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Unusual Bird Watching Training

For the second time in my life, I have questioned how much I love birds and wondered if I need an intervention.  The first time with the Horned Guan Death March , especially in Part 2 of that epic hike up a volcano to see one of the rarest birds in the Americas.

But the second time came last week when I did some mandatory training for our fall waterfowl surveys on the upper Mississippi River.

When we do our aerial waterfowl surveys, we fly low.  It seems to me that we are right above the trees, but it’s about 150 feet off the ground.  It’s low.  Our biggest danger is power lines that run across the river.  Most of them are well marked and we have GPS map system on the plane that alerts us to when we are approaching a set.  But accidents happen.  If I’m going to keep doing these surveys, then the federal government said that I need to have training on plane safety and how to survive a crash, specifically in water.  How did we do that?

Why in a pool at a YMCA!  That’s one of my teammates and me in a makeshift small plane, belted into our seats and about to be dumped  face down in the pool to see if we could calmly unbuckle and leave the plane should it submerge in the water.  In order to complete the course, we had to do this four times…twice upside down.

I’m not going to lie…it was nerve racking.  I survived three out of four times.  The fourth time, I got trapped inside the box and had to be pulled out (I was never in any danger, note all the people in the pool).  Two people are watching you under water and they knew right away if you were stuck and they pulled you out.  I think because on my third attempt, I got a big shot of chlorinated water up my nose and just general fatigue are the reasons I missed on the fourth attempt. And really, the chances of me crashing into water four times in a row in an afternoon are incredibly slim.  I have high hopes I’ll survive a water crash and even higher hopes that I won’t even need to use this training in my lifetime.

Here we are on one of our simulated crashes when they turned us upside down–you can see our toes. I think it was this dunking when I asked myself…how much do I love birds?  If this is what I need to do in order to complete my job to watch and count them from a plane, then maybe there is something psychologically wrong with me.  But still, even when we did the classroom portion, I asked myself, “Is counting ducks important enough for me to risk not coming home to Non Birding Bill at the end of the day?”

I think what we learn about native duck usage of the upper Mississippi River is important for the long run and it is worthwhile.  Honestly, flying in the plane has been fun and seems like an adventure. However, when you’re preparing for a worst case scenario (that will most likely never happen) you do play those scenarios in your head and you wonder if you will be ready if that moment comes.

The first day was general classroom work on plane safety and guidelines.  We were given examples of plane crashes and outlined all the little things that could have prevented them and the reasons why some people survived and some people didn’t.  When I first started doing these surveys, I took an online course on crash survival.  I chuckled as the training showed little cartoon planes fall to a fiery explosion and then learned that the number one thing that is going to save me in a crash is a positive mental attitude (surprisingly, not a parachute).

Our classroom training reinforced that and we learned the Seven Steps of Survival in a Plane Crash on Water.  Any guesses as to what the first step is when the pilot shouts, “May Day, we’re going down!” (or some form of profanity)  Any idea?

Step one, say, “I’m a survivor!”

Side note: Do not sing it like a Gloria Gaynor song…that’s frowned upon.  But first things first, you want to mentally psyche yourself up that you will stay calm and get through this.  You will survive and end up at home with your family at the end of the day.

You might be surprised to learn that of the Seven Steps, unbuckling your seat belt is Step Six.  Before that, you need to (shout, “I’m a survivor!”) unplug your helmet, open the plane door (if you’re sitting next to it) brace for impact, when you hit the water you want to count to four to give yourself time to for the plane to stop moving and then sit up, find a reference point to the open door (make sure the doorway is still clear) and then you can unbuckle your belt and exit.  The last thing you want to do it swim towards the top with a hand up first to check for debris and/or flames on the water (yikes).

The helmets remind me of the movie Spaceballs. The training was fun in a Mythbusters sort of way and a bit morbid, but I’m so grateful that I had it.  I’m fortunate in that we have a professional and attentive pilot but I feel more prepared than ever should we have to go down into the river.

All part of the fun and exciting life of being a park ranger.

6 comments to Unusual Bird Watching Training

  • I humbly bow to your dedication, Sharon.

  • Joanna

    You are awesome! as well as a survivor. Seriously, I learned a lot from this post. I recently found myself in one of those situations where I had a split second to think before a accident (a fall on the ice) and I know that if I had rehearsed a safety protocol like this, I would have been safer.

  • You fly at 150 feet above the ground/water? WOW–that IS low. I hadn’t asked; I assumed it was like 500. I can see why you’re getting training. At that height you’re not going to get much warning before you splash down.

    And I can see why they fly multi-engine airplanes. I’d assumed for surveys they’d fly singles, but at that height you wouldn’t have time to deal with so much as a sputter.

    Thanks for the article, putting it into perspective. The picture with your feet sticking out is interesting, and worrisome knowing that it means your head is 4 feet underwater and up-side-down.

    And the picture strapped in with the flight helmets is great. Do you wear those when you fly? I thought your self-portrait photos of survey flights just had you in headsets.

    And neat that you had someone to take good photos!

  • Conserving birds can be a dangerous business and I commend you on taking such risks to make your contribution to the cause.

  • nikkikoval

    Good for you, that is fantastic, love the pic. Me, have trouble sleeping now, of course not, I’ll be just fine HELP!!!!

  • Ok, I just look at my window at the feeder. I mean, I could like stub my toe or something. Once I ran my binoculars into the glass and really jammed it into my eye. I mean, it was hard. It hurt. Nobody gave me any training for that.

    I am glad that there are birders out there willing to take the chance, so I can sit here and read it about.

    Thanks, Sharon. You Rock. Really.