Who could ever forget that 1960’s Simon and Garfunkel ear worm? But silence really is a sound. A very loud one. In fact, the loudest sound I ever heard was the silence my ultralight engine made when it suddenly quit in flight. That was until Thursday afternoon, when the bright and clear transmitter beeps from Henry and Johnny (30-16) that had given us so much hope and reassurance just a few short hours before were…. silent. Had they left on migration? Without our seven chicks!? When the ear-shattering roar finally abated, it was replaced with the mind-numbing sound of that place on the record with the big scratch in it. But I digress.
Thursday morning began crispy cold as most mornings do these days. Camp had become magically transformed into a dark kingdom of doom; a near single digit land of frozen water pipes and tripped off electricity… a place where the morning trip to the porta-potty resembles a near death experience followed by a serious discussion of the possibility of getting a Group Rate at Skin Grafts R Us. A siege mentality was quietly growing where cheerful optimism once flourished and it soon becomes obvious that this is how you spell the word “Migration.”
Not that we are the only ones with migration on our minds. Mother Nature’s “Don’t let the door hit you in the butt” conditions have sent lots of birds heading for the Exits. Most of the Sandhill’s are gone. Most of the geese are gone. Even Joe, Heather and Jo-Anne are gone. “And not many whoopers left.” Bev announced after Tuesday’s crane flight. Some whoopers have not only gone, but they have already arrived. Goose Pond in Indiana is filling up with whoopers. And five birds, including one of only two of this year’s surviving chicks, have already arrived in Kentucky.
“So…when are the chicks going to leave?” my invisible friends keeps asking. Well, we’re hoping Henry has the answer because our hopes have been resting on him to lead them south. The chicks have been spending almost all their time with him and Johnny since their release. And Henry has a special history of mentoring chicks. At St Marks, back in the spring of 2015, he remained behind with the chicks long after adults 4-12, 4-13 and chick 7-14 had headed north on migration. The chicks had missed half the migration route south that year and we were hoping he would help them fill in the blanks north.
And he did… almost. His efforts to encourage the chicks to leave were nothing short of amazing… supernatural even. Twice he took off north on migration only to return later. It would take a very long chapter in a book to chronicle his efforts but suffice it to say that observing his efforts day after day was a “mind blowing” experience. But finally he succeeded. One morning they all left together as Colleen and I gave chase. Day after day, Henry led the chicks all the way to southern Illinois until a large storm system stopped their progress. Next morning, we observed them all together making the usual short pre-migration warm up flight. However, by afternoon, it was Henry that continued the migration north. The chicks did not. It was a heartbreaker.
The chicks instead spent the next few weeks making attempt after futile attempt to fly north. They did all the right things: the excited, pre-migration calling, the short warm up flights, the launch and spiral to altitude and the departure heading north. But soon, in almost Monty Pythonesque fashion, their journey would come to an abrupt halt as they hit an invisible wall in the sky through which they could not pass. It blocked any and all hope of northward progress, allowing only flight east or west. Very sad and frustrating to watch. Finally, we were forced to capture and transport them back up to Wisconsin. It was a very sad ending to a year of very hard work. Meanwhile, Henry arrived in White River Marsh late… but right on time.
That all seems like it happened a million years ago. Or was it yesterday?
We made our escape to the usual morning place of observation and were soon enjoying the ever-magical sight of our 9 little white spots making their now familiar flight across the dark face of the far tree line, then higher into the first suggestion of cold, morning light and finally landing in the harvested ag field across from us where they began their morning forage. Henry, in ever vigilant and protective mode, took up his usual position a short distance away.
An hour or so passed as light erased dark shadow… revealing life as usual in “Whooper-land.” But the skies soon became a blanket of cold, gray turbulence as the wind speed quickly increased. It came from the right direction for migration… but fierce! In fact, a group of four sandhills soon crossed above in a flight mode which could only be described as “Katywhompus.” Then, as if rising to the challenge, our birds took off to join the fray and soon found themselves roller-coastering in barely controlled flight over to their favorite wetland area just beyond the trees, where only their “beeps” disclosed their presence. We left to check on the other birds in the area and get some lunch. So far, things were progressing as usual and we were glad.
We should have known better.
(…to be continued)