Migration and Sandhill Cranes

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(murmurings at dawn)

 

Migration is a patterned movement from one place to another that occurs in all major animal groups – birds, mammals, fish, reptiles, amphibians, insects and crustaceans (Migration may also occur at the cellular level).

Migration can occur seasonally or just once in a lifetime. Animals migrate primarily to find food and to reproduce.

It’s important to distinguish between animals that migrate seasonally for food and reproduction from those who are forced to leave one place for another because of human induced habitat loss, insecticidal use, and Climate Change.

Like scientists, I have been intrigued by both processes (one normal, the other not) since we know so little about how animals know what they know, whether theories about migration are true or not, and because unfortunately whatever capabilities animals have developed over millennia are also being interrupted by Climate Change in ways that we can rarely comprehend. Animals must adapt faster than ever before to survive.

Multitudes of studies indicate that migrating species probably use a wide variety of mechanisms to navigate, including the stars, the sun, olfactory (chemical) cues, internal circadian rhythms that change in response to the seasons, and Earth’s magnetic field (which is shifting more dramatically due to ice melt in the arctic).

Some species may learn their migration routes by first traveling with experienced individuals, but other species are able to migrate without prior experience, an ability that still baffles the scientific community and keeps me mindful of controversial field theory as a possible partial explanation for successful patterned migration.

The latter postulates that each animal has access to its own biological/morphic (family) field and can tap into that field for information and guidance. This theory might help explain why some animals are able to navigate thousands of miles without direct parental assistance. Migration requires a lot of energy and many individuals die during migration. Despite these heavy costs, the potential benefits of migration are great, which is why migration behavior has evolved in so many species.

Approximately 1,800 of the world’s 10,000 birds migrate each year. Many of these migrations are north-south, with species feeding and breeding in high northern latitudes in the summer, and moving some hundreds or thousands of miles south for the winter. However, it must be mentioned that some birds begin to migrate before food supplies even decline, suggesting that seasonal changes in day light or some innate and/or evolving mechanism tells the birds that it’s time to leave.

The shifting range of the Sandhill cranes makes me particularly curious because it seems to be related to Climate Change/global warming. These birds once migrated into Mexico each winter. Now some populations only fly as far south as Tennessee and other south –eastern states, and others remain in Florida throughout the year.

Every spring 400,000 to 600,000 Sandhill cranes—80 percent of all the cranes on the planet—congregate along an 80-mile stretch of the central Platte River in Nebraska, to fatten up on grain in preparation for the remainder of their journey to Siberian, arctic and subarctic nesting grounds. This migration used to begin in mid-February and end in mid-April but for the last two years the birds have begun arriving in Nebraska earlier than ever before. The cranes have also been spotted in western and southern Maine during the spring since the year 2000.

Sandhill Cranes have been in their present form for 30 million years. They have a life span of 35 years and are slow to reproduce delaying breeding from two to eight years so population growth is slow (0.3 chicks actually survive the first year). Fortunately, people have been captivated by the migrations of these magnificent birds so a few sanctuaries have been established to help the species survive. A slow reproductive rate has been a key obstacle to conservation and ‘management’ of the species, keeping these birds at risk.

Sandhill Cranes hold an important place in art throughout the world figuring in traditional Japanese and American Indigenous peoples art where their mesmerizing dances and graceful postures find their way into Native weavings, paintings and dances as well as appearing in contemporary culture.

This winter Abiquiu has been graced with flocks of Sandhill Cranes who have stayed for the whole season, much to my joy and delight. Although, I understand that some cranes have wintered here in previous years at least three big flocks have been flying overhead and roosting down below my house on the other side of the river since late November making me appreciative of the possible short term positive consequences of Climate Change.

We may not know how migration works, but we do know the patterns of migration are changing and that Climate Change is a reality. My fervent hope is that somehow most species, who are all our “elders” – humans, after all have only been around for 200,000 years – (plants for 450 million years, animals for 350 million years) – may possess strategies that we can’t even imagine to survive the damage that we have brought upon all living things including ourselves.

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REUNION

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(single crane crying out as s/he flew – to the left of the tree)

 

In the billowing

deep gray

Dawn

I hear soft

Murmuring…

listen to

a Spirit call

down from the sky.

After she rose

from the river

was he too

saying goodbye?

Every cry

is a mourning song

for a soul

left behind.

But I will not stay

long without them.

Where they go

I will follow…

The Cranes

migrate North

with the turning

of seasons

as I must

to seek colder waters,

moderating

heat that cools

at sunset,

fresh dew at dawn,

frog filled nights.

When the days grow soft

with golden light

we will both return

to spend fall and winter

tucked into the willows,

held by red earth

cradled by a flowing river.

The cranes will roost.

And I will listen

for a sky full

of heart hauntings,

scanning the horizon

for a glimpse of hundreds –

dear friends

once again

making their descent,

some to sleep

in a sunflower seeded field

next door.

 

(Lily b has been singing and singing as I write this poem of imagining leading me to believe that next year the cranes and I will be together again – for those who do not follow this blog – Lily b is my 28 almost 29 year old telepathic dove – he literally reads my mind and responds vocally)

 

Working notes…

 

Yesterday I only saw ten cranes; this after witnessing huge flocks day after day for months. Overshadowed by mourning I wrote my way through loneliness with an essay on migration… At dawn a muted murmuring from the river brought me to an unlikely edge. Not all the cranes have departed – not yet I thought, having a sudden illumination that the few cranes that are left are leaving me with hope for an eventual reunion, although I have no idea how they are communicating this idea to me. All I know is that I felt the caul dissolve as I wrote this poem.

Departure

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I stood deep

in a toad hole

slinging mud

at twilight

when the sky

turned lemon

and gold.

They arced

over

my head

in pairs,

loose aggregations –

it seemed like thousands

crying out,

crossing

the river.

Ensouled.

Spirits defying

image or word.

 

A Mighty Migration begins…

 

I shivered.

Tears rose unbidden

Who calls them North?

I call out “I love you” –

Believing they know.

A crescent moon listens

cradled by nightfall.

 

To witness

a sky full

of Sandhill

Cranes

dark red heads

ebony eyes

long graceful necks

curved gray wings

dripping black legs

descending out of the blue

to roost

along this

winding Red

Willow River,

gracing fields

of depleted grain

is a Gift

given

at midnight;

the moment

before

departure.

 

This turning

of the wheel

births

days full of light

and an empty

sky bowl.

 

Haunting cries

in my ears

ring in the silence

of beloved crane absence

for another year.

 

 

Working notes:

 

As almost always (summer is the exception – no matter where I live I tire of too long days and too much heat) the shifting seasons bring me to an uncomfortable edge of personal awareness: It is hard for me to let go. Nature orchestrates this truth to me through her individuals… in this instance it is the leave – taking of the cranes that captures the essence of how loss operates in me… At first I resist. When I let go, I feel bereft. Eventually, I reach a state of acceptance.

 

This morning someone made a comment that said in effect that poetry is about extending human consciousness – making the unconscious conscious. I dislike the word “consciousness” because it conjures up new age – know it all – androcentric thinking – but when I substitute “awareness” for consciousness I know the sentiment is true. Poetry explicates feeling…it brings darkness into light.

 

When tears blurred my eyes last night I was grieving impermanence… the only constant is change, and Nature is my compass directing me towards “True North,” a state of “becoming,” my home. Not a place, but a state of being. It is astonishing to recognize that I have been seeking embodiment of this truth for the last forty years and is probably the main reason I have always lived my adult life near bodies of water.

 

To seek impermanence as a way of being is what it means to flow with the river, or float down a stream. What becomes crystal clear is that this way of being is just the opposite of being human (!) – to be a person is to have boundaries, to be bound by soul and skin. Allowing each of our boundaries to dissolve into all that is, and was, and will be, is a stretch for every human who lives, whether they preach flow or not. Dissolution means an end to what is, creating room for death to enter the river of life as a friend, even as a lover, and one who celebrates change. Spirit is part of every aspect of life.

 

In these days of Climate Change the Great Dying is the center core of each of our lives, acknowledged or not. The loss of non – human species will probably lead to our own eventual demise – not necessarily a bad thing, since humans have made such a mess of things. (I say probably because the future might be an unknown – what I do know is that things don’t look good from where I am standing).

 

But meanwhile, we have now, and the present is filled with beauty, awe, and wonder. For me the Cranes embody all these qualities… after they leave, other wonderful creatures/elements will take their place, perhaps toads or frogs…maybe even a sky full of rain…

 

Cranes are Elders in every sense of the word, ancient relatives and they continue on, some adapting, others following unknown scripts or patterns that stretch back to antiquity. The way they live, migrating out of seasonal necessity, returning to home – places, celebrating through community and song in life and death is a way of being that embodies flowing like a river… And for that, their magnificent beauty and inherent wisdom born of genuine community, I thank them.

 

Blessed be the Cranes…

 

A few words about the natural history of these birds…

 

Sandhill Cranes have been in their present state for 30 million years (perhaps modeling to humans what genuine community might consist of).

 

Most recently these birds have been a presence in my life since last November when they first arrived, I originally thought for a brief stopover, before moving south to places like the Bosque del Apache to spend the winter. When I first came to New Mexico two and half years ago I was astonished and bewildered by their haunting collective conversation even when I couldn’t see them which was most of the time… But this year the cranes not only arrived but many decided to spend the winter here much to my great joy, perhaps a result of Climate Change which is shifting their migration patterns, in some case dramatically.

 

For example, I recently learned that Sandhill Cranes have been seen in parts of Maine. Their normal migration routes take them from Mexico as far northwest as Siberia into the Canadian Shield and Alaska to breed with one major stopover in Nebraska at the Platte river (another group that settles further northeast makes a stop in Mississippi) where 600,000 cranes meet to rest themselves before making the last leg of their seasonal journey. In the fall all northern populations will make the trip south for the winter probably because of inclement weather and lack of food.

 

However, some groups spend their entire lives in one place like Florida, others are no longer migrating further south than Tennessee, although these too fly north in the spring. It is unusual to have cranes living in Northern New Mexico, although I understand that a few have sometimes remained here through the winter.

 

Not in these numbers though. When I first began to hear the cranes I never imagined that I would start to see them or watch them make gracious descents into a neighboring field at all times of the day, every day. But this is a gift that this winter has bestowed upon me, and one I have never taken for granted.

 

Beginning at dawn I listen for the first cranes murmurings, and most morning around 7 AM I see the first flock flying over the river, followed by others, often occurring later. One of the most fascinating aspects of Sandhill Crane behavior is the way they seem so intent upon communal living. They take to the air in pairs, small groups and huge flocks sometimes flying one way, then suddenly wheeling around in the sky to soar in the opposite direction! They never fly in formation like geese do (no one appears to lead), and yet they are in constant communication with each other, which currently begins about a half hour before dawn.

 

This morning a friend sent me an article about the cranes arriving earlier than usual for their seasonal stopover at the Platte River. I am not surprised. For about two weeks now the sense that migration will soon be under way surfaces each time I see or hear the cranes. I think my body already knows what’s coming…

What the Sandhill Cranes Told Me:

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“Enter our world:

Journey as we do

from South

to North.

You are not alone.

We must travel too.

Do not resist.

Do not mourn

the passing of winter

into the first fierce heat

of spring.

Migration for you

is for one season

out of four.

Follow the Night Bear,

North Country Woman.

Be soothed by the rain.

Listen for frog song.

Paddle on still waters,

Turn emerald green

under incandescent light.

Allow your aching eyes to rest.

Plant a new Cedar.

Sink her roots deep

breathe in “What Is”

with your heaped up heart.

Feel the Earth move

beneath your feet.

 

Two dreams warned you

last spring of the necessity

behind personal departure.

But you were unwilling to go.

You could not honor

your body’s truth

until you shrunk

into a skeleton

you did not know.

 

The truth is

that you have lived your life

in both worlds

long before you came here;

One was a winter desert oasis.

Another was forged

from evergreen fir

rising out of granite stone.”

 

 

Working notes:

 

For the past three months the Sandhill Cranes have been landing in the field next to my house, crying out in wonder and the joy of deep communion. They roost by Red Willow River each night.

 

When I visited the Bosque del Apache to see the cranes last November I was transported into another dimension. There was something about these migrating birds that made my heart sing, long before I began to pay attention to what my newest obsession with these particular birds might mean personally…

 

On my return from the Bosque these same cranes began to appear down by the river regularly, and even when I couldn’t see them I was haunted by their calls. After the golden cottonwood leaves drifted to Earth a magic portal opened into the neighboring field, and these birds began to visit me from there. I could hardly believe it. I watched them drift down and settle into the grasses to feed, their magnificent bowed wings acting like gliders as long twig like feet swayed and touched ground. And the cries of communal compassion struck home in my heart.

 

Why did they stay all winter?

 

This behavior on the part of the cranes might have been influenced by Climate Change or perhaps by some other unknown mechanism. Perhaps there are a number of reasons why they chose this place as home. But daily moments of joy struck and stunned me every time I heard or saw them. When winter finally touched our parched desert, snow fell – offering a brief reprieve from drought. By then I was seeing and hearing the cranes every single day beginning moments after the fires of dawn turned pale winter blue.

 

Now, we are at the first spring turning. The sun is becoming more intense, and the light hurts my eyes. For the past week I have been in a strange sort of mourning state because soon the cranes will be heading north to their next stopover in Nebraska before they head towards Canada, the Arctic, and Siberia. Every precious day that passes leaves me aching. I will miss them so.

 

Today I started to research migration to help me understand more about the Cranes seasonal journey, not realizing that by doing so, I was also trying to come to terms with a loss so dear to my heart. I know they have to go…

 

Just as I do.

 

Moments after I began my research a flock of cranes rose up in sky crying out as one voice as they flew over the house. That they knew I was thinking about them seemed obvious to me…and suddenly I had an insight: They were sending me a message.

 

Quickly, I shut down the research and wrote the above poem on a scrap of paper in my journal. Just as I completed the last lines a flock of at least forty cranes flew by the windows in front of the house. Their collective cries convinced me that I had absorbed the message they offered. I felt intense gratitude. My sadness has suddenly dissipated because of their words speak to comfort, truth and acceptance of who I am and what is.

 

I offer my deepest gratitude to these birds whose seasonal journey helps me come to terms with my own.