Day Eight

Monday, October 20

It's Monday afternoon and we are down for the rest of today on a hill between Bernardos and Socorro.  This morning's flight had a few minutes of wild excitement but more about that later.  

The sandhill that went down last night was one that has been trailered most of the way.  She is small and weak and has had a respiratory problem through the summer.  When she flies, she makes a honking sound as she breaths.  Kent has been hesitant to let her fly but because we only anticipated a short evening flight she was added to the lineup (and Scott has really felt sorry for her because she hadn't flown).  

Apparently she dropped out just after takeoff.  Scott went back to get her but even though his crane warble is close to Kent's, it didn't fool her.  She flew off towards a trailer park and disappeared.  Last night when Kent and I returned with the radio receivers to track her signal, we didn't have any luck. With all the residential powerlines and buildings we couldn't get a strong signal in any direction.  As it got light this morning, Kent returned and found her.  It appeared that she had already been flying and landed near a house in a secure concrete yard away from the stray dogs.

As Kent was wrapping her wings to put her in the truck, a woman approached and said she and her grade school class had been following the migration on the Internet. A couple pulled up when we landed last night and said they had been following it as well.  It's good to know it's getting read and amazing how technology makes it possible.  Through this trip we have had all the birds outfitted with radio transmitters in case they get lost.  We track speed and distance using GPS. Digital cameras capture images that are posted nightly to the web.  It takes a lot of technology to get back to nature.

We had an incident near Tohatchi that I didn't have time to write about.  Kent and I had gone into Gallup to charge radios and computers.  Everyone except for Scott had gone to Tohatchi to eat and he was left alone with the planes and birds after dark.  A car pulled up and an Indian woman got out and in a belligerent voice said, "What the f%^#  are you doin!??!?"  It caught him off guard and he wondered if the land we were on might be private (although others had told us it was government land).  Then a very large man got out of the car and came towards him.  They had both been drinking. The male lumbered towards Kent's plane and started jerking on things and pulling the prop.  Quick thinking Scott said, "If anything happens to that plane, those birds will die!"  "What?!?!", he said.  Scott then explained to him the migration and what the birds were and what we were doing.  The big Indian stood there staring at the birds for a very long time and then said in a mellow voice, "These are God's creatures.  This is OK," and left after giving Scott a series of handshakes.

Back at the camp we made preparations to take off a little earlier than usual.  Weather forecasts were predicting a front moving through with winds and possibly rain.  To the northeast, a bank of clouds was rolling in.  We took off from the dirt strip and circled to the east.  The birds are getting a little smarter.  They watch Kent circle and head east and then they take to the air.  

The high stratus clouds provided a beautiful backdrop to the plane and cranes as they worked their way to the southeast. The New Mexico landscape through this area is beautiful.  Lots of cattle and grassy prairie.  The flock paralleled the railroad tracks and I caught a quick shot of a long freight train with a couple of Santa Fe Railroad engines.  

The birds took the shortest route to Interstate 25 but the cars had to head north a little.  The air contingent made good progress with a little tailwind. I had the speedometer buried as I tried to catch up. South of Belen I got visual contact and was paralleling them along the freeway.

As I was watching, a couple of the birds started to drop and Kent radioed that something was bothering them. Suddenly I caught sight of a military jet heading right over top of them.  It wasn't just one but SIX what appeared to be F-16 fighters in low altitude, high speed flight.  It was just like shooting a grenade launcher into the flock.  Several birds shot up and out and the rest dived for the deck.  Kent was wildly banking the plane trying to see what was happening and where the birds were going.  One after another the F-16s streaked over head - probably completely oblivious to what was happening below them.  

Several of the birds hung together and flew over the freeway.  In the distance I could see Errol rounding up a couple. Kent circled and the main group joined him and then gradually the others came in line ,one by one until all nine were back in nervous formation.  It was more drama on wings of wind. I skidded to a stop and managed to get a little of the jets and the regrouping on video.  More good stuff for the documentary.

With the scare leaving everyone on edge and the fact that we were within one segment's distance of the Bosque refuge, Kent decided to find a place to set down.  He banked west and landed on a dirt road running along the top of a ridge. As I zoomed in to follow the landing ,the sign indicated it was a refuge.  It should be a haven with less traffic and controlled access.

We drove to the Bosque Del Apache Refuge to scope out the landing spot.  Bosque is an incredible place!  It's like wildlife heaven. I'll try and get some photos for tomorrow.  There is no better way to describe it than magically beautiful. There are acres and acres of marsh, trees and fields with hundreds and eventually thousands and thousands of wintering birds.  The refuge staff had mapped out a place to land that will be close to the river, near wild birds, and close to feed.  There is a place close by for the press to get some good shots and a place for those interested to just come and watch.

Weather permitting, we are planning on landing between 9 and 10 a.m. tomorrow.  There is some weather with possible winds predicted. If winds are under 10 knots we should be ok.  We have had such great weather this trip and if it can hold for just 24 more hours we will be in good shape. Kent's wife Mignon and baby daughter Kiana arrived this afternoon from Idaho. Last year Mignon helped with the migration but this year camping with a three month old wasn't real appealing.  

The distance today was just over 60 miles.  Tomorrow mornings flight shouldn't be more than an hour or so depending on winds.  

Once we are on the ground, I head back to work in Utah. I probably won't have much of a chance to detail what happens after the migration is finished that but here is an outline of the plan (similar to the last couple of years).  The birds will be landed near the Rio Grande River.  During the day, wild birds feed in the corn fields and at night they fly to the river where they roost in water for protection from predators (mainly coyotes).  Kent will stay at Bosque for a couple of weeks making sure that his cranes mix with the wild flock and feed and roost at the appropriate times in the appropriate places.  He will first lead them into the area where the wild flock are feeding and the gradually slip away so the birds don't follow him.  

If they don't fly to the river the first night with the rest of the birds, he will call them there or lead them.  In past years he has had to do this for a couple of days before they get comfortable enough with the wild cranes to stay with them.  Each day he will check them from a distance and eliminate as much human contact as possible and make sure they are adapting to the wild.

Through the winter, the cranes will be monitored and watched to make sure they are all accounted for.  Most will be fitted with radio transmitters that are tracked by satellite.  The coordinates for the birds are supplied several times a week by NASA so that they can be tracked on a map.  Next spring when they start migrating north for the summer, these satellite readings will help track where they end up.  The goal of the project is that once the birds have been shown where to migrate the first time, they will find their way home to the north and back home to the south on their own.  The sandhill migration projects for the last two years have shown that this is possible.  

Forty miles short of Bosque - group shot before the big day...