Wintering With Cranes
In the presence of 20,000 birds of an ancient species, each creature statuesque and as tall as my shoulder, there is a calm like no other. On this day in this place, the winter sun is benevolent and the air is clear. I stand with the Sandhill Cranes beside spring-fed ponds in a 1300 square-mile valley. Together we feel the planet slowly turning. This wide-open landscape formed some 17 million years ago in the Miocene. My own species dates some 200,000 years back, but the cranes have spun a virtually unchanged thread of life for more than 2 million years. I stand with beings that have spanned epochs.
This is the Basin and Range country of the American Southwest. The down-dropped valley that lies between 7000- to 9000-foot mountains came into being some 17 million years ago when the very crust of the earth spread, pulling the craggy mountain ranges apart, and creating closed watershed basins of vast proportions. Greater and Lesser Sandhill Cranes must have found this spot and a few others like it, ages ago. It suited their winter needs, providing moderate temperatures, food, and water to sleep in as protection against predators. From their summer breeding grounds in the northern Rocky Mountains and further north they kept coming. The individuals here today, calling to each other, preening, flying out to feed in grasses and grains throughout the valley, carry knowledge in their bones, those long leg bones that wade in the shallows and that trail behind their bodies in flight. Their recent history, containing memories of the annual migrations of their own lifetimes, is carried in their minds. Geological history resides in their DNA.
When I arrive here at daybreak, I watch the cranes lift from the ponds, each pair and their young, circling, twirling and calling in clear, loud tones. Soon thousands fill the air, forming a swirling musical calliope in the sky, until groups fly off in varied directions to forage in the winter stubble of the fields. In late morning, as the cranes start to return, just a few of them approach, flying high across the wide valley. Graceful fliers with five-foot wingspans, they come closer, circling for landing, testing the breeze before they touch down. Next, ten more arrive. Suddenly hundreds return, their calls filling the sky and their wing beats becoming a primal drumming. It is a spectacle as large as this expanse of open land, and seemingly as old and constant as time itself.
The growing throng on the ground condenses, expands, and shifts in waves to accommodate more individuals landing, always calling, calling, to keep family units together. After a brief rest, some of the cranes fly out again to feed, while others stay in the shallows through the afternoon, all facing the same direction like a congregation in prayer. The cranes are facing into the breeze in take-off formation, to escape in an instant if a marauding hawk or eagle comes by.
At dusk all the cranes have returned to the ponds. As they fold their enormous wings and find their places among the softly milling thousands, sunset brings a sense of physical tiredness and quiet to us all. In the darkness, the planet makes its transit against the starry sky. Tomorrow will bring another chance to soar with the cranes and to engage with them in a dance of eons.
Mary Walker grew up in a small town in the mountains of northern Pennsylvania. After migrating southward down the chain of those same Appalachian Mountains to Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee, she retired in Arizona. She has been an environmental chemist and a private pilot. She now watches birds, and plays and teaches mountain dulcimer.