Long time Craniac Linda suggested we re-run an article we first published two years ago, in which pilot Bev Paulan describes what it’s like to fly an aerial survey looking for Whooping cranes and nests/chicks.
GREAT suggestion Linda! Here you are…
Guest Author: Bev Paulan, Wisconsin DNR
I often hear questions as to how am I able to fly and take pictures and run telemetry all at the same time. As one commenter stated, it is the ultimate in multi-taking. There really is no secret. It is a combination of flying an incredibly stable aircraft, 30+ years of flying experience and a very great passion for what I do.
My normal crane survey flight begins long before I ever get in the aircraft. I look over all the satellite and GSM data for all the birds equipped with those transmitters. I receive citizen reports and look over those as well. I ensure my gps is loaded with known bird locations, camera and receiver batteries are fully charged, blank data sheets on my clipboard and the bird transmitter frequency sheets are up to date. I check the antennas that are mounted on the wing struts, not only checking to make sure they are all tightly connected, but also that I have the correct antennas plugged in. (Each critter I run telemetry for is on a different transmitter frequency and thusly different antennas). I also make sure I am in contact with all of the partners in the project, not only to let them know I will be in the air, but also to see if there is any pertinent information I need I couldn’t do what I do without the help of OM, ICF and USFWS.
Once the aircraft is pre-flighted and a weather briefing is obtained, I can finally launch. I fly out of Eau Claire so to get to the first bird is about a 50 mile straight line flight. Once I get close, I descend to about 800 feet above the ground, slow the plane and put in 10 degrees of flaps. This configuration creates a stable platform from which I can start my multi-tasking I use the co-pilot seat to hold the receiver, have a clipboard on my lap with the data sheets, my camera is on the floor between the seats and the gps is mounted on the panel of the aircraft.
If the bird I am looking for has a working transmitter, the frequency is dialed in and the receiver is on and I am waiting to hear the tell-tale beeps. If the particular bird has a non-functioning transmitter, I keep the receiver off to not only save battery power, but my ears as well. Listening to 4-5 hours of receiver static is not fun.
As I fly over the bird, I mark the gps, write the bird id and location (by waypoint number), habitat the bird is in, behavior of the bird and whether or not it is associating with Sandhill cranes. It gets busy quickly, but in reality takes only a moment to do. Even slowed down, the aircraft is travelling at 80-90 mph so I have to make the id quickly, or the circling commences.
If I can’t make an initial id because of a non-functioning transmitter, I open the window, grab my camera and start snapping away to try to get an image of the leg bands. I use my personal camera which is a Canon 5D Mark 3 with a 100-400 zoom and a 1.4x extender. This set up gives me a fast camera and a lens long enough to find chicks and read leg bands. The 1.4x extender was a gift from Karen Willes. Karen is an outstanding photographer and was not happy with the pictures I was getting from the plane, so she sent me the extender. I think you will all agree, the images of the chicks are now pretty acceptable.
When I first started doing these flights I was stunned that a five foot tall white bird could disappear. Even when I heard a very strong signal on the receiver, I sometimes could not obtain a visual on the bird. Since the transmitters we use do not have a mortality switch (this allows a different pulse rate to be transmitted when the animal does not move for 8 hours or more) we as trackers need to obtain a visual on the bird to ensure it is indeed alive. I have circled over some birds for 20 minutes or more trying desperately to get a visual. Eventually the bird emerges from a group of shrubs, or I get a glimpse of white moving through the trees. On occasion I do not find a bird and send a text to the trackers or biologists that I was unable to obtain a visual and they need to check. Sometimes it ends well, sometimes not.
The biggest challenge is when chicks are on the landscape. I do not fly so low as to change the behavior of the birds, so sometimes that is too high to see the chicks. Once again, I grab the camera and fire off several frames to review once I am back on the ground. If I have time while flying, I will quickly preview the images on the camera to see if I can find a chick. If I don’t initially see one, I will circle back and take more images.
So, there’s my flight. Once back on the ground, I need about as many hours as I flew to check the hundreds of images I shoot and process the data sheets. It is a lot of work, but I do love it. Even when the winds are doing not nice things to the plane, or I can’t find birds that are supposed to be on the landscape, I would not give up these flights for anything.
Now here are some photos that didn’t quite turn out…