Day Six

Saturday, October 18

We slept under the moon last night.  Temperatures were low but not freezing.  The waning full moon rose just after sundown and illuminated the sky the entire night. One long wispy cloud stretched across the sky in a silver swirl that looked like a giant Milky Way.  This morning from the warmth of our sleeping bags we watched the lights gradually come on.  From the hill we were on, we could see flat horizon in 360 degrees except for a few mountains far in the distance.  The range of color in that circular sweep was beautiful.  From the east and pale yellow growing in intensity to the west where hues of gray blue were tinged with pink. The dome over head was completely clear and cloudless and gradually transitioned the horizon colors together directly overhead.  

Since there was no frost, we just waited for the sun to poke over the horizon before taking off.  We quickly broke camp and I slipped over the the nearby farm house where the couple living there had graciously consented to let us recharge our equipment.  Errol took off first and Kent and the birds were right behind.  No problems.

The distance between Dove Creek and Cortez is beautiful.  There are rolling fields of rich brown earth that set off the brilliant yellows of turning trees and the green of the cedars.  In the low rays of the morning sun it was beautiful.  In the distance are the Ute mountains with gently rounded peaks.  Far in the distance you could see a small white speck against the greenish blue of the highest mountain.  It was Kent and his flock.

Just south of Cortez, the fertile farmland is swallowed up in the mystical desolation of New Mexico.  The earth floor becomes rugged with cracks and crevices and is greenish gray with sagebrush.  Table-top rocks jut skyward and and turn red in the sunlight. Far in the distance is the grand mother of earthen monuments rising in the dusty haze - Shiprock.  Its jagged peaks and chimney towers are a breathtaking contrast to the surrounding desert.  We cross into New Mexico and the Navajo Nation.

Weather conditions are smooth and the flock has good altitude so they push on beyond the originally planned landing point of the abandoned Shiprock airport.  Scott and Errol race ahead to the landing strip and Errol takes Scott up for some air to air video and stills.  The birds get a little jittery at the closeness of a second plane but at this point, they are learning to recognize Errol's plane and are less skittish.

Kent pushes on, gradually losing altitude to give the birds a rest and to look for a place to land.  Just west of the main highway near the town of Newcomb is a dirt road running along the top of a ridge. It's one of the few with no power lines, phone poles, or fence posts and he and the birds settle down to the ground.  It was a picture perfect landing (my video was in the plane) with two sandhills flanking right with the plane like security guards and the other sandhill and whoopers making a 360 degree surveilance circle before dropping in and posting guard.  

Flying low and close to the highway for the last few miles got a lot of attention.  People were pulling off on both sides of the road to watch.  A heard of horses and donkeys were frozen with their heads pointed to the sky.  I was driving on the shoulder with my emergency lights flashing and a woman passed me, stopped directly in front of me and jumped out with her camera.

As we landed, we immediately collected curiosity seekers.  Several carloads of locals stop by to ask questions about the birds and the planes.  We really enjoy the Navajo Indians with their warmth and serenity.

You can tell this is kind of hatchet writing.... I neglected to provide the followup details on the first whooper that was attacked by an eagle.  Injuries were not major and although I posted a picture (somewhere) and told a reporter what the results were I neglected to post it here.  After we wrapped the crane's leg we loaded her in the trailer and Jim, Scott, and Frank headed for Price to find a veterinarian.  They found a good one who trimmed back the feathers to find two lacerations from the eagle's claws.  The vet sewed them up and then bandaged the leg in a tightly fitting sleeve.  With a couple of shots of antibiotics and some extras for the road, the crane was ready to roll (not fly).  She is walking with a little bit of a limp and although she can fly around the pens, Kent has held her on the ground for a day or two. Today she is looking pretty good and if she continues to mend Kent may let her fly the last couple of days of the trip.

Today's picture was taken by Kent just outside of Shiprock.  The butte in the background is not Shiprock but one of it's younger brothers not far away.

Errol trying to see the screen for today's big game....

After resting through the mid day and talking to several carloads of families and friends that stopped by we took to the air. Kent had a difficult time getting lift and so flew straight down the highway at about 75 feet. It was quite a show for those driving in either direction. Again, I noticed a herd of sheep and goats that watched him intently.

We set down on a dirt road not far from Tohatchi just as the sun dropped below the horizon. Another good day with near 100 miles. If all goes well, we could be at the refuge by Tuesday.