OM – 10, WEATHER – 1

Today, for the first time since departing Wisconsin on October 9th of last year, checking the weather and wind conditions was not my initial task of the morning. How strange it was not to start the day with a sense of anticipation and hope.

With the ability to achieve the last of our yearly tasks on the Whooping crane reintroduction project being entirely weather dependent – that is, the annual ultralight-led migration – we always recognized that conditions could render completion of any fall odyssey an impossibility. Yet, although that recognition existed, as we chalked up one migration after another and began our 11th season, it dwelled mostly in our subconscious.

Now, having been beaten by weather after a decade of countless challenges overcome, I can’t help but look for some kind of consolation however small. Perhaps that is in the scorecard….OM 10 – Weather 1.

MIGRATION DAY 91

The clear skies and total calm of 4AM remained unchanged at sunrise. With a forecast of 5mph NNW winds aloft, the cranes and planes took to the cold air (20 degrees) at 7:22AM. Lead pilot, Joe, got away with what sounded like all the birds, and those that fell back were being chased for pick up by Brooke and Richard.

From the chat over the aviation radio it appeared they had turned on course when Joe’s birds started to breakaway. The handheld radio has limited range and the cranes and planes must be at it’s outer limits as transmissions are faint and broken. From what we can discern, there is a crane rodeo going on.

We’d like to say, “Walker County, AL here we come,” but from the sounds of it, that would likely be premature. Tune in to the TrikeCam to watch this morning’s action. And check back here in the Field Journal for more info of this morning’s ‘migration adventure’.

UNTOLD AIR MILES BUT ZERO PROGRESS

After more than two hours of crane rodeo, and countless turn backs by the birds, the pilots finally managed to get all of the Class of 2011 back on the ground. All nine are in their pen where they started from just before 7:30 this morning.

It was an unbelievable migration morning, one never experienced before. Hopefully sometime later this afternoon today’s lead pilot Joe will shed some light on the action that took place out of our sight and hearing. It will undoubtedly be one for the record books.

MIGRATION DAY 90 – DOWN DAY 4

The forecast that looked promising late yesterday turned into a huge disappointment this morning. The prediction for light and favorable NW winds had vanished to be replaced with the reality of SW winds of 8mph.

Then, just after sunrise, a dramatic change took place as the winds swung around the compass. This prompted all three trikes to launch even as the ground crew zoomed off to get into position.

We listened to the pilots’ over the aviation radio as they called off their air speeds and described the conditions they encountered at various altitudes. Initially, despite it being a little rough and there being perhaps a little too much push, they thought a flight might be doable.

As they continued to test conditions they worried about the velocity of the tailwind eliminating any possibility of leading the birds back to the pensite should they scatter. In the final analysis, that, combined with the potential risk to the birds due to the less than optimal terrain between the pensite in Winston County and our Walker County destination led to their unanimous decision to call it a Down Day.

Some days ‘frustration’ is spelled ‘r-a-i-n’, today it’s spelled ‘w-i-n-d’.

MIGRATION DAY 89 – DOWN DAY 3

The weatherman made good on his promise of NNW winds this morning but they came with too high a velocity for the cranes and planes to handle. Even if we could have handled the winds, the low ceiling would have prevented our getting into the air today.

A very poor cell signal is preventing our CraneCam from broadcasting from the Winston County pensite. The next opportunity for viewers to see live video of Class of 2011 will be via the TrikeCam when weather allows us to fly again.

Suzanne Hall Johnson’s 5 mile MileMaker challenge has been met – thank you to her and those who took up the gauntlet. Each day we edge closer and closer to having all 1,285 air miles sponsored, but there are still 185 miles up for grabs.

MIGRATION DAY 88 – DOWN DAY 2

With the rain falling in sheets, wind strength and direction are of no consequence. Going nowhere this morning.

Folks in the vicinity of St. Marks, Florida and Port Aransas, Texas might want to mark the upcoming events on the calendars.

Coming up soon – Saturday, February 4th – at the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge is the Wildlife Heritage and Outdoors Festival (WHO festival). Designed to reconnect people – children and adults – to nature and wildlife, it’s a fun family event with many organizations there with displays and exhibits.

Join in the activities, take in the exhibits, or visit the historic lighthouse built in 1832. St. Mark’s 68,000 acres are home to an enormous diversity of plant and animal life so why not make this your opportunity to tour one of the oldest refuges in the National Wildlife Refuge System.

The Port Aransas 16th Annual Whooping Crane Festival begins on February 23rd and has activities scheduled through Sunday February 26th. It’s a super event for birders, photographers, and anyone who enjoys all things nature related. Click here for more info.

MIGRATION DAY 87 – DOWN DAY 1

We will not be adding any migration miles to the five the pilots managed to eke out yesterday. Winds on the surface are relatively cooperative, but aloft it is another story with the south sending up it’s blustery and rainy weather.

CRANES TEXAS HABITAT WOES UP THE VALUE OF THE EASTERN MIGRATORY POPULATION
An article recently published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel authored by journalist Lee Bergquist was titled, “Risks to cranes in Texas raise profile of Wisconsin program.”

In the article, noting the reason for starting new flocks [of Whooping cranes] in places such as Wisconsin was as an insurance measure should catastrophe strike in Texas, President and CEO of the International Crane Foundation, Richard Beilfuss, was quoted as saying, “We think it vindicates the decision. There is plenty that can go wrong down there – hurricanes, an oil spill and drought.”

Read the full article.

MIGRATION DAY 86

With long-awaited favorable flying conditions the order of the day, the ground crew and tracking van headed out of camp to get in their respective positions. The three trikes launched not long after sunrise to fly to the new short-stop pensite nine air miles away. At the moment, from what we can gather, there’s a crane rodeo underway.

The lead pilot’s report describing today’s activity and flight will be posted here late this afternoon/early evening.

NEW MileMakers Needed
Taking up Colorado Craniac, Suzanne Hall Johnson’s challenge would be a great way to celebrate the cranes and planes getting into the air today. Suzanne will match up to 5 MileMaker miles (or part miles) sponsored by NEW MileMakers. Taking up her challenge doubles the value of your sponsorship!

Click here to read all the details about MileMaker, (you could be the lucky recipient of a special Thank You gift) or click here to select the mile you’d like to sponsor.

On behalf of Whooping cranes – THANK YOU!

PROGRESS – OF A SORT

They say the best way to tackle a big task is to chew off small bites. We thought an average 50 mile migration leg was a small bite, but as it turns out, today that even that size bite was too big for the cranes to chew.

Following a long and frustrating rodeo, and a story that lead pilot Brooke will likely title, “Confusion,” the pilots only managed to get the Class of 2011 another 5 miles south.

We now have another ‘short-stop’ pensite, this one just over the line into Winston County, AL.

DEEP PUDDLE

It’s like the man said, “You don’t know how deep the puddle is until you step in it.” And every day on migration, we step into another puddle. First we dip in our toe, then our foot, and before long we find ourselves completely submerged discussing marine biology with Jacques Cousteau.

But the key to a successful migration is momentum. It is the magic carpet which carries us over the daily challenges and takes the sting out of daily disappointments. It gives our endeavor its rhythm and flow and stride. It is robust yet delicate and fragile. It is hard won and yet easily lost, and once lost, so difficult to regain.

We arrived here in Alabama in December with momentum. Since then, time and inactivity have striped us of it, and each new flying opportunity is a struggle to get it back.

In our case, our momentum is based on one thing….the birds’ willingness to follow the aircraft. Simple as that. But their desire to follow diminishes as the days become weeks and no migration legs are flown. The spaced repetition we employed to impose our blueprint upon their natural one has faded, and so our work must begin again. That’s just the way it is and this morning was no exception.

But writing an update describing the experience so soon after taking the plunge is a little like asking a post delivery mother to write an essay on childbirth while the doctor is still counting her baby’s fingers and toes, or Abbot asking Costello who’s on first. So here goes another try at that puddle.

Finally!!! Did I say Finally???? Finally, we had a real, honest to goodness fly day…something we have been dreaming about for what seems forever…which, as everybody knows, is a long, long time. The air on the way to the bird pen was sweetly smooth except for the hint of turbulence caused by our own anticipation. Would the birds follow? That was the nagging question, because as I said, the key a successful migration is beautifully, maddenly, unbelievably simple: the birds just have to follow the aircraft. Would they follow today? The last two tries did not go well, gaining only about 9 miles of migration.

Geoff pulled open the pen door as I swooped in for an aerial pickup, and six birds lifted skyward though one left late and remained low. Two birds remained in the pen and refused to join the effort, so the seven and I headed off . At first the birds formed up well, and aside from the usual coaxing maneuvers, things looked promising, though #12 began her routine of catching up then dropping down.

After a while, #7 began her routine of breaking off and heading back to the pen taking another bird with her. I turned back to round them up, but after several such exercises I left them for Joe. Richard, meanwhile, dropped down and picked up #12 and headed for Walker County.

All went well until #5 got the urge to turn back, and back we went to recover him. He’d get back on the wing for a while then again turn back, losing altitude then climbing back up and regaining his position on the wing. Losing sight of him in this rough terrain was not an option.

Then another bird began to break back with him each time, and it was time for me to remove him from the equation. I found a private airstrip and radioed Caleb and Hudean to meet me there. The plan was to land, crate #5, and take off again for the next stopover site with #1, #3 and #4.

However, it was later decided to set up a pen at the grassy airstrip and hold the birds there for the night. Richard dropped off his bird to join the others. While the pen was being erected I hid the birds in a nearby field where they enjoyed a couple of hours of grubbing, ant hill sieges, and exploring, while I, dressed in my cold weather flying gear, sweated away a few of the too many pounds I have gained on migration. Then Joe arrived and we led the birds to the pen where Caleb awaited. By early afternoon they were joined by #7, #9 and #10.

We gained little in mileage but have hopefully have made a positive gain in our effort to recover some momentum. Now we wait for another good flying day and another opportunity to sound that puddle. Now, where did I put that wet suit!

MIGRATION DAY 85 – DOWN DAY 5

The storm that went through last night was as ferocious as promised and then some. The residual effects wind-wise linger this morning the result being we will spend another day here on the ground.

From what we can ascertain, southern Alabama is still under a tornado watch, so we will be following the weather forecasts and radar closely today in order to weigh our chances of flying tomorrow.

PREDICTING

It sure would be nice, just once, to be able to write up a Predicting entry that says, “We’re flying tomorrow – no doubt.”

That will likely never happen, but at this point I’d even be happy to settle for second best, i.e. “Tomorrow looks like it could be a good fly day.” Even that is not the case for Monday, the prediction for which due to a high Wind Advisory, will echo too many ‘going no where’ predictions that have come before.

The Wind Advisory calling for 20 to 30mph winds with gusts to 35-45mph covers all of north Alabama. There will be 40 to 50mph WSW winds at altitude. We rate our chances of flying a migration leg Monday morning as zip to none.

MIGRATION DAY 83 – DOWN DAY 3

A large, trailing and strong storm system moving across the northwest corner of Alabama is giving us very high wind conditions and by 5am, delivered a thunderstorm with lightning and heavy rain. The flash flood and tornado watch for Franklin County and many other counties in Alabama and southwestern Tennessee that was originally scheduled to be lifted at 5am has been extended until noon.

Weather conditions at the pensite to the south of camp are less severe. Brooke is camped nearby and advises that an early check of the pen and the Class of 2011 revealed all is well.

WINTERING CRANES
This posting is apropos of yesterday’s Field Journal entry remarking on there being so many Whooping cranes still in Indiana in mid January.

Yesterday, an article that appeared in the JournalStar.com about a similar occurrence with Sandhill cranes in Nebraska landed in my inbox. It seems about 1,000 Sandhills have chosen to winter along the Platte River instead of their usual habitat hundreds of miles to the south.

Addressing this unusual behavior, ornithologist Paul Johnsgard, was quoted as saying, “I’ve been there 50 years and I’ve never seen it.” Rowe Sanctuary Manager, Kent Skaggs said, “That’s something that doesn’t occur. Plenty of open water and leftover corn in harvested fields has kept the cranes here along with the mild weather.”

Click here to read the entire article.