The folks at Operation Migration put up signs on the route to let people know whether or not the Cranes would be flying. This was our first indication that indeed the birds would be arriving today! Now if we could just get to St Marks before the birds!
We got to St Marks around 8:00 and were afraid we had missed them. There were a lot of cars so we had to park a good ways away and walk and it was COLD at 22 degrees! Everyone was bundled up including one Doberman wrapped in a sweatshirt and still shivering!
One pilot from Operation Migration was there giving us updates on the flight status and answering questions.
There is a whole crew involved in this project, several aircraft, several RV’s and numerous vehicles and many very dedicated people.
The pilot told a story about how his daughter Alex was born into this life and when she was 4 years old, asked her friend “what kind of bird does your dad fly with?” I guess she thought everyone’s father flew airplanes with birds!
They spent the night in a field about 26 miles away. The birds are kept in pens at night in a large field, and in the morning they have to motivate them to come along with the aircraft and fly along. He explained that the birds are being “gently released” and would be on their own, but in a very safe environment. The Wildlife Refuge at St Marks has closed off a creek to fishing, they filled up a pond with Oyster shells so that it is just the correct depth for the Cranes. They are in a large open topped pen in the middle of a preserve where no hunting is allowed. People are not allowed in the area where they are at and it is a very large preserve. Hopefully they will do well. I remember on year when the whole group was killed by a Bobcat.
Apparently it is not an easy job to get the birds rounded up and in the air, and this morning it was even harder because they were taking half of the birds to the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge and half are being left St. Marks. He explained that when they are ready to fly, they have what they call the “rodeo” where the birds are rounded up and lead away. The pilot flies low and makes sounds that cue the birds to “come on.” Some days it’s easier than others. The birds have a mind of their own and don’t always realize what is expected of them. It was a lot more involved than I realized. Anyway, this morning they had some trouble getting the right birds in the air but they finally arrived.
The first thing we saw was one ultra light flyover with no birds.
A few minutes later we saw the second aircraft and 10 birds following.
They were flying at a pretty high altitude due to the winds aloft, so it was hard to get close up shots of the birds but here are a few.
It’s hard to explain what an incredible feeling it was to see these birds. These are endangered birds that were hatched in incubators and have been trained to migrate. They keep them away from humans and put on “Crane outfits” when they interact with the birds. The pilots even fly in a crane suit! It is a group of very dedicated people that have spent 3 months getting these birds the best chance they can give them.
It was very cold, we had to get up very early and drive on dark country roads to be there, but it was WORTH IT!