Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Census Flights

I am not a morning person, but when my alarm went off at the unholy, dark hour of 6AM on 17 February this year, I eagerly catapulted myself out of bed.  Why?  Today I would fly. 
 The eagle counting crew - volunteer Kendra Spaulding, me, and Naturalist Mike Zieloski
Through a series of unexpected but happy circumstances (and the generosity of WBS Director Jeff Meshach), I was afforded the opportunity to help conduct the last aerial Bald Eagle census of the season.  These winter eagle counts are a long-standing tradition: World Bird Sanctuary personnel have flown the Mississippi River from Alton, Illinois to Quincy, Illinois—a distance of 134 river miles—since 1981.
 We were airborne into a soft morning haze
This particular morning was chilly: delicate frost had etched our surroundings during the night and a soft haze hung low above the earth.  Joe Tebo, a pilot for the charity flight organization Wings of Hope, taxied us into the sunlight, its rays slowly melting the ice sheet coating the wings and fuselage.  WBS Naturalist Mike Zeloski, volunteer Kendra Spalding, and I settled into the small cabin and conducted a sound check with the headsets we would use to communicate during the flight.  Ten minutes later the engine roared and we went careening down the runway.  With a thrust we were airborne, watching our shadow grow smaller as the features on the face of terra firma compacted and shrank.
 The view from my side of the plane
I pressed my face against the window.  Even with all the particulate matter clouding the air, I could pick out the emblematic St. Louis Arch gleaming in the distance, the sweeping height of its elegant parabola as lofty and radiant as my mood.
 Our starting point - the Alton, Illinois bridge
Twenty minutes’ flying time put us at the beginning of the survey route and the count began.  If you were wondering, birding at 115 miles per hour is every bit as intense as it sounds: Mike, Kendra, and I had only a few seconds to scan the land below for perched or flying eagles.  The white heads and tails of the adults contrasted well with the forested backdrop, but the juveniles were disguised as subtle, dark blobs.  I felt like I was on some grand treasure hunt as I excitedly called out my sightings (“Adult, perched, right side!”), and Mike recorded the location and age of each bird on a series of river maps.

Beneath us the Bald Eagles flew gracefully over the river, every delicate, powerful movement backed by a millennia of nature’s invention and tinkering.  Their wings stretched forward, feeling the air currents, reading them, and responding to them.  Meanwhile we hung in a metal box, rigidly droning along above them.
 Counting eagles from 800 feet up at 115 mph can be a challenge
In total, we counted 257 eagles: a high number for this year, but low in comparison with the previous few years.  This year’s mild winter has seen very little ice cover, and the eagles aren’t forced to concentrate around the flowing, open waters of the Mississippi.  We did, however, spot around 500 American White Pelicans and 6000 Snow Geese, many of which swept dramatically past at eye-level.

The Eagle Flight was indeed a wonderful experience that I feel fortunate to have taken part in, but that was no great surprise.  I have always loved flying… it grants the rare opportunity to break free of our overwhelmingly two-dimensional reality.  Even from  the modest height of 800 feet above the earth—the altitude at which we flew on this morning—the world takes on an entirely different appearance.  Everything seems small… Fragile.  But then the greatest epiphanies do usually happen when we view our lives from a new angle.

Submitted by Jennifer Roth, World Bird Sanctuary Intern

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