It happens every year about this time. The Countdown, I mean, to when the birds will finally “Blast-off” on their migration north to Wisconsin. And it always begins with the question, “So Brooke, when are they going to LEAVE”? It’s the question everybody I see, everybody I have ever seen, everybody I ever will see… I mean, EVERYBODY asks me. I can’t even turn on the TV without the actors looking out at me, wearing that look of mock sincerity, asking, “When”? It gets to the point where all I can do is drop to my knees in a “duck and cover” and scream “INCOMING!” at the approach of any and all creatures… with legs.
You would think that after all these years I would have a really good answer. And I do. In fact, I have two. One I stole from the late, great treasure hunter, Mel Fisher, who when asked when he was going to locate the treasure galleon, Atocha, would respond, “Today’s the Day!” The second, I stole from the late, great trumpeter swan reintroduction pilot and dear friend, Mark Reese, who when asked a question to which there was no answer would answer anyway by leaning in close to the inquisitor and answer in a quiet, almost conspiratorial voice as if delivering the secret of the very universe itself, “Nobody knows.”
When I first became involved in this phase of the project, I asked one of the WCEP crew members that had monitored the birds for years at Chassahowitzka, “How do you know when they’re going to leave.” I was anticipating an answer that involved temperatures, wind velocities and directions and lunar phases as well as acts of God. But the answer was as simple as it was embarrassing. “One morning, you’ll go out to the pen and they’ll be gone.” Now, why didn’t I think of that!
And so, our first year monitoring the birds here at St Marks, Bev said, “I want to be there when the birds leave.” She spent every day, dawn till dusk, out in the pen observing, beginning a couple of weeks or more before we thought they might “go.” And in those hours and days, the subtle germination of pre-launch played out and grew in intensity. The birds began eating more, flying more, doing their crane things as usual but with an increase in urgency. Then the periodic listening began. They would periodically stop, weather-vaning their bodies north as if hearing the faint whisper of Mother Nature commanding them to “Come.”
“They’re leaving Monday morning!” Bev announced on Friday with all the excitement of one who had just discovered the secret of how the great magician performed the trick. Later that day, Joe from the St. Marks Photo Club hailed us down on the highway. “I just got a new long lens from a guy in California on eBay and I wanted to get some shots of the birds.” “Monday!” we replied, with all the assurance of true believers who think they have their fingers firmly pressed against the cosmic pulse. “Come Monday!”
Monday morning broke bluebird clear as the three of us huddled together in the blind. Camera, scope and binoculars at the ready and our breaths abbreviated by anticipation, we looked out at the pen against the harsh, morning light. The birds were doing their usual bird things only with just a little more vigor and assurance. The record was playing at a slightly increased RPM. A couple of practice flights followed, accompanied by increased vocalization as their confidence and certainty grew. Then, after a few trips to the feeder for last minute refueling, the inaudible starting gun sounded and they were off… first, thermaling in ever widening circles to altitude, joined as if in comic relief by a single young white pelican who happened to be in the area. Then, as if attaining compass calibration and a GPS satellite lock, they headed off north on the greatest adventure of their so very young lives.
And so this morning, I ask myself, “So Brooke. When are Henry and Peanut going to leave?” I involuntarily flinch at the question but slowly gather myself into a credible pose, turn and face my inquisitor and with great assurance answer. “Today. They’re leaving today!” Then I pause to discover with surprise that today, I really mean it!