Day One

Monday, October 13

This entry is going to be a little rushed (I'll rewrite it later).

Day one of the 97 migration was not nearly as good as it could have been.  If our progress today were indicative of the norm, it would take us SIXTY DAYS to get to New Mexico.  Let's hope that's not the case.  

We finished packing the supplies and equipment last night.  Jim Lewis and Tom Stehn from the Fish and Wildlife Service arrived and Errol Spaulding delivered his truck and trailer then returned home for his plane.  This morning Scott Macbutch pulled in and with Kent and myself, the entourage is complete.  More on each individual and their duties later.

The clear sky from late last night was covered with scattered morning clouds.  Light filtered through to highlight the remaining reds of autumn against the new snow.  The valley floor was checkered with fields of bright green from new hay and the contrast of the three season colors was beautiful.  

At 9:30 a.m., Errol dropped out of the sky in his red Rans and taxied up the lane. We wolfed down a hearty hot breakfast and then prepared for take off.  Watching the cranes as they stretched their wings in the pens, we noticed a lone coyote skirting the field above them.  Kent taxied his plane to the bird pens and then entered to herd them all into the section with the door.

He has rigged a contraption that allows him to open the door from the plane just as he is starting to taxi, keeping all the birds behind him.  He strapped himself into the open seat, revved the engine, and as he pulled away the door swung open and the entire flock streamed out right behind him.  He lifted into the air and the string of cranes followed right behind him. The adventure had begun.

This year the flock consists of the long awaited honored guests - the whooping cranes.  There are four of the larger white birds and eight of the smaller sandhill cranes.  All of them are tagged with numbers and radio transmitters but no names yet.  They fly together with the whooping cranes sticking close to each other.

Shortly after takeoff, one of the birds dropped down and circled back to the pen.  Kent circled back and picked it up and Errol settled in behind to help herd them away from the only home they have known.  The full morning sun now illuminated the flying flock and the two planes as they worked their way down through the valley.  

Suddenly, one of the whooping cranes broke formation and headed back taking the others with him.  Repeated circling to pick them up failed - they were headed back to the barn.  To keep them from completely returning to familiar territory, Kent set down in a grain field about a mile from the ranch.  Jim, Tom, and Kent discussed the situation and decided that they needed to be in unfamiliar territory to begin the transition away.  So we loaded them in trailers and transported them to an unfamiliar pass in the direction we were headed about 15 miles away.

There we set up the portable pens and staked them down to ride out the winds for the day.  Weather conditions, while not snowing, were cold and blowing.  Too strong of winds to fly.  We waited till evening hoping for that window of calm just before the sun goes down but it never came.

Forecast for tomorrow looks much better.