Our Ridge Audubon members enjoy nature, both locally and on a more global scale. Here are some of the stories they have to tell about their experiences. Ridge Audubon members are invited to share their stories and photos here. If you are interested in doing this, please email RidgeAudubon@aol.com
The Great North American Crane Migration
by Jack Madden
Each year one million Sandhill Cranes embark on migrations between Mexico/Texas and the Arctic. About 80% of the total population partake in the migrations and the remaining birds either do not migrate or make more local migrations.
There is an 80 mile stretch along the Platte River in Nebraska that the migration passes through in March and October. This area is especially spectacular in March since the birds linger there for weeks fattening up on the abundant corn residues in the fields and roost in the protection of the wide, shallow waters and sandbars of the river at night in preparation for their arduous journey to the Arctic.
Our trip to witness the migration starts in Frostproof, FL in a Piper Pacer on Friday, 3/24. March can be a difficult time to make a long flight due to high winds and fast moving weather fronts and we were about to experience both. We planned to fly two legs and arrive in Columbus, MS before a big weather front was forecasted to pass through. Arriving in Columbus, a generous local pilot allowed us to hangar the Pacer in his hangar and then we took the courtesy car to a hotel for the night. The storm and several tornadoes ripped through the area that night and caused much death and destruction, but the airport escaped unscathed.
Our plan for Saturday was to fly two legs to Ottawa, KS, but we encountered headwinds limiting our ground speed to 70 knots, so we had to fly three legs to reach Ottawa. We landed at Batesville, AR and were given the courtesy car for going to lunch. Next, we landed at the Springfield Downtown Airport where an EAA chapter was holding a fly-in. We fueled and were treated to some home made ice cream before departing for Ottawa. We landed at Ottawa where the outside temperature was 28 degrees. A storm was brewing in Kearney, NE, our final destination, so we had to spend Sunday in Ottawa to wait out the storm. We visited the Ottawa University founded in the mid 1800s by the Ottawa Native Americans and the local Baptists. It snowed Sunday night and when we arrived at the tied down Pacer Monday morning it was covered with ice and snow.
Kearney was reporting good weather Monday morning, but forecasting more snow by noon so we needed to depart asap, but the snow/ice cleaning took time. We also duct taped the Pacer’s oil cooler to limit its cooling effect in such frigid conditions. Finally, we took off at 0930 for the 220 mile leg to Kearney. The Kansas and Nebraska countryside was markedly different from Missouri and Arkansas and I could easily imagine the great herds of Buffalo roaming around 200 years before. As we approached within 40 miles of Kearney, the landscape turned white with snow cover and it seemed like the middle of winter under a solid overcast. We flew over the Platte River and landed in Kearney with a temperature of 12 degrees; we could see numerous long strings of birds in the distance adding to our excitement.
After settling in our rental car and motel, we visited the Archway Memorial built over and across Interstate 80, a must see when visiting Kearney. It depicted the history of the pioneers forging their way westward along the Platte road, (now I-80 ). When we came out of the arch, there was new snow on the ground and the blizzard was howling. We returned to the motel. Before turning in for the night we cleaned the snow from our car in readiness for our first Crane viewing Tuesday morning.
Fort Kearney Recreational Park, 8 miles out of town is situated on the river and an old railroad bed that crosses the river and converted to a hiking/biking trail is part of it. On the bridge, we could see a large group of birds huddled on a sandbar a quarter mile away. We waited in the freezing weather for half an hour and then suddenly the birds began to bugle and erupted into a mass of hundreds of bugling birds flying right over us. It was impressive to say the least. We hurried back to the comfort of our car and drove another 10 miles to Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary, also located on the river. The sanctuary owns six miles of river frontage and is dedicated to preserving and improving conditions for the migration. It also provides viewing blinds with guides to observe the birds in the mornings and evenings. We were scheduled to occupy a blind the next evening. Towards sundown, we drove to an Audubon viewing area free to the public and waited for the birds to fly in from the nearby fields. It was an awesome experience and everything we had hoped to see. Thousands of birds came in from all around us and landed on sandbars in the river near where we were parked.
The next morning, Wednesday, we returned to the same viewing area to see the birds leave the river for the fields. It was breathtaking and we were ecstatic. Then we drove toward Grand Island, NE to The Crane Trust, another nonprofit organization similar to the Audubon Sanctuary. On the way back to Kearney we saw a very large concentration of birds landing in a field and were able to drive close to where the birds were. They were not cranes but Snow Geese- thousands of them. After watching for an hour or so we went back to the motel to rest and be ready for our scheduled bird blind experience. We met the group at the sanctuary at 6 pm and were led to the blind a short distance away. It was still cold and the guides lit a small heater to keep us from freezing. The birds started flying about an hour before sundown and the sky was full of birds in every direction, but none were landing in the part of the river that we overlooked. Finally when it became almost dark, the birds started landing close to us, but they looked like shadows-it was so dark. We were disappointed with the blind experience, but we were well satisfied with our previous encounters and considered our mission to witness the migration a huge success.
Thursday morning we departed Kearney for Ottawa. The weather was good but the wind was hellacious. We landed at Ottawa into a 35 KT headwind right down runway17.
Careful to choose the next leg to an airfield having a north south runway since very strong southerly winds were forecasted throughout the area we landed at Walnut Ridge, AR. We were given the courtesy car for two nights since another huge weather front was forecast to come through Thursday evening. The front came through with attendant tornadoes as we hunkered down in the motel and the Pacer in a hangar. Saturday’s forecast was not as good as I had hoped. The front had not passed through our planned next stop so we headed out for a destination that was north of the front but had an east-west runway to enable a safe landing into the strong west wind.
Departing Walnut Ridge we encountered predicted moderate turbulence until climbing past 5000 feet where we had a reletively smooth ride with a 65 knot tailwind. After a white knuckle landing at Jasper, AL with a 270/28g40KT wind, we calmed down and took the courtesy car to have lunch. Back at the airport we set out for Americus, GA and had moderate turbulance and one severe jolt shortly after takeoff. We slugged it out for about 100 miles when it appeared to me the turbulence was getting worse, so we elected to cut short this leg. The Lagrange, GA airport was close by and it had a runway 31 which was close to the reported wind so we made another horrendous approach and landing in a wind of 330/32g44KTS. We were given the courtesy car and directions to the hotel by a very friendly and helpful airport person called Doc (former Navy flight surgeon).
Our day wasn’t going spectacularly so far and now it was turning worse. Inadvertently I did not turn the master switch off and we arrived at the airport Sunday morning to find the switch on and the battery dead. Fortunately Doc and his mechanic jump started us and we were off again for Americus, GA. I noticed that the ammeter was showing a positive charge of 22 amps and after being airborne 10 minutes, it suddenly showed a discharge of 3 amps. We had lost our alternator. I reduced the electrical load as much as possible and continued without the radio.
I did have portable navigation devices. After landing at Americus we fueled and found some mechanics working on the belly of an Embraer corporate jet. The jet had hit a deer on landing the previous night and they were repairing the damage. I laid down near them under the jet and told them of my predicament. I tossed out the possibility of us continuing our trip back home. I told them that if someone was able to prop us we could continue and make it home (295 miles). One of them said he’d try it and so on the second pull the engine started and we were on our way again. On this leg we had a 20 KT tailwind and good smooth air, albeit no radio or fuel guage. We had a mini Ipad with the Garmin Pilot app, a Garmin GDL 50, and a Garmin 660 navigator, all with their own battery power. The iPad lasted to the destination, but the G 660 ran out of battery 50 miles short of destination. We landed after 2 hours, 35 minutes, very thankful to be home.
Frostproof to Kearney
Snow Geese on the Platte River
Sandhill Cranes over the Platte River