“In the beginning… there was an email.” If the Bible was written today, that’s how it would begin. Anne from ICF emailed Joe to inquire as to the availability of one of our pen trailers for use in the capture of four 2015 DAR cranes that migrated to the great state of Michigan. She also asked if he thought I would be up for an adventure. Little did she know that for me, getting out of bed in the morning without hurting myself was an adventure.
To get to Michigan from central Wisconsin is like a mariner planning to sail around Cape Horn, except the Horn, in this case, is the city of Chicago. More specifically, Chicago traffic. So an early start was the order of the day. Trouble is, when you leave that early, you do so lacking sleep. And when you lack sleep, you get a little paranoid. For the entire trip, I was haunted by the strange feeling that I was being followed. When I arrived in Michigan that afternoon, I discovered I was. It was the pen trailer!
Marianne, Hillary and Andy from ICF were also on the road… only they left from Baraboo. They, as it turned out, were also being followed… but by four cardboard bird boxes in the back of their van. “If you arrive there first,” I told Marianne, “you put up a stick. If I arrive there first, I’ll knock it down.” Very Zen, I thought. That’s when I heard the faint sound of one hand clapping. The plan was to lead or lure (in life it amounts to the same thing) the birds into the pen, then box them for transport back to a release site in Wisconsin. Sounds simple doesn’t it. But then hope is what fuels this project.
As many of you know, each chick is equipped with what has been referred to as “crane jewelry” on their legs. Even the males… which often starts males from other avian species to wondering. Every bird gets a color coded VHF transmitter on one leg, each transmitting a different cut from “WCEP’s Greatest Hits” album. And on the other legs of three of these four DAR birds were two color coded satellite and one cellular transmitters respectively, which periodically announced their locations and flight histories.
These transmissions are not always as frequent as stated in the brochure, so we had our fingers crossed that the birds were still in the area of the last transmission. If not, our efforts might turn out to resemble an episode of “Where’s Waldo” or worse, be reminiscent of sitting in a bar staring up at a sign that says, “Free Beer…Tomorrow”!
However, my worries were soon replaced by hopeful excitement as the beep beep chorus began singing ever louder from the receiver. A few dusty miles later, there they were. Four amazingly, incredibly beautiful whooping cranes. I felt like I had discovered the Holy Grail. Our four little wanderers were playing happily at the back end of a flooded cornfield, completely unaware that their very own “Crane Train” to Wisconsin was about to pull out of the station. I reported to the ICF crew that were not far behind and set about locating the owner of the property.
One of our two travel pen trailers.
Lloyd was rider mowing his lawn and stopped to eyeball the pen trailer as I pulled up. “What kind of camper is that, anyway?” he asked, wearing that all too familiar “And I thought I’d seen it all” look. “It’s a pen trailer” I answered. “We’re going to use it to trap those new neighbors of yours’.” “Funny thing” he said. “We have all kinds of wildlife around here. We even have a feral cow. My wife took a picture of it yesterday in our backyard.” I studied his face for sign of a follow up laugh. When there was none, I asked incredulously, “A feral cow?” Then, before he could answer, the voice in my head rang out, “And why not a feral cow? I mean, wasn’t I the one that went to Lock Ness looking for the Monster all those years ago”!
“Do you know who owns the property where the birds are?” I continued. Lloyd’s head did a side-to-side shake. “Nope. They don’t live around here.” Since there was no one else around and no cars in the neighboring driveways, it was time for a trip to the Town Hall. Lloyd conveyed directions which, to my tired brain, consisted of such a barrage of rights, lefts and upper cuts that soon my eyes began to glaze over. Kindly sensing this, he concluded mercifully, “Just follow me.” His white pickup soon appeared and off to the village we went.
The lady behind the counter was wonderfully gracious and helpful as they usually are in such places. In fact, having visited many Town Halls through the years while working on various projects, I was struck by the feeling that Bonnie was, in fact, the very same lady that had helped me in every Town Hall I’d ever been in. The theme from “Twilight Zone” began playing softly in my ear as she wrestled the plate book onto the counter and quickly established the identity of the land owner and his contact information. It’s funny how good it makes you feel being helped by someone who really cares.
I returned to the birds to find Marianne, Hillary and Andy surveying the situation along with a small cadre of avian paparazzi, their tripods pawing the dirt beneath camera lenses so big they surely had to be lifted with a… crane. The world of birders is a small one and it is only the most seriously disabled of birders who cannot scope and text at the same time. But who can blame them? I mean, we just drove all the way from Wisconsin, didn’t we? They came to capture the birds digitally. We came to capture them physically. “Doo…dah” Then Mike pulled up in his big red pickup, clearly irritated by what must have seemed like a small invasion. The normally quiet neighborhood had suddenly changed and not for the better. And it was easy to see how the scene was beginning to take on a carnival like atmosphere. The pen trailer didn’t help either. Mike looked at it with suspicion, as if wanting to ask, “What kind of camper is that, anyway?” He went on to explain that he and his wife lived next door to the property in question and that he was the caretaker. Marianne, her big baby blue eyes at the ready, calmly and professionally explained our mission and soon Mike was enthusiastically offering to help us in any way he could.
Then, as if on cue, the birds leaped into the sky and flew off to a nearby ag field, allowing us the time to race down to the pond and put up the pen in anticipation of their return. Richard had done such a great job designing and constructing the pen way back when that we had it erected in no time and were soon back up on the road awaiting the birds’ return.
The enclosure – complete with Dummy Mummy was set up quickly.
And return they did, splashing and chasing each other around in what could be described in no other way than a celebration of their freedom. How sad that our task was to end that freedom, if only temporarily. But it was “Show Time” as we costumed up and soon the photographers clicking away at the eerie sight of four strangely dressed figures trekking down the path to the birds… a line of thought balloons dancing above their heads, asking questions like, “Will they accept the costume after so long an absence?” and “Will they really follow us into the pen?” and “Could the capture really be that easy?” The answers awaited us at the end of the path.
….to be continued.
(Honest! Brooke promised to send the next update soon!)