What Makes You Feel Grateful This Year?

It’s Thanksgiving here in the U.S., and in a world filled with so much to worry about, there are also, if we think about it, numerous things to give thanks for. Here are three things, related to this blog, for which I’m grateful today.

First, for the lovely discovery – made just this week by five young whooping cranes – of the joy of long distance flight. Until Tuesday, these young whooping crane colts, known as the Class of 2014, had flown only a handful of miles together on this, their first ever migration flight. This was almost exclusively due to impossible weather conditions (for the aircraft and cranes to fly together).  However, on the few days with perfect conditions the colts seemed to have perhaps forgotten what was learned during their summer training sessions in Wisconsin.

But that all changed Tuesday, when they followed an ultralight for 65 miles and on Wednesday when they did it again. Click on the links to read all about the lead pilots’ reports for each day: ” . . . . “these migration flights were in them the whole time,” wrote OM’s Brooke Penneypacker, “just waiting for the right conditions to appear, and once again impress us all with their magic, their grandeur, and their amazing gifts.”

The second thing I’m grateful for today is my personal discovery this year, through this blog, of John Muir (as well as the very active Wisconsin Friends of John Muir). Of course I wasn’t “discovering” Muir for the very first time when I wrote about him here, in January, but it was the beginning of really getting to know the details of his life, his personal odysseys in the wilderness of the Great Lakes areas, then in the west in the Sierra Nevada, as well as Alaska. And to appreciate what his personal dedication to the beauty of natural wonders has left this country.

Finally, I’m grateful for Yosemite National Park in the heart of the Sierra Nevada, which I believe could adequately be described as Muir’s lifelong muse. Before the Yosemite Valley was Muir’s muse, though, it served that function for pioneer photographer Carleton Watkins (1829-1916).

Watkins’ prints of Yosemite’s valleys, waterfalls, massive rock faces, and majestic trees, provided some of the world’s first pictures of that special place. Yesterday I saw an exhibit of Watkins’ exquisite Yosemite photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (on display through February 1, 2015), and that reminded me of my gratitude for Yosemite.

Carleton Watkins, Yosemite Valley, California, ca 1865 (at Wikimedia).  On exhibit until Feb. 1, 2015, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

Carleton Watkins, Yosemite Valley, California, ca 1865 (at Wikimedia). On exhibit until Feb. 1, 2015, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

The photos on display are primarily from the Special Collections Library at Stanford University, according to ArtDaily.org: “It was partly due to the artistry and rugged beautify of these photographs that President Lincoln signed a bill on June 30, 1864, declaring the valley inviolate and initiating the blueprint for the nation’s national park system.” And then along came John Muir, who was soon eager to expand on that vision.

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Ask the Experts: Backpack Transmitters &; Genetic Bottlenecks

Last week I posted a second report about the Ask the Experts live online chat all about whooping cranes – a chat that the Wisconsin DNR held on Oct. 31st; and I wrote that I would post again soon about other topics that came up in the one-hour Ask the Experts program.

This is the third and final Ask the Experts post. There are links to connect to the first two – about the current migration season, the 2014 nesting season, and whoopers in Louisiana – at the end of this post. The transcript of the whole chat is online at the DNR website (select the link from the “Completed Events” box on the right side of the screen).

The experts hosting the chat were Davin Lopez, whooping crane coordinator for the DNR, Heather Ray, associate director of development for Operation Migration, and the International Crane Foundation’s Eva Szyszkoski (field tracking manager) and Sara Gavney Moore (communications specialist).

Backpacks? On Birds?

If the words above surprise you, you’re not alone. I was surprised to learn that small packs – holding smaller still cellular transmitters – that can be attached to birds by a single teflon ribbon are proving to be of help to the study of, and tracking of many avian species. They’ve been used with the snowy owls that are frequent winter visitors all over the northern U.S. They have also been used by the International Crane Foundation on released sandhill cranes and with ICF’s captive whooping cranes. There is hope that backpack transmitters might develop into a cost-effective answer for the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership’s need to keep track of 100 wild whooping cranes in Wisconsin and all along the migration route. Currently WCEP uses very expensive satellite transmitters on some of the birds, and not-so-effective radio transmitters that can only reveal the location of a bird if it’s very close.

WCEP seeks to track all of its whooping cranes - 100 in the Eastern Migratory Population and 27 in Louisiana; very challenging once they are released into the wild. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

WCEP seeks to track all of its whooping cranes – 100 in the Eastern Migratory Population and 27 in Louisiana; very challenging once they are released into the wild.
(Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

So Operation Migration was asked to fit 3 of their ultralight-trained chicks with the transmitters and backpacks, to see how it would go; and also to compare the flight performance of those fitted with backpacks to the 4 who were without them. OM Pilot Joe Duff wrote all about this at the Field Journal in September, explaining the limitations of the current tracking devices and the hopes for a better answer; and the pros and cons of experimenting with the ultralight chicks. “In the end,” he said, “if we don’t try, we won’t learn anything.”

What they learned soon enough – after four or five attempted training sessions – is that the young whoopers with the backpacks were unwilling to follow the airplane for “more than a few hundred yards from the pen.” The problem, as described by Duff, was this: “they seem to disrupt the airflow over the bird’s back. That pulls the feathers up destroying the lift as well as creating drag.”

At Ask the Experts chat OM’s Heather Ray responded to a question about the backpacks being too heavy for the ultralight-trained whoopers. They aren’t “too heavy, as much as they disrupted the laminar airflow over their backs while in flight,” she responded, also noting that they have been used successfully “on many other species, i.e. Snowy owls and Sandhill cranes.

Another chat guest wondered about ” . . . plans to try the backpacks on adult whoopers? Their flight profile would be somewhat different from the colts – more gliding than flap-flight.” Davin Lopez responded that there have been discussions about that, “but for now the plans are to continue using them on sandhills and carefully observing them in flight for any issues.”

There was a question about how many of the birds in this Eastern Migratory Population have functioning transmitters, allowing them to be tracked. “About 60 birds,” said Eva. “We do post monthly updates that include maps showing the birds’ general location on the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership’s website.

I asked how tracking is done during migration, wondering how it’s even possible to try to follow all the adult cranes up and down the migration route. “We try to check birds 2-3 times a week,” Eva responded, “and rely heavily on outside reports and cooperators for information. We get aerial support for surveys from the DNR and Windway Aviation, including a couple of tracking flights down the migration route.”

Another asked if all the DNR agencies in all the states along the Eastern Migratory route were capable and willing to help track the cranes. Not all other agencies have tracking equipment, Eva answered, but “we do have DNR assistance in a number of the states.”

So, that’s what’s new about tracking the EMP cranes. Now, for a brief look at how important the right genes are to the survival of the species.

What is the Genetic Bottleneck?

This is an issue that’s rather straight forward – easy enough to understand, and explain to others. But just think of the myriad challenging details for those whose job it is to oversee genetic diversity among the world’s whooping cranes.

Here’s the easy part: because the number of whooping cranes in the entire world dropped to only 21 individual birds in 1941 – there were 15 in the Aransas-Wood Buffalo population, and 6 more in the remnants of a flock in Louisiana – each one of the approximately 600 whooping cranes in existence today is descended from that tiny handful of ancestor cranes. Thus, there is only a minimal amount of genetic diversity protecting them.

Whooping crane pairs in captive populations are carefully matched with the goal of genetic diversity driving the decision. This  pair was photographed at the International Crane Foundation, by Joel Trick, used courtesy of WCEP.

Whooping crane pairs in captive populations are carefully matched with the goal of genetic diversity driving the decision. This
pair was photographed at the International Crane Foundation, by Joel Trick, used courtesy of WCEP.

The Experts were asked to explain more about it in two questions: “How many generations (or years or broods) might it take before natural genetic mutation occurs and the bottleneck “changes shape?” There is no certainty about how long that might take, Davin responded, “but since they are long-lived birds with slow reproductive rates it would likely take a long time.”

Another asked if he would “expand on natural genetic mutation and the “bottleneck?” Davin said: “All the whoopers in existence are from a very low number of distinct genetic profiles (a bottleneck), over time, genes mutate naturally creating new profiles that diversify the gene pool, and potentially increase the resilience of a population.”

And Eva offered a document online at ICF “that talks about genetic drift.” If you take a look at that document, you might think at first that it’s a job posting – for a “Species Survival Plan Coordinator,” but don’t be fooled by that. It’s really a 10-page “workbook” – part Genetics 101 and part Genetics for Endangered Species. Among other things it describes a multitude of factors that curators of captive populations must consider when playing the matchmaker for a pair of whooping cranes; the goal is always to pass on more genetic diversity to the next generation.

Although this concludes my writing about the Ask the Experts program, I’m sure it won’t be the last post to quote from things that I’ve learned there.

More from Ask The Experts:

All About Ultralight Migration   and    The EMP Nesting Season & Louisiana’s New Whoopers

Ask the Experts: The EMP Nesting Season & Louisiana’s Whoopers

Two weeks ago I posted about the Ask the Experts live online chat that the Wisconsin DNR held on Oct. 31st about whooping cranes; the post covered all the chatter – questions and comments – about various aspects of the ultralight migration, and I wrote there that I would post again soon about all the other topics that came up in the one-hour Ask the Experts chat.

There was a lot, really. I won’t try to cover everything that was brought up, but there is a much to say about four particular topics. I’ll cover two of them in this post: first, black flies and the nesting season of the whoopers in Wisconsin, and second, the efforts by the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership to establish a new flock of wild whooping cranes in Louisiana. In a final “Ask the Experts” post, I’ll cover two more: tracking cranes with backpack transmitters, and the issue of genetic bottlenecks.  You can find links to the other “Ask the Experts” posts at the end of this one

The complete transcript of Ask the Experts is online, thanks to the DNR. The experts hosting the chat were Davin Lopez, whooping crane coordinator for the DNR, Heather Ray, associate director of development for Operation Migration, and the International Crane Foundation’s Eva Szyszkoski (field tracking manager) and Sara Gavney Moore (communications specialist).

Black Flies, Bti Treatments, and Nesting Season

Last year’s Ask the Experts whooping crane chat was distinguished by (as i recall it) many detailed, probing questions asking ‘when’ and ‘if’ and ‘why’ or ‘why not’ would Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis, or Bti, (a naturally occurring soil bacterium insecticide) be used to treat the anticipated outbreak of black flies during the cranes’ next nesting season. I was impressed by the level of knowledge, about both the issue and the proposed treatment, that the participants brought to the chat. And I was also impressed with the determination of the experts to essentially “leave no stone unturned” in their studying the issue before making a firm decision about this.

Whooping crane pair with a tiny chick on the nest. (Photo couresty Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership)

Whooping crane pair with a tiny chick on the nest. (Photo courtesy Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership)

So what happened next? I’ll offer here a short summary of a very complicated issue and the series of events that made up the 2014 whooping crane nesting season. This is something that certainly requires a post of its own before 2015’s nesting season. For now, though, here’s a short version:

A decision was made not to use the Bti (which had been used experimentally in the 2011 nesting season with some apparent success), leaving a group of dissatisfied people who closely follow the progress of the whooping cranes. The experts that make up the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership had decided on an alternative to using an insecticide – which would, they contended, alter the ecology of the habitats for all the wildlife at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, for the benefit of just one species.

Their plan, instead was to attempt to manipulate the cranes nesting behavior by removing the eggs from one half of the cranes first nests. These cranes would likely build new nests and lay more eggs. By the time of the second nests, the annual “black fly bloom” would be over, and the pesky insects would not be present to torment the cranes sitting on nests.

Frankly, that seemed like a creative potential solution to me, but in spring 2014 Mother Nature was creative too, essentially muting the experiment. The cold spring meant that the black fly bloom didn’t occur at all during the first nesting season (13 chicks were hatched, one survives the dangers in the wild that befell the other 12). There wasn’t much of a second nesting season and by then, I believe, the black flies were indeed a-blooming.

Whooping Crane eggs in incubators (Photo couresty Patuxent National Wildlife Research Center)

Whooping Crane eggs in incubators (Photo courtesy Patuxent National Wildlife Research Center)

So. Back to this year’s chat: there a few questions about using Bti, (but nothing like the many asked a year ago) the first being, really, why not just use it “on the dreaded black flies?” Davin Lopez, the Wisconsin DNR’s whooping crane coordinator agreed that it was a possibility, “if we can get the permits, but we are currently exploring changing nest phenology as a way to get around the black fly issue.”

“What is changing nest phenology?” he was asked, and  explained that it meant removing eggs from the nest (and raising in captivity any chicks that result) to force renesting.

Two more questions concerned the renesting. Not all the pairs that have had their eggs removed will do that, Davin affirmed, and Heather Ray of Operation Migration fielded a similar question: ” . . .will the birds renest that same season after the flies are gone?”

“Occasionally, yes,” said Heather. “It really depends on how far along in the gestational process the original eggs were.”

Let’s move on now to –

The Whooping Cranes in Louisiana

If last year’s whooping crane chat was dominated by questions about Bti treatments, the one two years ago (the first one I ever participated in) seemed to be all about the efforts to establish a new flock of wild whooping cranes in Louisiana. There were a lot of questions about it; and some concerns that it might be taking chicks away from our Wisconsin-based Eastern Migratory Population (EMP)?

The Louisiana efforts began in 2011, with two different cohorts of birds sent from the captive populations of whooping cranes to the White Lake Wetlands Conservation Area. Unlike the EMP, the Louisiana flock will be non-migratory. But what it does share with the EMP is that they are both managed by the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership and both seek to advance the same over-arching goal – to establish a new self-sustaining flocks of wild whooping cranes.

A whooping crane chick arriving for the Crane Restoration project in Louisiana. (Photo courtesy of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries)

A whooping crane chick arriving for the Crane Restoration project in Louisiana. (Photo courtesy of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries)

This year’s participants wanted to know how many birds are in the Louisiana flock right now (27 individual birds) and when will the next cohort be transferred from the captive population at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and how many individual birds will be in it? (13 or 14 new chicks are due to be transferred into the Louisiana flock in early December).

There was a question about where would these 13 or 14 chicks come from and “why such a large number compared to the other programs?” Heather Ray explained that each reintroduction flock (the EMP and the one in Louisiana) gets an equal number of birds, but the chicks allocated to the EMP get split up for three different release methods: the ultralight-led class, the direct autumn release method, and, for the second year in a row now, a release of 4 chicks that have been parent-reared at Patuxent.

Why have a non-migrating flock? Historically there was a non-migratory flock in Louisiana, Davin Lopez answered. “The cranes do not need to migrate, “due to the ecology of the area . . . We are trying to reintroduce the same type of population.”

More from “Ask the Experts:”

Ultralight Migration          Tracking the Cranes & Genetic Bottlenecks

What about Wetlands?

One thing always leads to another, often in unpredictable ways.  For example, it’s a long-held and persistent interest in the environment – what sustains us on earth  – that has led me on a lot of “learning journeys,” including the one that ignited my fascination with the endangered whooping cranes, and the stories about the species’ reintroduction into Wisconsin. And it’s that interest in the whooping cranes in Wisconsin – how they’re doing here, why they’re here, what their habitat needs are, and why our state was chosen as the northern terminus of the re-introduction – that constantly leads me down new avenues of appreciation for the gifts of the natural world that bless Wisconsin. Like wetlands.

Rieboldt's Creek flowing from Mud Lake to Moonlight Bay in Door County.

Rieboldt’s Creek flowing from Mud Lake to Moonlight Bay in Door County.

“Until recently, wetlands were often viewed as wastelands,” according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, “useful only when drained or filled.” But now we know better.

“Wetlands Benefit People and Nature,” the DNR proclaims,  listing what we know and celebrate about wetlands: that these unexpectedly special places “are nurseries for fish and wildlife, purifiers for lakes, rivers, and groundwater, and storage for floodwaters. They’re also playgrounds for birders, hikers, hunters, and paddlers, and a storehouse for carbon.”

A statewide advocacy group, the Wisconsin Wetlands Association (WWA) cites yet another benefit: “Wetlands protect our shorelines” – so important in tourism-conscious Wisconsin. Both the DNR, and the WWA offer wonderful resources for online learning about wetlands.

Moonlight Bay in Door County, Wisconsin; designated a Wetland Gem

Moonlight Bay in Door County, Wisconsin; designated a Wetland Gem

Each site has multiple pages and each page includes multiple links to more pages of information and yes, even more links.  There are literally dozens of ways to begin learning about wetlands!  Where to start depends on what you want to do or learn.  Do you want to explore wetlands, or learn how to identify them?  Do you own property with some wetland?  Do you want to protect a wetland, or restore one? I wanted some basic information – a definition of wetlands, and descriptions of them, and some historical context for wetlands in  Wisconsin. And I wanted to explore some wetlands in the real world, too. A wetland, as defined by the Wisconsin State Legislature in 1978, “is an area where water is at, near, or above the land surface long enough to be capable of supporting aquatic or hydrophytic (water-loving) vegetation and which has soils indicative of wet conditions.”

Part of the Moonlight Bay wetlands complex.

Part of the Moonlight Bay wetlands complex.

Types of wetlands, and their descriptions, are far more varied than the simple terms “marshes” and “swamps” that first come to mind. The WWA describes 12 different types of wetland communities that are found in Wisconsin, and the DNR uses nearly three times that. But let’s just look at WWA’s dozen terms. From the group’s Wetland Communities of Wisconsin page you can click to detailed descriptions of: marshes, sedge meadows, wet prairies, fens, shrub-carrs, alder thickets, floodplain forests, floodplain basins (also called ephemeral ponds), open bogs, coniferous bogs, lowland hardwood swamps and coniferous swamps. (Currently – for a quick and efficient introduction to wetland types – the Wisconsin Wetlands Association is running a 5-part series on its Facebook page, summarizing an abbreviated classification system.)

North Bay in Door County; designated a Wisconsin Wetland Gem.

North Bay in Door County; designated a Wisconsin Wetland Gem.

Wisconsin today has only about one half of the 10 million acres of wetlands that existed here (it’s been calculated) at the beginning of European settlement. Land surveys in the early state of Wisconsin helped identify where wetlands existed at that time, but not with accurate statistics. Soil scientists helped to provide a better estimate of the state’s pre-settlement wetland acreage.

The state completed its most current Wisconsin Wetland Inventory in 1985. This is where you can find wetlands acreage for every county in the state. Wetlands are distributed throughout the state. Each county has some, but seven of the eight counties that have the highest percentage of mapped wetlands (3% or more of the statewide total) are in the far north.

A rustic trail runs inland through a forested portion of the North Bay wetland complex.

A rustic trail runs inland through a forested portion of the North Bay wetland complex.

For a personal exploration of the state’s wetlands, the WWA’s 100 Wetland Gems of Wisconsin is definitely the place to start. Earlier this fall I used this guide to visit and take photos – and to see in a new way – two Door County wetland complexes that on other occasions I’ve driven right by. These gems, North Bay and Moonlight Bay, lend their names to the larger complex of swamp, sedge meadow, shrub carr, fen and marshland that comprise these extensive wetlands. Both these bays lie directly north of Bailey’s Harbor. They’re connected to the village and to each other by Door County’s scenic Highway Q. Knowing something about the many little ecological miracles that these wetland gems harbor within, makes their scenic wonders, all that more wonderful.

Ask the Experts: Answers About Ultralight Migration

October ended with an “Ask the Experts” live, online chat devoted to Wisconsin’s whooping cranes. These online chats, offered by Wisconsin’s DNR, occur more or less weekly on a variety of outdoor and wildlife topics. Everyone is welcome to stop by and discuss, via their submitted text questions, Wisconsin’s wild ginseng harvest, or bow hunting, or snow boarding, or bald eagles, to name just four examples of the numerous topics covered. You can check out all of them and what’s-scheduled-when for yourself at this DNR Ask the Experts web page.

The experts at the Whooping Crane chat included Heather Ray of Operation Migration, Eva Szyszkoski and Sara Gavney Moore of the International Crane Foundation, and Davin Lopez, DNR whooping crane coordinator. They fielded a wide selection of whooping crane questions submitted by 24 active participants – everything from the basic (How many whoopers are alive right now? About 600.) to a discussion of changing nest phrenology (I’ll explain; that comes later). It was a delightfully informative hour!

A number of the questions submitted were migration-related and fielded by OM’s Heather Ray. I’m reporting on those today, and later this week I’ll post again about other whooping crane issues covered in the online group chat.

So for now let’s look at migration issues. These are pressing this year since the ultralight migration is having such a time of it, just getting out of Wisconsin! Persistent lousy weather has kept the planes, and the cranes, grounded night after night, and on 3 of the 4 days that flights did take place, the cranes haven’t come together as a cohesive flying unit. (You can read details from one example of that here, in OM’s Field Journal.)

Crates for Whooping Cranes as a Last Resort

Heather didn’t address the weather problems (and no one had asked), but she did express confidence in the cranes’ ability to overcome the slow start to this migration and become good fliers And she dispelled a few rumors that have apparently been “flying” around.

Curt, a participant, inquired about a rumor that many Operation Migration cranes are being “transported by car. How many miles have they flown and been driven?” he wanted to know. “We’re currently only at mile 47 of the southward migration so those that have been crated haven’t missed much,” said Heather.

Another, Tommy, left this comment: “A lot of chat today about the OM birds not being able to make a 2-hour flight.” Expecting that now would be a bit of a stretch, responded Heather. “This early in the migration, the longest flight this group has ever had has been 42 minutes.”

(The 42 minute flight covered 28 miles. You can check the 2013 Timeline at the Operation Migration website and see for yourself that, in general each flight gets longer in miles – so, longer times, too. Eventually the cranes will be making 50 and 70 and even 100 mile flights.)

This older file photo depicts  an ultralight training flights.  Four whooping crane colts follow the aircraft at Necedah National Wildife Refuge sometime before 2011. (Photo courtesy of WCEP)

This older file photo depicts an ultralight training flight. Four whooping crane colts follow the aircraft at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge sometime before 2011. (Photo courtesy of WCEP)

Heather had also expanded on the subject of crating earlier in her response to a question from Nana: ” . . . how does this affect imprinting of their proposed route?”

“It really has little effect,” said Heather, “as typically they make the return trip as a group. That said, we prefer each crane to see as much of the route as possible on the trip south.” In another answer she had said that the birds don’t enjoy the crating process, and that should serve as a motivator. “They’ll get with the program eventually. We’ll crate only as a last resort,” she said.

More About the Class of 2014 Ultralight-trained Whooping Cranes

The chat also provided more information about the individual birds that makeup of the Class of 2014 ultralight chicks. A question was asked about dominance among the birds, particularly in flight, and Heather was quick to identify two strong birds; both #3 & #8-14 are birds that “appear very dedicated to the aircraft.”

And, there was a question about the health of Peanut, or crane #4-14, “the one that had the leg injury?”

“Actually he seems fine. No limp at all,” said Heather, noting that “he’s “loving the attention from the ladies.”

There are several unique things about 4-14, including his nickname. OM-trained whoopers are always known specifically by their numbers reflecting the order in which they hatched, and the year. But this year, #4, the only male in a flock of 7, and at one time the smallest of the group, quickly acquired the nickname, Peanut, and tradition and protocol to the contrary, it seems to me that the name has stuck.

In late August, Peanut, sustained a soft tissue injury near his hock joint – it is a theory that perhaps he injured himself jumping around wildly during a strong storm. He had to be removed from flight training for several weeks, and then was trained separately to decrease chances of re-injury. On the first migration day he flew for 7 minutes, alone with one of the aircraft, after the other chicks had been led to the first stop of the journey. With few migration days since then, #4, aka Peanut, has had few chances to really fly. At this point Heather said, “he needs to build up some endurance.”

Come Follow These Cranes

Near the end of the online chat Heather offered this parting “factoid” of interest: Among the 7 chicks are 2 sets that are full siblings: numbers 2 & 3-14, along with #9&10-14 are sister cranes.

Follow this developing story. One of these days, the foul weather of September and October will clear. And with a day or two of real migration miles logged, Peanut and the 6 Girls will at last experience flying high and free in the wake of their surrogate parent ultralights. If you’d like to learn more about the mechanics of long-distance bird flight, and birds flying with ultralights, Joe Duff recently published a piece at OM’s Field Journal, that goes into the precise details of what he calls “the art and science” of flying with birds. You’ll learn a lot!