In the Tracking Van With Bev
Adapted from Bev Paulan's Nov. 8, 2009 entry in Operation Migration's Field Journal

Bev tells us what it's like to be in the tracking van on migration. How is the van equipped? How many people go? What's the best part? What's not? Here's Bev's story:

Follow Those Planes

The tracking van is an important part of the road caravan that travels with the migration. The van carries

  • tracking equipment for the birds;
  • crates for boxing birds that drop out;
  • a medical kit prepared by the veterinary team;
  • GPS / mapping software on a laptop computer;
  • an aircraft radio to maintain contact with the pilots, and
  • two people, with costumes.

In 2009 it was decided to have two people in the tracking van at all times. It is a good idea for two reasons. There's help to crate birds if needed, and it is safer. Trying to drive, navigate and communicate at the same time, over roads that can be hilly and winding is not easy!

Also new for this year is having me in the van. I am always with the team, but this year we have a change in our staff person from Patuxent WRC every two weeks. Because I've been riding along since the beginning, I have a better idea which birds follow and which do not, which bird is more likely to drop out, or which more likely to insist on flying alone with its own trike.

Another bonus to having me in the van under the pilots is my expertise in airspace navigation. I can call ahead, if needed, to give Air Traffic Control towers a "heads up" that trikes and birds (What?!) will soon invade their airspace. I can also call to check local airport weather conditions further ahead on the route. Knowing how windy (or not) our destination is helps in making a “shall we skip?” decision if we have good tailwinds or the birds are still flying strongly and the trikes have enough fuel.

Easiest. . .or Hardest?
This job is either the easiest or the toughest. It all depends on how the birds are following. It's easy when all the birds follow the entire trip. But on my first migration (2004), half the birds decided not to follow when we took off one day. It was easy to track down most of the birds. But one bird kept tracker Charlie Shafer out until dark. He had to navigate through the bluffs and hills, dead-end roads, and thickly forested hillsides, trying to find the chick. Eventually he found the wayward chick, crated her up, and got her into our Green County pen well after sunset.

Landing at Winnebago County, IL
Photo Bev Paulan, Operation Migration

What's the Best Part?
For me the best part of riding or driving the tracking van is obvious. I get to see the show from up close and underneath. Whomever is driving can sometimes get us where the trikes would fly right over the van. I rarely, if ever, have seen this view. It is breathtaking!

As we continue driving under the flying trike, I couldn’t take my eyes off the chicks. One long line was straight as an arrow one moment. Suddenly it would undulate, almost like an inflight version of crack the whip. This shifting continued periodically for the entire flight. I never tired of watching it. I just hope the birds keep behaving well and I am able to remain just a passive participant in the tracking van!

Journal or Discussion Questions

  • How are each of the items on the equipment list important? What other things would be good to have aboard?
  • Would you like to be a tracker with Operation Migration? Why or why not?
  • One of the ultralight planes also carries a tracking antenna to pick up radio signals. How do trackers and pilots work as a team? Read more in Tracking and Retrieving: Help from Two-way Radios and Marsh Music