“Come on! Can’t we talk around the chicks just this once? I mean, nobody but us will ever know and besides, the chicks are on the other side of the pen and they probably won’t understand what we’re saying even if they do hear us.
#5-12 continued to walk beside me pretending he didn’t hear, preferring instead to continue his efforts mine sweeping the marsh for its incredible edibles.
“Ok, ok. Have it your way. Tell you what. We’ll do it the scientific way. I’ll ask you the questions and you answer just by poking your beak into the ground once for yes, twice for no. What do you say?”
5-12 beaked the ground and pulled out a periwinkle which he swallowed with a quick lifting jerk of his head.
“Good start” I replied. “Now tell me all about Monday’s aborted migration attempt. You guys really had me going, ya know. I mean, you were making all the right moves; the three short morning flights in a row… something you’ve never done before. Usually, it’s the other four that fly while you and #8-14 just hang in the pen. But this time you two actually went along on all three flights and you were vocalizing just as loudly as everyone else. And the bunching up. Usually it’s #3,4,9,10 in one area and you and #8 in another. That morning you all hung together. What changed?”
#5-12 found a fiddler crab and hammered at it three times.
“I didn’t quite hear you on that one but let’s move on. Next thing I know, you all launched into a thermally blue bird sky and began the classic first time skyward swirl, higher and higher as your raucous vocalizing blanketed the landscape below with sound. The event had all the exhilarating energy of a NASA rocket launch and my heart about jumped out of my chest. Soon, you were all reduced to a pinwheel of tiny specks against the sky. That’s when you and #8 broke out and headed north. I raced down the path towards the parking lot trying to keep you in sight as you hopscotched across the tiny patches of blue showing through the tree canopy. That’s when I saw the kettling of white pelicans also in full migration mode. Did you join up with them for a while?”
#5-12 stopped for a moment, his eyes peering laser-like at the mud.
“I ran back to the blind to get a visual on the other four when I noticed one chick circling lower than the others with his gear partially extended. Then ever so slowly the circle began its excruciatingly long decent down, down and downer until all four chicks landed back into the pen. It was dear old Peanut who led them down. “Bummer!” Still, as expected, you left with #8 and I would have bet my puppet head and vocalizer that you were both seriously gone. I even made a few calls announcing your departure. My first was to Colleen. She’s been spending every morning for the past week or so sitting in the tracking van in a parking lot north of Tallahassee awaiting my “birds have left’ call. … so many days, in fact, that she is now on a first name basis with every proprietor of every nearby store with a Ladies Room. The local Sheriff has even entered her information into the Police Data Base and awarded her a contract chasing convicted felons wearing ankle bracelets who violated their parole. She’s also become the toast of the local truckers who stop by constantly calling her names like “Butter Cup” and “Wild Thing” and propositioning her with a better life which includes a glass of water on the bathroom shelf big enough to hold two pairs of teeth.”
#5-12 continues his probing as if not hearing a word I’m saying.
“Then, after almost an hour, something catches the upper left hand corner of my eye – that area where the shimmering starts when I bang my head on something…. and here comes you and #8, parachuting down almost vertically from the heavens to a perfect two point landing in the pen! Now, I get that the skies to the north were beginning to darken ugly and the cloud cover was thickening big time with thunderstorms predicted just beyond. Such conditions are the reason God created the 180 degree turn. But what were you thinking? What was it like? And why did you return to the pen? Are you really that lonesome for the other chicks or do you have some greater master plan in mind?”
5-12 jackhammered the mud a few times, then headed off in the direction of the feeder.
“What we have here is a failure to communicate,” I shrugged, quoting Struther Martin, the prison warden in the movie “Cool Hand Luke” then added with more than a little sarcasm, “Thanks anyway for your time. It’s been a most enlightening conversation.”
#5-12 came to an immediate stop and slowly turned, his gaze considering me for a long moment. Then, he spoke to me with the clearest of Jersey Shore accents, “Forget about it, Big Daddy. Rules is rules.”
I no more than finished hammering out this little update in the blind than I heard 5-12 start calling for a flight. It was after noon time, usually a little late for a launch. But the thick overcast was slowly giving way in at least one quarter of sky to the hint of baby blue and the southeast wind, so long dormant, started to freshen. Still, with a dense dark wall of cloud bank sitting firmly just north, migration conditions were far from ideal. Yet the chicks suddenly became energized and responded with two quick flights followed by one of slightly longer duration. Each flight terminated back in the pen for everyone but #5-12. He decided to keep flying, first heading far south, then spiraling higher and higher before heading north. Soon he was a speck against the gray, then gone.
I ran down the path to the parking lot, tracking receiver and antenna in hand, listening as the beeps diminished in volume. That’s him… Gone! But soon the trend reversed and the beeps slowly crept louder and louder until I knew he was on his way back! I ran back to the blind and arrived just in time to hear the chicks begin calling as they strained their necks skyward. Then down he came, wings and legs fully extended and locked until he touched down ever so lightly in the pen. He’d been aloft for 43 minutes exactly.
Hard to say what this all means. Scientifically speaking, probably a little bit of this and a little bit of that. But such is the way we learn about whooping cranes… one peck at a time.