13 January 2010

Skeins of cranes

Evening flight, Bosque del Apache NWR, New Mexico

While we have had warm winds for a few days,seasonally we are still deep in midwinter, bleak or otherwise. By the calendar, winter ends at the spring equinox, March 21 or thereabouts. The snows may continue off and on until May, though, because prairie weather is unpredictable that way. The fiercest blizzard we have seen yet came on May 1, and the snowdrifts were melted two days later. So we don't put the cold-weather gear away in March.

Bosque del Apache NWR, New Mexico

For me, spring starts when the sandhill cranes drift in long skeins overhead, calling in a gentle trill constantly as they make their way back north to raise the next brood. It is an ancient pattern, as it is with most migratory birds. They spend the winter at the Texas coast, in southern New Mexico, and in other warm areas, congregating by the thousands.

Late November afternoon light, Bosque del Apache NWR, New Mexico

By April the cranes will be arriving up and down the banks of the Platte River and its tributaries in Nebraska, as thery have done for centuries. Sandhill cranes are the oldest known extant genus of birds in North America, and their fossils are found in Nebraska, long before there was a Platte. They have an ancient lineage.

Cranes in a field, Hershey, Nebraska

During the winter, they feed and grow. By the time they arrive on the still-chilly wetlands of the Platte, they are courting. Courtship consists of wild jumps and dances, unexpected in birds so tall and stately. Snow may be on the ground, but it is crane spring.

Crane dances, Hershey, Nebraska

The three bird songs that define the prairie for me are those of the sandhill cranes, killdeer, and meadowlarks. Spring is the crane call time.

Crane dances, Hershey, Nebraska

Their scientific genus name, Grus, sounds just like their call, and goes back to Sanskrit, an ancient lineage in itself. Where cranes fly, it seems, people have always watched and listened. You hear them before you see them, and their migration marks a change in the seasons. Our cranes are passing through to their northern breeding grounds in spring, calling to each other constantly, gently.

Platte River at sunrise, minutes before crane-rise

Of all the birds I have ever seen, cranes are the ones I most deeply love. I have grown up with that sound and was ready to live within earshot of it again. Wildlife refuges all up and down the Plains are stopping places for these elegant birds.

Today I'm really ready for them. They are three months away, in the warm places and golden light, waiting for that ancient and mysterious signal to fly into the cold and bring spring with them.

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