The pen door was opened by one of the two costume-clad crew members located inside the pen. On cue, one by one, six young, backpackless, female Whooping Cranes began nonchalantly sauntering out of the pen to greet the ultralight. Within seconds, Richard revved up the ultralight engine and proceeded to roll, accelerating faster and faster back up the strip of close-cut grass. Five of the cranes had immediately started to accompany the ultralight, and one had hesitated a noticeable moment before following suit. Despite (or perhaps because of) that fleeting moment of angst, the sight of six pair of long legs running and six pair of big white flapping wings in pursuit of the speeding ultralight was exhilarating to my soul. In the next instant, my spirit experienced an uplifting thrill upon seeing that Richard and all six of the cranes were in the air. The takeoff time was 7:53.
The crane that had hesitated: she lagged a bit behind the rest, but soon caught up insomuch as—to my relief—I was eventually able to count six cranes flying behind the ultralight.
I watched Richard lead the cranes, at a relatively low altitude, in what seemed to be a couple of wide circles around the pen area. At one point during the circling, the Operation Migration logo came to mind. The why-of-course-it-would realization of what had just happened to me brought the flex of a smile to my cheeks. At another point during the circling, the view of the ultralight being followed by the birds appeared so surreal to me as to seem totally unreal: like an oversized image of Santa Claus and his reindeer-pulled sleigh being superimposed and crudely manipulated across a NOAA weather radar screen or Miss Gulch riding her bike through the tornado in the Wizard of Oz. Oh, the things that can run through a person’s mind when watching a man in a propeller-powered glider flying through the air with six Whooping Cranes following as if he and the contraption were one in the same and their parent.
My indulgence in the fantastic came to an abrupt halt when I could only make out five birds flying with the ultralight. Again to my relief, however, after a couple of successive counts and a more intense focus on the scene, I was able to discern that a sixth crane kept getting largely concealed by the right side of the ultralight wing.
Subsequently, the live cam operator started having trouble keeping up with Richard and the cranes. The live cam operator lost them and found them a couple of times within a brief period before completely losing track of them for an extended period. For several minutes, the sound of the ultralight engine could be heard; however, the live cam operator’s repeated three-hundred-sixty-degree sweeps failed to spot the aircraft and birds. Eventually, the ultralight engine could not even be heard, and one chatterer quipped that Richard had gone on migration.
After several more minutes—and yet again to my relief—the sound of the engine could be heard again. Then the actual sight of the ultralight came into view, appearing ever so tiny in the distance. As the ultralight drew closer and the live cam zoomed in, one could once again count the birds in flight. One, two, three, four, five; one, two, three, four, five: every recount turning out the same.
Richard—and to my count—only five of the six cranes were coming in for a landing, and smoothly touching down at approximately 8:13.
As Richard—having exited the ultralight and donned his adult Whooping Crane puppet head—began rewarding the five cranes with what I believe to be grapes, a few of the chatters expressed concern over the missing crane. After several entries of such concern, one chatterer bade us not to worry, proclaiming that the missing crane was hiding “in the blind”. Rather unsure of what that meant, I continued to watch with bated breath. I watched and counted over and over as Richard—appearing to exhibit no other exigency—continued to toss treats to the five cranes gathered around him and the ultralight.
Those seven subjects—and only those seven subjects—were in the live cam picture until the camera operator focused in on Richard pulling a treat out of his costume pouch with his forearm and hand gloved in the puppet head. Then, a couple of seconds later, at approximately 8:21, the camera operator pulled the camera’s focus back to the wider view, and, just like that, the count of five cranes increased to a count of six cranes. Not believing my own eyes, I recounted; and to my absolute and total delight, there really were six cranes in the picture.
Shortly thereafter, Richard re-entered the ultralight and began to slowly taxi further down the strip, toward the pen. All six cranes followed the ultralight to an area in front of the pen door. Richard once again disembarked from the aircraft, one of the two costumed crew members swung open the pen door from within, and the three disguised humans began coaxing the cranes back into the pen with treats. The first three to re-enter the pen did so rather quickly and willingly, although they did so one at a time, and while giving each other plenty of space. Richard used a treat in the bill of his puppet head to lure in the fourth crane, and it seemed that he only had to firmly directionally gesture with the puppet head to get the fifth crane to re-enter. The last crane didn’t give Richard much trouble, but she did seem to emit an air of some attitude other than a willingness to cooperate. She wore what appeared to be a red legband, which would make her #3-14.
At approximately 8:28, with one crew member having left the pen on foot, with all seven cranes (even the still sidelined Peanut) visible in the pen, and with one crew member still in the pen, Richard took off and flew out of sight.