BLIND TOURS TO START!

From Doug Pellerin & Tom Schultz

Are you interested in viewing the training activities of the 2012 cohort at White River Marsh? We are pleased to announce that opportunities to visit the blind will be starting soon. Of course, at this point in time, the young birds are not yet capable of flight – but it is very entertaining to watch them as they are trained to follow the (yet-wingless) ultralight aircraft up and down the runway. Some of their time is also spent simply becoming comfortable with their grassy runway in front of their pensite, and periodically getting grapes from the costumed handlers. Like last year, the blind tours will be led by Doug Pellerin and/or Tom Schultz – depending on the date.

Since the young whoopers are not yet flying, you will be able to watch their activities just about the entire time that they are out for training – and the view from the blind is excellent. Binoculars are helpful for getting a closer view, and you are welcome to bring your camera as well (to be used without flash). The advantage of viewing the birds while they are yet flightless is that your blind visit will NOT be cancelled due to unsuitable flying conditions – which is sometimes the case later on.

To arrange to participate in a blind tour and check available dates, please contact Doug Pellerin by email:  pelican0711(AT)gmail.com or call him at 920-923-0016 between the hours of noon and 7:00 PM Central time. These tours will happen somewhat early in the morning – perhaps starting by 6:00 or 7:00 AM – while the day is still cool. You should probably plan for about two hours, although the tour could be somewhat shorter or longer, and not all of this time will be spent in the blind itself. There will typically be opportunities for questions before and after the blind visit – but please remember that you will not be allowed to leave the blind while the birds are out of their pen.

We hope that you will be able to take advantage of this great opportunity to observe these beautiful endangered birds. It is not a memory that will be soon forgotten!

BLOOD FEATHERS

#10-12 wings

As a feather develops it requires a flow of blood. The shaft or calamus is a direct link to the blood supply and the feather grows out something like a flower. Once the feather is fully developed the blood source dries up and is closed. The shaft hardens and the feather becomes functional.

Blood feathers typically appear when a bird molts and normally only one portion of their body molts at a time but when they are young, all of their feathers are developing and each one has a direct link to their blood supply. The primary feathers are the biggest and have the largest shaft. If they break at this stage they can experience severe bleeding. If multiple feathers break, it can be dangerous.

The next time you see a feather on the ground have a look at it closely. If a bird is under stress it will affect the structure of that portion of the feather that is developing at the time. The vane or the ‘leafy’ part of a feather is made up of barbs and hooks that link together like zippers and make for a solid surface. A stress barb is one of those zippers that is not completely developed and will look thin like a transparent line on the feather. You can see what kind of stress the bird experienced while its feathers were growing.

During flight or if the birds get in a fight, their feathers can get all messed up. In fact these little zippers are all pulled apart when that happens. When the birds groom themselves they use their break to realign those feathers and zip them all back together.

Whooping crane #10-12 is our blood feather display model in the photo and at this point she likely has no idea what those appendages are for.

IN THE FIELD UPDATE

The young Whooping crane chicks, which arrived at their new home at the White River Marsh in Green Lake Co., WI last Friday have trained with the aircraft on three occasions. Well, almost three.The first outing on Sunday went very well and they dutifully followed Joe Duff as he slowly taxied the wingless aircraft up and down the grass training strip adjacent their enclosure. After 6 return trips, the youngsters were returned to their now familiar enclosure and each one entered without coaxing. From all appearances it looked as if this group of six was one well behaved group!

Monday morning arrived and as Joe was training solo that morning, naturally there were issues. The first, which set the stage for the rest of the morning training session was when his vocalizer quit. Each costumed handler carries a small, concealed MP3 player which broadcasts a purring brood call normally broadcast by an adult crane. These little guys have heard this sound even prior to hatching out of their egg shells and it’s meant to be a reassuring ‘everything’s okay’ sound.

When the costume entered the enclosure and left the exterior door open – NOT making the brood call sound, they knew something was up and they refused to cooperate. Three or so exited at first but as soon as they noticed the other reluctant three, they retreated to the enclosure and headed for the safety of the water. After an extreme amount of patient (and ineffective) coaxing, training for that day was called off.

Yesterday morning, and armed with a working MP3 unit, and another costumed handler to assist, Joe returned and all of the chicks exited on cue. Number 6-12, the oldest female of the class decided to check out the area, first to the south, and then to the north of their pen and once Joe wrangled her back onto the grass strip, they spent some time with them in proximity of the aircraft. This was only the second time they have seen this particular aircraft and while they look very similar to the others, I’m certain there are some differences that perhaps the cranes must notice.

Number 4-12 seemed a bit aloof during the first couple of taxi runs, so more time was spent coaxing him closer to the trike and eventually, even he was following with his five flock mates. Yesterday’s training session lasted close to 90 minutes so everyone watching live via the CraneCam had some great views!

At this point in their conditioning the large wing isn’t yet required since the cranes are still flightless as well. This means that the weather isn’t as much of a factor for the pilots either and there is a fulltime ground-training trike located on site and just needs to be driven a short way along the new access road leading to the site.

Training will get underway usually between 7:30 – 8am Central time. If you’d like to join in to watch live you can view from our CraneCam page, or if you prefer the social networking aspect of Ustream, visit the cranes there.

Huge thanks to Tom Schultz for sharing the view from the blind with us (and you!). Stay tuned for details on arranging a visit to the blind very shortly!

After about an hour all six young Whooping cranes were following the wingless aircraft up and down the grass training strip next to their enclosure.

GIVE A WHOOP!

This year the Give A WHOOP! campaign will be promoted around several ‘milestone’ events including; The 2012 Whooping crane chicks hatching; Their arrival at the summer training site at White River Marsh in Green Lake County, WI and when they are eventually released at their winter home in Florida later this fall/winter. We hope you’ll will WHOOP! with us and help to commemorate these (and other) milestones!

At the conclusion of each important event, we will draw the name of one lucky supporter to receive a beautiful Janet Flynn, watercolor print of a lone Whooping crane. This lovely print is definitely frame-worthy and measures 12.5″ wide x 23.5″ high. Click to see preview.

Now that the Class of 2012 has arrived at their new summer home at the White River Marsh in Green Lake County, Wisconsin, it’s time for us to award the thank you gift to one of the WHOOP’ers from the first milestone; the Class of 2012 chicks hatching!

The recipient is Claire Deland from Georgia! Thank you Claire for your support!

Recipient names will of course be entered back into the grand thank you draw which will be made on March 31, 2013. The recipient of this gift will receive a $50 certificate redeemable in the OM Marketplace; a Janet Flynn watercolor print AND an incredible set of 8×42 Ranger binoculars courtesy of Eagle Optics!

Have YOU WHOOP’d yet? Each $10 WHOOP will help us reach our fundraising goal and allow us to carry out our work with the Class of 2012 Whooping cranes. We’ll list your name on this page and enter you into the thank you draws as outlined above.

We’re now onto the second milestone event in the lives of these special cranes – their safe arrival at their new summer home in Wisconsin! Help us celebrate their arrival by donating a $10 WHOOP!

VALUING ONE SPECIES OVER ANOTHER

It is funny how you can put so much time and effort into saving one species yet casually kill another.

We put so much stock in creatures like Whooping cranes because of some perceived value in human terms. Yet all the creatures that inhabit the marsh took millions of years to evolve and in the big picture, there is no difference between Whooping cranes and anything else out there. I will leave my family for weeks at a time and dress up in a costume in 95 degree weather to ensure that our six birds are safe and healthy and at the same time I will take every opportunity to murder a deer fly without remorse.

We heap accolades on Whooping cranes and expletives on deer flies yet both are behaving as they should and have every right to be there. I don’t care about that logic. I am so covered in itchy welts and tiny scabs that I look like I have leprosy and not one of them was caused by a Whooping crane.

When I was a kid my parents built a house two miles outside of town which meant I did a lot of walking. Whoever is in charge of such things assigns one deer fly to each country road pedestrian for the purpose of pestering them every step of the way. No amount of jumping, running or abrupt turns will deter your assigned deer fly. They instinctively fly behind you, out of sight and swoop in to take chunks of your neck between your frantic swats. I learned that if you walk backwards they don’t know the difference and you can reach out and capture them.

I always thought it cruel when my friends used magnifying glasses on ants but I took delight in applying torture to the torturers. If you insert a pine needle into the abdomen of a deer fly and trim it to the right length, it will throw off its center of gravity. As every pilot knows, C of G is critical to flight. With its tail end over-weighted it can only fly straight up and I would watch with satisfaction as it disappeared into the wild blue yonder. My pleasure was short lived when I was immediately assigned another deer fly.

I share this story in hopes that all of you who are pestered by deer flies will adopt this practice. I hope one day to be flying at 4000 feet and see clouds of deer flies with pine needles stuck up their butts, ascending to the heavens where I am sure they will be turned back. No one likes deer flies. Not even Him.

THE PRECIOUS SIX

Because of low production in the captive flocks and multiple projects all taking place at the same time, only six birds were transported to Wisconsin to begin their summer ultralight training this year. They all arrived courtesy of Windway Capital Corp who provided their corporate aircraft once again to deliver them from Baltimore to Oshkosh.

Six is around the number we normally get in the first cohort. It is usually followed by two more flights of comparable size giving us an average of 16 to 17 birds. But six is what we have, and it’s six more than existed before, so we will work hard to ensure that none are lost and that all of them make it safely to Florida.

It eats away at me that we only have six cranes as with the same effort we could lead 20 south. With the same support from you, we could be that much closer to a sustaining flock, but now that it is a fact and six is all we get, I find myself enjoying the intimacy of a small flock. It is hard to keep track of 18 to 20 birds when they change every day on their way from the fawn color of youth to the stark white of adulthood. Their colored leg bands are often obscured by mud and the numbers facing the wrong way so it is hard to identify the aggressive from the passive. With only six, they are more like friends than acquaintances.

Our oldest bird is only 54 days and our youngest is 45. They have not reached that independent stage and when you walk from one side of the pen to the other, they dutifully follow. It is easy to see the results of the hard work by Brooke and Geoff and all the others at Patuxent. Imprinting is not complex, but it is labor intensive. Tomorrow we will let them out of the pen for the first time and maybe even do a little ground taxiing. For now I’ll just check the electric fencer twice and make sure they have fresh water. The smaller the flock, the more precious they become — which is why we became enamored in the first place.

Whooping cranes 4-12, 5-12, 6-12, 7-12, 10-12, 11-12 getting acquainted with their new surroundings. (photo: Doug Pellerin)

CLASS OF 2012

Whooping crane chicks 4-12, 5-12, 6-12, 7-12, 10-12 and 11-12 have arrived safely, thanks to the very capable pilots atWindway Capital Corp. and the generosity of Terry Kohler. The Cessna Caravan touched down at the Oshkosh airport at 11:37am Central time and the crates were quietly and quickly off-loaded into the waiting air-conditioned van.

From there they were driven to the White River Marsh SWA training site and each crate was carried into the dry section of the enclosure. Once all six crates/cranes were lined up, each door was slid open and all but one crane popped out. The 6th required a bit of coaxing but mostly because it was facing the wrong way.

In no time at all they were exploring their new surroundings, nibbling crane chow from the hanging feeders and getting their feet wet in the water basins. If you missed catching it live on the CraneCam, you can view it on YouTube via this link:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xbnZHTU7rW0

IT’S HERE! THE BIG DAY IS HERE!

This afternoon a very special delivery will be made by Windway Capital pilots. For the 12th year they will be volunteering their time and aircraft to transport endangered Whooping cranes from Baltimore’s BWI airport to the reintroduction area in central Wisconsin. Needless to say, we are extremely grateful for their support.

So this morning, the crane crew from the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, MD will quietly and quickly crate the six young Whooping cranes who comprise the aircraft-guided contingent of the Class of 2012. They will drive them to the airport in an air-conditioned vehicle while playing ‘marsh music’ over the sound system. This recording of natural marsh sounds, helps to drown out road noise and it’s something they are familiar with.

Once at the airport, each crate will be carefully loaded onboard a Cessna Caravan and strapped in for the estimated 4 hour flight to Wisconsin.

We’ll be able to check on the flight to get an update ETA once they are airborne. If you would like to watch their arrival at the White River Marsh reintroduction site, be sure to tune into the CraneCam by Noon Central time.

We feel their arrival is definitely worthy of a WHOOP or five. Have you WHOOP’d yet?

THE BIG DAY IS APPROACHING QUICKLY

The fated day is just around the corner! All that’s left to do is put the flock together in one big ponded pen and see how they get along together. But how are they doing on that front?

When we tried socializing the birds last Saturday, things got off to a rocky start. An adult bird was moved in a pen next to the pond pen where our birds were socializing. He was supposed to keep the chicks calm, give a sense of security that a big brother was keeping them company. Unfortunately, that adult didn’t get that memo. He must not have been adjusting very well to his new pen or his new surroundings, as he was alarm calling every other minute. It’s not uncommon to hear an alarm call ring out from some corner of Patuxent. The causes range from Patuxent staff entering their pens to switch eggs, to a heron flying too close to their pen. But whatever the cause is, they usually stop after a few minutes. This guy however, was set on loop mode.

Naturally, this put the jitters in most, if not all the chicks we were bringing out. Most of them were too scared to even follow us to the pond pen, since that’s where the cries were coming from. They mostly hung out under a tree foraging for worms, frozen in place, or would follow us for a little bit before turning back. Ultimately, it took the combined efforts of myself, Caleb (who had a free Saturday to volunteer), and one or two Patuxent staff who brought smelt they could use to bribe the chicks. Even then, we could only lead them one or two at a time. Normally, Brooke can get all of the birds over to the pond pen after training by himself.

But with enough perseverance and smelt, we got all six of the birds to the pond pen. But the alarm calls still didn’t stop. Not even the prospect of frolicking through swamp water or snacking on defenseless tadpoles brightened the chicks’ mood. Some of the older birds, like 5-12 and 6-12 tried to carry on like they normally would; foraging or occasionally ducking into the pond but they still seemed a bit on edge, even after an hour in the pen. 11-12 was clearly on pins and needles, as she was constantly pacing towards the adult bird, trying to climb the fence to get out. Caleb and I tried leading all the birds into the pond, or walking around the pen, just give them something to take their mind off the wailing adult but it never kept them occupied for long. After an hour or so, all of us agreed enough was enough and opted to return the adult back to his normal pen.

Once the adult was gone, it was like a switch was flipped. There wasn’t a single bird who hesitated getting in that pond for a merry little dip. No longer did we have to lead birds around the pen. Even 11-12, who’s widely considered to be our jumpiest bird in the flock got her feathers wet and snacked on a tadpole or two dozen. For the remainder of the day, being in the pen became a do-nothing job.

As a cohort, these birds have gelled together beautifully. All the birds are pretty mellow towards each other and aren’t really that aggressive. A couple times, Brian and I have noticed three or four chicks happily sitting next to each other, either under the plastic decoy, or a costume we leave hanging off the fence. The only bird who comes close to having a mean streak is 5-12, who’s on top of the totem pole. He’s not afraid to remind the other birds who is boss with an occasional peck or two. He doesn’t seem to like 10-12 too much, as he pecks her the most but with that said, he’s not chasing other the birds or going American History X on them.

He’s often one of the three or four birds who congregate by the costume. He’s mostly just reminding the other birds that he is the top dog and/or they just happen to be in his way.

Now a few days ago, I was worried if these fellas could learn to take care of themselves without daddy being in the pen with them. The first day we tried leaving them in the pen by themselves, Brooke, Sharon and I huddled in the video shed and watched on camera as they casually foraged around in the gentle rain, digging up hapless earthworms by the barrelful. We thought they were ready to take care of themselves. But the next day we tried leaving them by themselves, 11-12 was pacing by the gate, hoping a costume would come by and keep her company. The other birds were doing okay, though 4-12 was getting a little antsy, I think mostly because 11-12 was. A day or two after that, I occasionally tried to leave the pen, and watch them from the video shed. The cameras would tell the same story each time; five or six birds gathered up by the gate, pacing back and forth, wondering where their favorite exotic plant killing, zombie murdering costume had vanished to.

So instead of leaving the pen altogether, we all just hid in the feed shed whenever we were watching the birds, occasionally popping out to see how the birds were doing. The first couple of times I tried this, I would come out and see all six of the birds taking positions outside the feed shed, like enemy soldiers, surrounding my position and awaiting my surrender. At the front of the line would be #11-12, who would run over toward me and crawl in the shed with me. There, she’d peck at the pull string at the base of my costume, or lay down next to me.

Whooping crane 11-12

Whooping crane 11-12

But on this day, instead of awaiting my surrender, I saw most of the birds off doing their own thing. Some were off in the pond, taking a dip. Others were in the shade shelter, eating from the feeders. This is also when Brian and I would see three or four chicklets laying down by the hanging costume, as if to say, ‘Fine! If you’re too cool for us, we’ll hang out with this guy instead!’ Number 11-12, being the little sister she is, would still run over to me if she saw me.

Feeling a little bolder, I snuck off into the video shed, eager to see how much they were really growing up. By the time I got there, Caleb had gone into the pen to take my place. But when I caught up with him later, he said the birds were doing fine after I snuck out, almost as if I had never left. That Sunday, on father’s Day, Brian shot me an occasional text, letting me know how the kids were behaving. According to him, he was watching them in the video shed, and they were hanging out like they always do. It seems like the class of 2012 is finally starting to grow up.

I have mixed feeling with how they’re going to do once they arrive in White River. On one hand, I’m worried we’ll get a repeat of last year’s flock. But on the other hand, they did not bond together as well as this flock is doing right now. I suspect it has something to do with the cohort sizes. Normally, cohorts of four to six socialize and mix together better than cohorts of eight or nine. Or the ten we had last year. A lot simpler with fewer personalities to sort out when you’re dealing with a cohort of six. Perhaps the 2011 flock could’ve done better if we had broken them into two cohorts of five, or four and six. But at this point, I’m just Monday morning quarterbacking. In the end, despite all hurdles and hardships, the 2011 Class turned out alright so there isn’t any reason why this cohort shouldn’t as well.

HEALTH CHECKS

It is an FAA requirement that all licensed pilots get a physical examination from an approved doctor at designated intervals depending on the category of license held in an effort to ensure that the skies are not only friendly but safe as well. No one wants to be sitting in Coach ordering a drink while reminiscing of the days when they gave you a bag of peanuts and a coke for free and suddenly hear the Captain’s voice call out in distress over the loud speaker, “I seem to be experiencing severe chest pains. Is there a doctor back there“? To which you immediately respond to the flight attendant, “On second thought, make mine a double”!

I recently had to submit to a flight physical and the doctor assured me I indeed had the Right Stuff – even if it was stored neatly in my mother’s attic. So it is only natural that our little whooper chicks must also get their flight physicals, or Health Checks as we call them, prior to their trip to Wisconsin, and last Monday was the day. The Health Check is always stressful for both the chick as well as the staff because it necessitates the chick having to be picked up and held while the exam is performed. Birds, especially our young chicks, just don’t like to be handled or restrained and sometimes respond accordingly. This can and has resulted in a few cases of injury and even death, which is terribly tragic, yet unavoidable. But then, how many of us can honestly say that we enjoy all that probing and tweaking that goes on up in that Mother Ship when WE are the ones abducted by aliens.

At first glance, you might not think a creature that has been around for tens of millions of years; long before mankind was a gleam in Adam’s eye would be so fragile and easily injured until you consider that our young chicks have incredibly delicate wings and legs which are not yet completely formed and therefore vulnerable. Add to this the fact that conventional wisdom has it all of our whoopers today may have descended from only three adult females left in the remnant population back in 1941, so we don’t necessarily have genetics working in our favor.

Of course, some would say that “Three Eve’s are better than one” in reference to the biblical Eve who, it is said, begot all of us and we didn’t turn out so bad, despite the fact that the Forbidden Fruit may have been a banana instead of an apple. Anyway, our chicks came through their Health Checks in great shape thanks to the expertise of the Patuxent staff, and we all breathed a collective sigh of relief.

All that remains is a few more days of training, socializing, and fitting the chicks with their shiny new leg bands to match their “I LOVE WISCONSIN” t- shirts. Then it’s “So long Patuxent” and “Hello White River Marsh” as the next chapter of the project begins. The life of a whooper chick may be challenging but it’s never dull. Now, if we can just talk Windway into that upgrade – the one that includes a free bag of peanuts and a coke.

CraneCam Testing

Over the next couple of days, we will be broadcasting sporadically over the CraneCam while we test various configurations and settings. Our hope is to have everything in place for Friday – the anticipated arrival day for the Class of 2012.

Viewers who watched pen preparations yesterday all agreed that the quality of the video feed is much better this year, thanks to some changes made by Networking guru Mike Deline from Adoni Networks in LaCrosse, WI. Mike will be back out to the site on Tuesday to put some finishing touches in place.

If you’d like to tune it to watch the pensite preparations take place over the next few days, you can watch via our CraneCam page, or if you prefer the social media interaction available via Ustream, please bookmark this link.

MILLER, SD MAN INDICTED IN WHOOPING CRANE SHOOTING

United States Attorney Brendan V. Johnson announced that a Miller, South Dakota, man has been indicted by a federal grand jury for Violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and Witness Tampering.

Jeff G. Blachford, (Facebook Profile) age 25, was indicted by a federal grand jury on June 12, 2012. He appeared before United States Magistrate Judge Mark A. Moreno on June 15, 2012, and pled not guilty to the indictment. The maximum penalty upon conviction is 20 years’ custody, a $250,000 fine, or both; not more than 3 years of supervised release; and a $100 special assessment. Restitution may also be ordered.

The charges relate to allegations that in April 2012, Blachford shot and killed an endangered whooping crane and one hawk in Hand County, approximately 17 miles southwest of Miller, South Dakota. Blachford is further alleged to have corruptly persuaded a witness to withhold information from law enforcement officials. The charges are merely accusations, and Blachford is presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty.

Whooping cranes are one of the rarest birds in the world with a total population of approximately 600 individuals. The whooping crane killed in this investigation was one of about 300 endangered cranes that migrate from wintering grounds along the gulf coast of Texas to the Woods Buffalo State Park located in Alberta and the Northwest Territories of Canada. This population of whooping cranes is the only self-sustaining population in the world.

The investigation is being conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services and South Dakota Game Fish and Parks. The case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Meghan N. Dilges. Blachford was released on bond pending trial.

CAN YOU SPOT THE CRANE CHICK?

Wisconsin DNR pilot Bev Paulan sent along this image showing either 13-03 (Mom) or 9-05 (Dad) with their young chick, #W8-12, which she captured during an aerial survey on Tuesday, June 12th.

Bev reports that crane chick’s W1-12 (parents: 12-02/19-04); W5-12 (parents: 18-02/13-02); and chick W7-12 (parents: 2-04/46-07) were all observed during her flight yesterday and are alive and well. While the chick below (W8-12 was not observed by Bev yesterday, or on Wednesday by ICF Tracking Team Field Manager, Eva Szyszkoski, it was however, spotted from the ground by Necedah Refuge staff yesterday morning.

2012-06-12 029_13-03_9-05-W8-12spot

2012-06-12 029_13-03_9-05-W8-12circle

Hatin’ on the Church Van

Each member of our team must be capable of multi-tasking. In addition to looking after birds they must also write updates for our audience of supporters. On top of flying they must be good at school presentations or fabricating pens or a multitude of other jobs that need to be done. That is also true for our vehicles but finding one that can serve multiple functions is not easy.

A few years ago we needed a truck to pull our 32 foot aircraft trailer. We also needed something to carry the crew but mostly it had to be able to transport birds and that meant it had to be enclosed and air conditioned. We thought about getting a pickup truck and adding a cap over the box and installing an RV type air conditioner but you are limited to four seats and mobile AC units are extremely expensive considering their low output.

The answer seemed to be one of those extended vans that are commonly sold to churches for transporting 15 or so of their parishioners – like a little bus. In fact, so many are used for that purpose that they are referred to as church vans. We needed something with the power to pull the big trailer so diesel was our only option. At that point Dodge had made a deal with Mercedes Benz to produce the Sprinter which is far too big for us. GM did not make a diesel van and Ford was the only option but they too were considering dropping that line of vehicles. So we started looking at used vans which were more in line with our budget.

We purchased a 2004 model through our local dealership that has always been good to us and for the first year it ran trouble free. Although I had consulted with Richard and Brooke before making the purchase, the van’s reputation with the team began to deteriorate along with its performance. Apart from the fact that it is very loud, it does its job. Airbags were added to upgrade the suspension and it can pull the aircraft trailer when it is fully loaded. It can carry up to 15 people but most importantly, it can accommodate up to ten bird crates in isolated and air conditioned comfort. However, it has suffered a few unusual ailments. It’s like one of those old spinster aunts who never gets a cold but suffers from every oddball illness known to doctors. It doesn’t help that our van is either driven every day under the foot of many drivers or it sits unused in the Florida sun for three months at a time.

Once, while Heather and I were on our way to Wisconsin to begin the migration, we spent a day wandering around Guelph, Ontario while the pump that provides the energy for the power brakes was replaced. Liz and I once coasted to a stop in front of a truck repair place and spent a day waiting while they replaced a secondary fuel pump system that apparently never fails. In Alabama a few years ago, the team was invited to visit the NASA Museum. On the return trip we rolled into a dealership and waited a few hours while a new alternator was installed. Each repair comes with high cost plus other expenses like crew time, hotel bills and frustration. The problem is, when do you draw the line and what are the alternatives? We still need a vehicle to fill all the functions we bought the van for and we don’t have the budget to replace it with something new.

Last month Liz and I picked up the van in Florida and drove it to Orlando to help Disney celebrate International Migratory Bird Day. We then hitched it to the trailer and headed north. It chugged up the mountains of Pennsylvania and got us home three days later without a whimper. It sat for another month before I headed to Wisconsin and again encumbering it with the fully loaded trailer. Heather followed, driving one of our motorhomes. Luckily she was paying attention and noticed increased smoke coming from the exhaust pipe, something I was not able to see. She texted me, called me (dead phone) flashed the lights and finally passed me to get my attention to pull over. We checked all the levels but there seemed to be nothing wrong. I crept off the highway and found a truck parking lot that no one seemed to own but everyone uses and we went online to find a repair place.

The nearest town was Angola, Indiana and we found Dave’s Diesel but it was too late to call them. We found a hotel and the next morning, disconnected the trailer and they towed the van in for repair. It seems there is an Exhaust Gas Regulator valve that ruptured and began feeding antifreeze into the cylinders. That caused the smoke that Heather noticed. If she hadn’t been there, I am sure I would not have seen the white mist coming from the tail pipe on the far side of the vehicle. The mechanic told me that there are no warning signs; no change in the gauges or caution lights to tell you there is a problem.

The first thing you normally see is a drop in oil pressure when one of the pistons goes through the side of the engine. Alternatively, you might hear a large bang or a permanent loss in power. Your next clue would be a $14000.00 bill to replace the engine. As it is, it will still cost us $2300 and three lost days but I guess we must look on the bright side. According to Dave, we were about 15 miles from a much larger problem.

Even after this repair the problem will still exist. We can’t live without the van and can’t afford to replace it, even if they made one. All we can do is hope there is nothing left to fix. Heather went on to Wisconsin in the motorhome while I found a hotel. Unfortunately the only one is five miles away in the middle of nowhere. There are no taxis and the car rental place is booked solid. I think I have walked 15 miles so far but the good people at Dave’s Diesel have promised to get it done by Friday. So if I am lucky I will face Chicago traffic right in the middle of a Friday night rush hour. Oh well it is better than sitting all day in a hotel, however I am through defending this vehicle and joining the rest of the team in my loathing of our church van.