Day Fourteen

October 29, 1996

cranes at Bernardo Refuge, NM

Absolutely fantastic progress today! After almost four days outside of Gallup in the snow, rain and wind we had a wonderful break. This morning when we woke, the winds were coming out of the west (good for a tailwind) but they were fairly strong. At about 9 a.m., Errol tried a test flight. He got off the ground ok and in about five minutes, he was over 10 miles away. Very bumpy and difficult to maneuver in. It took him almost twenty minutes to come back against the headwind. As he came in to land, he had a high headwind and short runway. A good bounce and some rocking wings but he had it under control. Way too rough for the other plane and birds however. We retired to the trailer to wait. We called Mom and Dad on the cell phone and said we could use some divine intervention. We seem to get quicker, more definite results if they ask for it. The results were astounding.

By 11 a.m., we could see blue sky and for the first time in several days some sunshine. Errol went up again and this time gave the thumbs up. We broke camp in record time as everyone was anxious to finally get moving. Kim has joined us as a new camera man for the last couple of days. Ron’s sister-in-law passed away and he went back to Salt Lake for the funeral today. He should rejoin us late tonight.

Winds were out of the west at about 8-10 mph on the ground. There was a little difficult getting the birds to follow initially. 105 kept hanging back. They finally set down at a refinery and regrouped and then took to the air again. Once some altitude was gained, it was smooth and fast sailing. On the ground we were driving at 55 mph and the air crew was staying right with us.

A few miles to the east we crossed the continental divide. It didn’t appear to be much more than a small hill pass but by then the weather had changed dramatically. The skies were completely clear and the temperature had warmed.

The scenery was enchanting (as New Mexico’s slogan goes). In the distance were high mountains, freshly snowcapped and radiant white. The prairies were brush smattered with patches of farmland. Cattle grazed in the distance. We passed adobe houses and Spanish style churches. Volcanic evidence was all over in the form of lava flows, outcroppings, and volcano hills.

105 didn’t last very long. He landed in a field not far from the road near a farm house. He didn’t want to be caught and it took Jim and Mignon 45 minutes to finally get him to a point where he could be distracted enough to be cornered. I had gone ahead with the trailer and so they had to load him in the Suburban until they caught up. As they pulled up, Jim was sitting in the drivers seat, the crane standing in the passenger seat, and Mignon sitting in the back seat with two coats over her head. They had placed him in the back but he had worked himself to the front and rather than fight his outstretched flapping wings, Mignon had just given him her seat.

Shari and Jennifer met us at the junction of I-40 and highway 6. We were only there about ten minutes before we spotted Errol, Kent and the cranes coming towards us. Shari and Jennifer were excited. We followed the highway south towards Los Lunas for several miles before Kent had to land to refuel. The heavy rains made landing in the adjacent fields impossible so they landed on the highway. They had been flying for over two hours and had covered about 100 miles. The birds were still flying strong. We pumped fuel for both planes and were soon ready to fly again.

At this point we decided that this would be a good leg for the camera man to get air to air footage. We pulled one of the doors off Errol’s plane and crammed Kim and the Ikegami (the BIG camera) into the passenger seat. Before taking off, Errol unloaded his plane of everything unnecessary that added weight. I was on my way up the road to stop traffic and as I passed his plane he handed me his sawed off 12-gage shotgun (used to scare eagles) as one more heavy item he didn’t need. I wondered what the oncoming traffic thought seeing this guy running towards them waving his arms with a radio in one hand, a shotgun in the other, and two airplanes coming down the highway with throttles wide open. They pulled over immediately when I waved them off the road.

Another forty minutes put the cranes, planes, and automobiles at the Bernardo state wildlife preserve about 20 miles north of Socorro. Kim got some good air footage. There were already many adult cranes on the property. Jim got clearance from the local managers to stay the night and they soon joined us helping to pen the cranes and get ready for the night. We could have made it to the Bosque refuge but it would have been much more difficult to get our cranes to join the wild ones in the evening.

Our destination is finally within predictable reach! After we got camp set up, we drove the 40 remaining miles to Bosque to get directions on the preferred landing spot. Mike and Matt drove us to an area of the refuge that is part of the farmable land. We are to set down on a hay field that is next to a corn field that has been mowed for feed. We will land, pen the birds, take the planes offsite, and then Kent will walk the birds over to the feeding area with the wild cranes. As they begin to feed and mingle with the other cranes, they will hopefully be distracted enough for him to slip away. That’s the plan anyway.

The scene of the refuge in descending darkness was beautiful. The colors of the sky varied from east to west in shades of pale blue to steel gray. The mountains of the Rio Grande river valley framed the night sky. From where we were there were pools of still water, rushes, trees, and a feeling of sanctuary. Initially, we could hear the calls of the fowl. Hundreds of warbling voices flowing together like water over rocks in a stream. These sounds were soon silenced as the sound of yelping and howling took up; coyotes from all corners of the preserve joined in the chorus as they searched for easy prey.

Tomorrow’s forecast is for good weather. Some of the press will be here as we take off and others are to meet us as we get there. By noon it should all be over.

next day