A few days before we left to see the annual sandhill crane migration, I was talking to someone who said a friend had visited the wildlife refuge in southern Colorado and had only seen two cranes. It’s true that the 20,000 cranes that spend about a month here are not always obvious. Most of the day, these ancient birds are dispersed among the fields, their heads down as they concentrate on their primary purpose for being here: loading up on calories before they migrate north.
It can take some effort to find the cranes and an ability to just sit and absorb, not expect anything, be open to whatever the skies and earth deliver. Sometimes we’ll drive around for hours looking for gray shapes that stand out just a bit from the brown and golden fields. At first, it seems an unremarkable sight, but with my binoculars I can see tall gray birds as far as the eye can see, almost to the snow-covered Sangre de Cristos. Once in a while they look up from eating grains and other delicacies, raise their heads and start trumpeting (left) for no apparent reason.
Things settle down for a while and then there’s squawking coming from a different part of the field, where two or three cranes are having a face-off, flapping their wings in some kind of display—either of aggression or love: the two seem to be intertwined in crane behavior. Things settle down for awhile, and so do I, content to just be here with the cranes, hearing their constant murmur that spreads through the flock.
Like these birds, I start to become more alert to the slightest change. When I hear guttural bird calls coming from the sky, I look up to see a flock of cranes circling the field. As they prepare to land, they lower their long legs and stretch out their wings like a parachute, and gently float to the earth. Once I heard faint cries coming from the heavens, and when I looked up with naked eyes, I barely made out a white pattern up high, glinting in the sunlight. With my binoculars, I could see a group of what looked like 50 birds, so close to the sun it seemed they would get burned, doing lazy circles in the sky.
One early evening last week, our last night there, we joined other crane watchers in the parking lot by the field where hundreds, if not thousands of cranes, geese and ducks were feeding. For a long time, not much was happening. Most of the photographers focused their lens on the great horned owl (below) napping in the nearby cottonwood tree. The sun was getting lower in the western sky.
Then, on a signal only perceptible to the birds, hundreds at a time started taking off, then hundreds more, and the air was full of the fluttering of wings, a cacophony of bird calls (along with the shutter of cameras all around). Flock after flock rose up into the sky as far as the eye could see, all heading west. Five or ten minutes later, the field was almost empty, just a few stragglers—cranes looking as perplexed as the humans as to what just happened.
It was the kind of natural spectacle we humans wait for all day, but it’s over with in minutes. The birds eventually came back to finish their feeding before night fell and they had to find a safer roost. Many of the bird watchers left to find their own dinners and warm rooms, while a few of us hung on, waiting for another burst of the birds to take to the skies.
But that was it for the day. Tomorrow we would come back and enter into the ordinary existence of these magnificent animals: the feeding, the wing flapping, the occasional flock taking to the sky. And that would be enough.