The morning darkness had not yet released the dawn when I picked up Colleen and pointed the headlights towards Lowndesboro, Alabama, four and half hours to the north. We soon fell into the rhythms of interstate transport which, though soothing, could not suppress the haunting dread that we were in fact heading for the scene of a very sad and terrible accident.
Memories of our little “Tiny Dancer,” 8-14, began crowding in. No one who ever entered the pen that first year at St. Marks could ever forget her. Every morning without fail she would greet us at the gate with excited anticipation, looking up quizzically, “What kept you”? Then, as if on cue, she would burst into an explosion of the most dazzling and delightful dance imaginable. With playful spins and joyful vaults, she “Whirling Dervished” upon the surface of some invisible vortex as she boomeranged around the marsh in ever-expanding circles.
She paused periodically to look up at us from a low, still crouch as if searching her audience for approval. We stood mesmerized, completely captivated by her masterful display of choreography. For those magical moments, we belonged to her… and she knew it. Then, as quickly as it had begun, it ended. She established re-entry and soon joined her flockmates in the pursuit of the usual as if it had all been imagined.
The hours passed quickly and soon the windows filled with familiar Alabama countryside as the voice of our smartphone’s “Miss Google” announced, “Nostalgia Tour begins here.” We suddenly felt like Time Travelers in a Way Back Machine as blacktop turned to gravel and then to dirt, funneling us onto the long driveway leading to the farm… and our old migration stop. “It’s getting harder and harder to know when real life ends and Me TV begins,” I said.
The memories climbed aboard. Just off to the right was a pasture and on it a white costumed figure magically appeared, leading a bunch of white birds away from an ultralight aircraft. I remembered how happy and relieved I felt that morning back in 2016. Flight Surgeons refer to it as Destination Appreciation. It had been one of the more challenging migration flights. Just after takeoff and not long in the air, a series of ponds and wetlands rolled out from beneath the horizon and on them stood some beautifully neon white egrets inviting our little flight of whoopers to land and “feel the love.”
First one bird, then another and another heard the siren call, dropped off the wing and headed down to the little oasis as the all too familiar rodeo began. The aircraft became crowded. “And you always wanted to be a cowboy,” my invisible friend scornfully reminded me from the backseat. I then felt the menace of that rabid dog… the one named, “Be careful what you wish for” that lives under my seat less than two inches from my keester, as it lunged forward for a chomp while the fates snuggled close and whispered sarcastically, “So …what’s it like to fly with birds”? Their laughter was almost deafening as the all too familiar, sweat producing exercise in aerial persuasion commenced. “Why me, Lord? Why meeee!”
We yanked and banked around the sky. Minutes felt like hours as the sweat soaked through the layers under my snowmobile suit. However, after a “forever” of drawing obscene aerial geometric figures in the sky, the birds reattached and we were once again back on track… sort of. It soon became clear that one bird, the one way in the back of the line, simply lacked conviction and it wasn’t long before it left us to land in an ag field. There, it would have to wait for Joe to land with it and for Richard to arrive in the tracking van and box it up for transport to the next stop. No Frequent Flyer Miles for this little migrant.
Then, no sooner had we achieved a tentative aerial harmony when the fates, in their never satisfied addiction for chaos and entertainment, began shaking us around with rough air. The sweat pump went into overdrive. The minutes passed unenthusiastically until just up ahead appeared this wonderfully welcoming pasture beaconing sanctuary and solace. Across its spine, Stephen had mowed and manicured a landing strip and soon we were safely landed upon it. A herd of cows huddled nearby in rapt confusion. “Now that’s something you don’t see every day” one of them said to the other. “No more of that fermented feed for us! Who knew?” the other replied. As the birds followed the costumed figure off to hide in wait for the ground crew to arrive and set up the pen, the phone vibrated to life. “Where are you”? Joe asked in a hushed, obviously with a bird voice. “There”, I replied in an equally hushed, obviously with a bird voice. “I’m There.”
And I was. Right over there in that pasture. “Better speed it up.” Colleen said. “We have a very long day ahead of us and Stephen and Jo are waiting.”
One of the greatest pure pleasures of this project were our stopover hosts. They were the incredibly kind and generous folks who, year after year, welcomed our not so little caravan of gypsy crane migrators into their homes… and their lives… and provided an oasis of caring and protection for the birds. I could never figure out where such incredible people came from but I know it must have been from a very special place. To me, they were… and will always be… the true heroes of our whooping crane reintroduction effort. Perhaps that is why our annual migration leg arrivals felt so much more like homecomings than mere reunions.
“You made it”! Jo greeted us at the end of the driveway. She hadn’t changed a bit. Nor had her husband Stephen, which made me wonder, had I? “Same old tracking van, I see” he said, smiling, as I suddenly realized I was again standing in that special place of warmth and caring. Then it was down to business. “We got permission from the landowner to look for the bird” Jo said. “We also got permission to go on the adjacent state land if we need to.” Jo had previously scouted the target area but the tall vegetation and lack of telemetry equipment made the search difficult at best.
“Ready to rock and roll”, Sisyphus asked from the other side of the rearview mirror?
“Who brought HIM along”, I queried my invisible friend?
We were soon rolling back down the driveway following Stephen and Jo as our search began.
— To be continued —