|Date: November 25, 2014||Migration Day: 47
|Dist. Traveled: 65 miles
||Total Dist. 634 miles
|Location: Hardin County, TN|
When you work with Whooping cranes for a couple of years you are convinced you understand them intimately. A few years later, you realize how little you know.
I have been flying with various birds for some 20 years but still could not have predicted their performance this morning.
During the flight from the airport to the pen, we climbed to 500 feet where the gps told us we had a smooth push from the north. Although we were flying through the air at 32 mph, we were passing over the ground at 47.
I landed near the pen and gave the thumbs up signal to release the birds. They had a hundred feet or so to fly to where I was waiting and I lingered until they were just at my wing tip before starting my takeoff roll.
It was a perfect launch but it wasn’t long before they turned back. We circled a time or two before they landed in the same cotton field they found so interesting last Thursday.
The harvested cotton stocks are too tall and coarse for me to land so I set the trike down on the same tractor road I used the last time. The birds were again on the far side of an irrigation ditch a quarter mile to the east. I hoped they would fly over but they didn’t so I took off and did a low pass over them. We circled the field once and this time they landed on my tractor road. They even left me enough room to land so there we sat. I had to get out to turn the aircraft around by hand and I fed them a few grapes. We talked (silently) for a minute or two and tried again.
This time they formed on the wing in perfect order and we made a sweeping turn onto course. I held my breath as we climbed to clear a treed ridge by 20 feet. This time that obstacle didn’t faze them. Instead we climbed slowly to 200 feet and kept right on going. I didn’t put my full weight in the seat until we reached 1000 feet.
I was afraid to push them too hard so I reduced our climb rate to 50 feet a minute. We slowly inched our way up a foot at a time. We flew by our first stop and then our second. Now it was decision time. Do we go on and risk losing them or stop short. We were almost at 3000 feet, the air was calm and none of the birds looked tired. Our next stop was another 35 miles so we pushed on.
The sun was up and began heating the earth creating thermals that were working their way up to our level so I kept climbing. We reached our destination at 3500 feet. I didn’t want to drop them down into the turbulent air below so I stayed high until we were right over the site. We made several sweeping turns, dropping at 200 feet per minute until we were down into the trash. We cleared the ridge and landed in a hay field next to the river. Five birds landed with me after 1 hour and 46 minutes. That was their longest and highest flight ever.
Twenty years of flying with birds and I still have no idea what caused them to stop landing in that cotton field and follow me for 65 miles at 3500 and I probably never will.