Sand Hill Cranes 2019

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(early morning at Bosque del Apache)

 

All month I have been on alert listening for the calls of the Sand hill cranes as they continue their migration south. Last year a good number of cranes spent the winter here landing in the neighboring field to find food, and roosting down by the river in the riffles…

 

This year, except for a few sightings and an occasional singular “brring” call by a few, the cranes have been absent. The artificially controlled river is so unnaturally high that it is ripping the shore away in chunks; the torrents of raging water are drowning the riffles where shorebirds once landed to rest or fish. Even the solitary heron has moved on. It is hardly surprising that the Sand hill cranes are not staying overnight even if they pass by overhead.

I also suspect that the cranes’ migratory routes have shifted.

Sandhill Cranes have begun breeding in the fields around the Saco River in Fryeburg, Maine, not far from my home. Some research suggests that these birds have broken away from the eastern flyway. They were first sighted in Maine about 20 years ago and I am delighted to know that some may be making Maine their breeding ground.

We do know that one of the consequences of Climate Change is that many migratory birds are shifting their routes or not traveling as far south as they once did. The cranes used to have three distinct flyways that flowed into one great artery the further south they traveled, and conversely fan out with some cranes flying as far as west as the eastern coast of Siberia during the northern spring migration. These days it is hard to predict what may be happening.

 

Although it is almost the end of November I have only seen one good size flock of twenty cranes flying over the house; this group was traveling due west. I have seen a few in very small groups of two, three, and five in number, and my neighbors and I had a couple in their field.

 

Seeing and hearing Sand hill Cranes has to be one of the the greatest joys of living near the river in Abiquiu, and I keenly miss their presence and haunting calls.

 

This year’s trip to the Bosque del Apache assuaged my loneliness. For one whole day I was steeped in wonder and gratitude that such a place even existed (I almost forgot that this refuge is also open to hunting. This “create a refuge and then shoot the animals” is normalized behavior for all state Fish and Game organizations).

 

To have so many cranes and snow geese along with harriers and other raptors, eagles, ducks, herons, sliders, fish, deer visible all at once while listening to crane and geese cacophony put me in state that I call “Natural Grace,” where nothing but the immediate present matters. At one point I met a couple who asked to take my picture. When I asked why they both said in union -“Why, you are so beautiful, you look like you belong here.” Evidently, the cranes had transformed me! The day was perfect – absolutely no wind and temperatures that were so mild that I was able to sit on the ground watching cranes/snow geese through my binoculars until the sun finally set,and many groups of cranes and snow geese had taken to the sky. I recorded the birds calling out to each other, and now whenever I listen to my tape I am transported back in time to that wondrous day. I am so grateful to have been there.

We know from fossilized records that the Sandhill Cranes are one of oldest birds in the world, and have been in their present form for 10, 30, or 60 million years (depending on the source). They have apparently maintained a family and community structure that allows them to live together peacefully and migrate by the thousands twice a year when unfortunately many are shot along the way. Sandhill Cranes mate for life, and in the spring the adults engage in a complex “dance” with one another. During mating, pairs throw their heads back and unleash a passionate duet—an extended litany of coordinated song. Cranes also dance, run, leap high in the air and otherwise cavort around—not only during mating, but all year long.

In their northern habitat, the female lays two eggs a year in thick protected areas at the edge of reed filled marshes. Before nesting these birds “paint” their gray feathers with dull brown reeds and mud to reduce the possibility of being seen by a predator. Born a couple of days a part, the second chick rarely survives. The fuzzy youngster that does (if it survives the first year – delayed reproduction and survival rates factor into the difficulties inherent in crane conservation and to that we must now add Climate Change) stays with its parents for about three years before reaching sexual maturity and striking out on its own, but even then the adult stays within the parameters of its extended family, and it is these families that comprise the small groups of cranes that we see flying together. During migration, a multitude of these groups travel together. There are no leaders and often it is possible to observe what looks like an unorganized random group or diagonal thread made up of cranes flying above the ground. In every roosting place there are a few cranes that remain awake all night alerting their relatives to would be predators.

I think it’s significant that these very ancient birds have survived so long in their present form. I’ll repeat my original question: Could it be that the cranes understand the value of living in community in a way that has become foreign to humans who seem hell bent on embracing the values of competition, power, and control on a global level? Perhaps we could all benefit from watching Sand hill cranes with rapt attention.

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