Tuesday, October 14
Well, after yesterday's disappointing start any progress today would have been an improvement. Fortunately it was a fantastic day! The morning was crystal clear as we drove the 16 miles from the ranch to where we had penned the birds the night before. Frost on the ground but a warming sunline moving across the valley.
Scott had stayed the night with the cranes. At about one a.m. he heard an owl hooting up a storm and he stepped out to see what was happening. In the light of the near full moon he could see the silhouette of a great horned owl perched on the camera mount atop Kent's plane. As he started towards it, the owl spread its wings and flew away leaving only a deposit on the aircraft seat. Jim said horned owls have been known to attack cranes but with the portable pens and a tight netted top our birds were safe inside.
The crew (see pictures) worked to prepare the planes by pulling off the frost covers and turning the wings into the sun. Errol took to the air first to check for currents. Kent circled the pens once and Jim released the cranes. Several of them took to the air but they winged left and Kent was right. He swung back to pick them up in long slow circle and then headed south. Immediately, the single male whooper peeled out of formation and circled back north with one of the females following him. Another circle by the plane to pick them up. Once in formation headed south, he peeled off again. Kent radioed that he was going to set them down and put the renegade in the trailer and haul him but on the fourth circle, the headstrong homie settled in on a southerly course. Finally they were away.
They climbed up and out towards the south and with in a matter of minutes were flying high above Preston. Very few of those on the road noticed or were aware of what was passing over head. I motored past a herd of milk cows and they were intently watching. A few more miles down the road I saw Mrs. Wilker, Kent's fourth grade teacher, pulled over to the side of the road and watching.
The air was clear and smooth and it was a great day for distance. Approaching Logan, there was no reason to set down. The birds were pumping hard but were up to the task. For the past two years, the most harrowing passage has been through the pass between Paradise and Eden, Utah. The first year two cranes were taken out by golden eagles. The second year, birds were dropping out of the sky from exhaustion and Kent came within inches of clipping a tree trying to climb out. This year, because of the good altitude and great conditions they sailed right to the top of the pass and landed. One sandhill dropped out less than a mile from touch down but having passed to this point of the journey with so little effort comparatively was a sweet success.
After penning the birds in a natural marsh area we set off to find the lone straggler. I assembled the yagi antenna which helps locate the bird's general direction. For some reason, the direction of strongest indication kept moving. I pointed out to Kent an eagle that was circling high in the distance. After examining it for a minute and noting the shape of the wings he said it wasn't an eagle. Pointing the antenna in that direction he said, 'That's our crane.' Apparently the crane was not as tired as we had been led to believe and it was circling high above the pass on the mountain breezes. Kent called to it in his warbling voice and it gradually circled downward and then parachuted to the ground beside him. We put the sandhill in the pen with the others where they were pecking at their leg bands and radio transmitters.
The mid portion of the day was spent back in Logan picking up more supplies, getting an electric fence (for areas where there are dogs and cattle), and catching up on communications. It was a beautiful fall day in Cache Valley.
Around 4:30, we prepared for takeoff. The conditions for flight are best just after sunup and just before sundown (and the birds won't fly at other times). Just over the pass, the elevation falls away to the beautiful land of Eden. The birds and planes were only dots in the distance as I raced down the rutted road to the valley floor. Tentative plans had been made to land in a pasture above Mountain Green or somewhere around Morgan. Going was good and soon Errol was radioing that the destination was the pasture of Otis Rose. This was a landing site we all knew - last year it was a random choice that turned out to be the roommate of Dad's from Weber State 40 years ago. As they landed, milking was in process and the Jerseys were lined up in the corral.
Before long, the complete caravan had arrived with pens, feed, and airplane tie downs. Several neighbors stopped by to see what had fallen from the sky. As we finished staking things down, covering the planes, and making arrangements for the night, a glowing full moon rose into a cloudless sky.
It was a great day. According to GPS, we had travelled 62 miles on the first leg and 30 on the second. Add that to what we moved yesterday and we are 108 miles from home.