Before today, I would have thought that a “Raven 44” flying machine was one of Harry Potter’s broomsticks. Now I know that this species of Raven is a whirly bird – a sleek deep maroon helicopter that seats four. I know that because I was one of the four seat occupants that rode in one this morning.
When I stumbled into the hanger at the Oakland County International Airport off of M-59, the other three guys were already there. They eyed me up as I walked across the echoing concrete floor. Mark and John, fellow Metropark employees, immediately engaged in a bout of weight guessing. Mark declared “he looks like a 190,” as he slapped me on the back in greeting. The pilot, Chuck Blaylock of Magnum Helicopter Services, declared that would be o.k. and went on to tell me that he had estimated our combined weights in order to determine fuel use. I protested slightly that I wasn’t quite 190 pounds- more like 185 or 6-, but that my puffy coat made me look fat. He simply glanced over his paperwork and said “let’s go.”
The huge hanger door was lifted, the copter shuttled out on a hand cart (I’m not kidding), and we bundled into the cockpit. Since my coat was so puffy, you understand, I had a hard time packing myself in and finding the seat belt latch.
The reason for this helicopter ride was to conduct a portion of our annual Metropark deer survey. Since today’s flight was scheduled to go over my domain at Lake Erie Metropark, I claimed naturalist rights for a seat. We’ve been surveying deer numbers for years, but up until now I was never one of the flyboy “we” folk. My job today was as a secondary spotter and data tabulator. In other words I was to write down the numbers on an aerial photo as the animals were sighted. John and Mark were seated in back in order to look out their respective sides. Chuck, well, he was supposed to fly the thing.
Without going on too much about the ride itself, let me say that one of the best parts, besides sitting in front next to the pilot, was wearing a headset. Once the props get whirling, it gets pretty noisy in the cabin, so we had to communicate with each other via headset microphones. All of us sounded just like those air traffic controller people except that we said stupid things (like “Oh, look at that bright yellow house” or “This is cool”). Chuck sounded appropriately official as he announced that “Helicopter 141 Delta Charley” was underway and requesting permission to enter the air space around Detroit Metro Airport.
The latest coating of fresh snow turned even the suburban portions of the landscape into winter wonderlands. Backyards were pristine with only a few tracks leading to the bare spot in the driveways were the cars were parked overnight. Matchbox cars whirred along on their appointed tasks and even a local junkyard looked magical from 400 feet up.
Frozen lakes were criss-crossed with linear snowmobile tracings and peculiar pock mark tracks led to dark holes in the ice where fishermen had augured their lucky holes (fortunately these tracks led away from the holes as well!).
Our trip initially took us over the wooded terrain of Lower Huron, Willow and Oakwoods Metropark. These are long narrow parks bordering the winding course of the Huron River. Chuck brought us down to about 100 feet as we entered park airspace. Four pairs of eyes then began to scan the ground beneath the skeletal trees.
Almost immediately, four deer were spotted at the north end of Lower Huron. I dutifully marked them down on the map and peered down at the tiny deer running beneath my feet. The second one in this initial group was a buck still bearing antlers, but it proved to be the only antlered buck we spotted all morning (not surprising since most have dropped their armament by now). On a cold morning like this (it was a negative “niner” degrees Celsius according to the weather voice that occasionally drifted through our headsets) the deer were bedded down. The passing and re-passing of the copter inspired them to stand up and be counted. This shot gives you an idea of what four deer look like from our perspective.
Even though the clear blue day and bright white background helped out tremendously, deer counting is a challenging eyeball exercise. None of us are under the illusion that we see every animal, but these counts are for relative and not absolute numbers. By the time we reached the southern end of Oakwoods Metropark, at Flat Rock, we had tallied about 150 deer (I never did get time to tally these numbers up). The biggest single gathering was a herd of 17 individuals. Most were in herdlets of 3 to 5 head. Along the way, several hundred geese, a dozen Red-tailed hawks, and one lone coyote presented themselves for non-mathematical observation.
The final approach to Lake Erie Metropark was signaled by the bright slate blue surface of the Detroit River ahead. There is no finer vista than that offered by the curve of the earth horizon over the waters of Lake Erie at the river mouth (see the Detroit River lighthouse and the expansive Pte. Mouillee marshes south of the park in this photo). At this point I was busily snapping pictures, recording data, and directing Chuck over the marshlands and scrub areas– multitasking to be sure. A flock of 15 wintering Great Blue Herons flew across the reed bed below us. Three immature Bald Eagles flushed from their roost at the south end of the park and headed out over the river mouth to the refuge of Celeron Island. Hundreds of coot and large white Tundra Swans dotted the near shore waters.
Our first pass over didn’t produce too many deer sightings. Their trails and bedding spots were very apparent from the air – as were the distinctive scraping areas where they pawed the snow to get at the grass. On the second crossover, however, the critters began to move. During one period, when we were barely 85 feet from the ground, I was able to snap this picture of a befuddled doe. Although many of the animals eventually looked up, she was still searching the surrounding woods for the cause of our whirring noise. I felt like opening the door and yelling down to give her a heads up, but resisted the temptation (and my fellow crew’s wrath).
In all, we recorded some 42 deer at “my” park along with two stationary ice fishermen on the ice shelf. “Look how close they are to the open water,” John piped through the headset. “Yeah,” let’s hope we don’t scare ‘em off into the lake,” somebody else said. With that, the count was done and N141-DC headed back towards Pontiac.
On the ground, all those tiny deer gain quite a bit in relative body size. Of course, they gain that size by feasting on the native vegetation. The purpose behind our survey was to monitor the deer population and keep a management check on that very vegetation. Our numbers will be crunched and incorporated into a larger management plan, but for now the benefit was strictly personal. I got a chance to picture myself, eyes fixed in a pensive gaze, with those cool headsets on.