Bill Lishman became the first human to fly in formation with a flock of birds in 1988. By 1993 he wanted to attempt the first human-led migration. At that time I was a disenchanted photographer having spent too many years at one thing. His invitation to see if we could actually lead a migration, sounded like a great summer time adventure. Little did I know it would be a life changing experience.
Since that time we have flown with geese, swans, Sandhill cranes and Whooping cranes. I have led birds south nineteen times and covered over 18,000 miles but it has come at a cost. My daughter was born in 1999 and I had to rush home from a meeting in Wisconsin to be there at the birth. Every year we are away from September to whenever the migration is complete. Every fall I miss my wife’s birthday, Halloween, and my daughters Christmas recital.
I am not sure why I am compiling this brief history. Maybe it’s an excuse, or to somehow appease my own guilt for not being with the team now. Whooping cranes are demanding, not only of the people who lead the migration, but of their families. Each of us on the team must balance one against the other and find the limits of what they are prepared to sacrifice. I reached mine when I headed home to join my family a few days before Christmas.
For several months we have been planning a trip to Costa Rica. The rest of the team was prepared to carry on without me so I felt confident my absence would not slow things down. Another week of bad weather ended those plans to carry on so a skeleton crew was left with the birds and the rest of the team headed home too.
The idea was to reconvene shortly after Christmas when the weather improved and I would join them after New Years. But plans are nothing more than ideas and reality hits hard. Over his break Brooke injured his back and should not be flying an aircraft as physically demanding as a trike. With me a few thousand miles away and Brooke temporarily out of commission, we are down to only one pilot. That means the migration is stalled until early in the New Year when Richard and I will carry on.
It is a unplanned for delay and one we would have preferred to avoid, but it is not unprecedented. Twice before we have held birds at this stopover while the team went home for Christmas. This is a longer stay than most, but it compares to previous years when we had to leave the birds penned in Florida while we waited for the older generation to stop in a Chassahowitzka NWR and then move on to their preferred wintering grounds.
It is not ideal, but there is no real down side. Migrations have taken longer with no adverse effect, and the birds are in a secure place in the hands of good people. The only negative is the migration will be prolonged, and of course Brooke has some recovering to do.