joe was on his way and that I had work I had to do.
I ran back up to the pen. As I tripped over the wire fence I grabbed the stakes and laid them down on the ground. As I got to the trailer I pulled more fencing down, and then opened the ratchet straps that secure the extra panels. I had to remove two extra wire mesh panels and set them aside (taking more fencing down to the process). I grabbed one end of the first visual barrier and pulled it through the sand until I was on the side of the pen between the birds and the field. I then leaned the panel up against the pen wall and went back for another one.
Remember this whole time I am in costume with my helmet on, and of course I am breathing hard so the visor is all steamed up. I am trying to hurry because I can hear the combine moving, and at the same time I’m trying to keep from making too much noise and scaring the birds.
I got the second panel in place and then went to the other side of the trailer for the other two. Again I had to take down more fence and the remove ratchet straps to get to the panels. I think I had the third panel in place when the combine steamed down the field.
I paused to watch the birds to make sure that they didn’t panic and hurt themselves. Luckily the combine just cut one quick path by the pen and continued on to a lower field. With the three panels up the bird’s view of the green monster was limited. Still, they were clearly unhappy and paced along the side of the pen, but they were not jumping into the top net or the pen walls. I didn’t know if the combine was coming back so I finished getting the fourth panel in place and then went back into the pen with the birds.
The birds were upset. They were exhibiting the same behaviors that they show when they are ramping up for a flight in the morning. They were peeping and rubbing their beaks along the pen walls. I got out cranberries and tried to coax them to a place in the pen where they would not be able to see the cotton field. But it was the noise of the combine that was bothering them and they kept up that behavior until the noise was a good distance away.
I felt helpless. I had done everything I could think of, but the specter of stress myopathy (Stress myopathy is caused by lactic acid building up in the muscles. It roughly translates into being scared to death and cranes are susceptible to it.) The horrible story that Brooke had told us about getting a phone call about the Class of 2006 being dead in their pen kept running through my head. I was afraid that I was going to have to call someone and tell them that all the birds had died.
Okay, so that was not really logical and overly dramatic, but it’s the sort of thing you think about when you are alone in that kind of situation and have an overactive imagination. Some silent cursing and praying also occurred!
It seemed like a lifetime before I saw Joe go streaking by the pen, his white costume just a blur. At least I was no longer alone, and hopefully he could get them to not drive by the pen again.
I waited and watched. Sometime later Joe appeared at the trailer again. He gestured for me to come out to talk to him. Outside the pen and behind the trailer he whispered that the employee in the combine could not stop without risking his job and that they couldn’t reach the farmer who owned the field.
The combine had lights on it so he didn’t know if they would continue to harvest all night and/or if they would come back to the part of the field adjacent to the pen. Then he grabbed me by the shoulders like a coach would a football player and told me to try to stay calm, get back into the pen and stay with the birds in case something happened. I nodded my helmet and climbed back through the trailer into the pen.
Waiting, again, in the pen it was the birds that finally calmed me down. I felt a familiar tug that was #11 pulling on the hem of my costume, and a tapping on my boot that could only be #7. I knew that the birds were okay because those were their normal greetings when I interacted with them. Trust the birds!
Geoff joined me in the pen shortly after that. We both gave more treats to the birds and moved them to the most protected corner of the pen. The sun had set by now and it began to rain. (It was probably this minor miracle that saved us from more encounters that night. I learned much later from Walter that cotton cannot be harvested if it is wet.) With our light fading fast I whispered to Geoff that I had to work on the electric fence before we lost the light altogether. I knew, as he did not, how much of the fence I had to take down to get to the visual barriers. Geoff stayed to watch the birds.
It was quite the challenge to get the fence straightened out. I was still working in my costume with a foggy visor and diminishing light. I had to reset the posts that had been removed on purpose as well as the parts I had tripped on, or dragged a panel over.
Then I realized that the visual barriers were leaning against parts of the electrical fencing. The fence would not work with the panels touching it and we still didn’t know if or when the harvester would reappear. I felt the only choice was to set the panels up properly between the inside and the outside wire fencing. I went back to the trailer and gathered the stakes, ropes and hammers needed to anchor the panels. I took the step stool and turned it upside down to hold all of the equipment and keep it from getting lost in the dark.
Geoff joined me, and we soon had the first panel in place. The light was gone now so I took a small flashlight, turned it on and left it on the upside down stool so we could find it and our tools in the dark. It was on the outside of the panels so the birds couldn’t see it.
I think we had the second panel up when suddenly the sound of the combine stopped. Still, without any additional information we finished setting the panels. The last two were the hardest. It was pitch black by then and hammering stakes into the ground when you can’t see them is tricky. Also with the harvester shut down we became painful aware that every noise we made might disturb the birds.
With the panels up and the combine shut down Geoff and I conferred and decided to turn on the wire fence and go back to the truck where we could call Joe for instructions. BUT, when we turned on the fence it didn’t work! We took a deep breath. Then Geoff went in one direction and I went in the other to check the fencing. Starting from the trailer, cell phone in hand (for a little light) I followed the wire. We had to check for any place where the wire might be touching the ground or the pen walls. It was a slow process. We had to feel our way around but not trip on the supports or the ropes holding up the pen and the panels.
We completed checking the inner wire, and as we were heading back to try to turn it on again we heard a bird whistle that we figured was Joe. We turned on the fence again but it still didn’t work. I went to talk to Joe while Geoff starting checking the outer loop of fencing.
I got Joe caught up on what we had done. He asked if there we had enough of the visual barriers up. I told him that parts of the field were still visible to the birds. We didn’t know if the farmer was done for the night or just eating dinner. The thought of the headlights from the harvester raking across the pen as that noisy monster rumbled by was frightening to me. Joe decided to go back to camp and get the four visual barriers off of our second pen trailer.
As I headed back to help Geoff work on the fencing he found a fence pole on the ground. I had probably tripped on it rushing up the hill from the cotton field. We tested the fencing and were very relieved to have it working again.
The two of us climbed into the trailer to wait for Joe to return. The night was now dead quiet. The birds had settled, and now that we had stopped moving, I realized that I was cold and wet. I had started the roost check at 4:00pm with only a tee shirt and jeans on under my costume. It was now close to 9:00pm and freezing cold.
Geoff and I conferred again. The combine had now been shut down for more than an hour. That meant that there was a good chance that the harvester was not just on a break but done for the night. We had stopped hammering much earlier so Geoff pointed out that if we started to set up more barriers it would probably scare the birds. Also we knew that the chances of us flying in the morning were really good, and if we didn’t fly, we could always add more barriers in the morning light.
We left the trailer, turned on the fencing, and hiked down to van. Geoff called Joe who met us at the road into the pensite. He had just arrived with the pickup truck towing the second pen trailer. After a quick conference Joe agreed that our best course of action was to leave things alone and address the issue of more visual barriers in the morning.
The next morning Geoff and I went back to the pen to release the birds. We were both very relieved to be greeted by five bright eager faces. The birds were fine. The combine started up again just as the trikes came into view. We released the birds and they took off after big yellow mama shaking their tail feathers at the now small green monster below them.
I would like to give my thanks to Gary and his father who helped us through this situation. I would also like to thank Caleb. The story of his harrowing day in the field last year inspired me to carry a flashlight and other emergency gear in a fanny pack that I had on me that night, and to be sure that my cell phone was with me and fully charged.
Also please do not blame the farmer for his reaction. I can only imagine what craziness it must have sounded like to him. People all dressed up in costume running up to him with a tale of endangered birds that happen to be penned by his field when he had just moved a very expensive piece of gear into place to harvest the crop that is his livelihood.
Hindsight is always 20/20. In retrospect there are many things we could have done differently. But we didn’t have the luxury of hindsight that night. We could only do what we thought was best for the birds. Thankfully everything turned out well!