Last summer I was envious of my son, who had a breeding pair of sandhill cranes at his farm in Wisconsin. He sent me pictures of the pair with their gawky colt, but when I went to visit, they were nowhere to be found. I’d never seen one in the wild, so I was disappointed.
Sandhill cranes are five-foot-tall elegant gray birds with a red cap. They are migrators who winter in Mexico or the southwestern U.S., and then travel north. Some stop in Minnesota, but others continue on to Canada, Alaska and even Siberia.
As my husband and I were planning a winter trip to Tucson, we found references to the Bernardino Wildlife Refuge south of Albuquerque, New Mexico. It is a well-known area where sandhill cranes spend their winters. It sounded like a worthwhile diversion on a long road trip.
Sometimes these side trips turn out to be a bust, but not this one. Being Minnesotans, we had warm clothing and we needed it. It was only 6 degrees when we arrived at the refuge at sunrise. The road through the area has a couple of elevated watching platforms and one that is built like a blind. From the first two viewing areas we saw many of the 20,000 cranes in the distance. They woke up, started trumpeting, and clouds of them headed off to find breakfast.
We thought that was pretty impressive until we got to the third viewing area where we were so close, we could see, hear and even smell the birds. They were everywhere. We watched their breath escape in the cold air as they exhaled. We laughed at individual birds practicing their dancing skills while others were slipping and sliding crossing the frozen pond. It was an absolutely amazing experience.
Besides 20,000 sandhill cranes, there were an equal number of bright white snow geese wintering there. Between the two, the noise was deafening. When a freight train passed on the far side of the field, we couldn’t even hear it.
Waves of cranes would take off trumpeting, while the geese took off honking. The two groups would crisscross their V formations, following the patterns of some intricately choreographed ballet. For a moment, the cranes would be loudest, then the geese would up their volume. The surround sound was better than anything you’d ever hear in a theater.
I took hundreds of horrible pictures on my cell phone while envying the hardcore birders with their 800mm telephoto lenses. Once my fingers were totally frozen, I gave up, put my hands in my pockets and just enjoyed the totality of the experience.
In the midst of this cacophony, I looked down and spotted one brightly colored pheasant who looked like he was just casually trying to blend in with the cool kids. It was just an awe-inspiring experience.
A couple months later, as the sandhill cranes were becoming just a vacation memory, we heard a raucous noise coming from the small marsh behind our house. It was a pair of sandhill cranes. Right here in Savage!
I quickly grabbed my camera and got more horrible pictures. This pair was good at hiding behind the tree branches. But I could still glimpse parts of them, and I could certainly hear them squawking at each other and flapping their wings in what I assume was their mating dance. Is it possible these birds followed me home? Did they know how much I enjoyed seeing them in New Mexico? OK, probably not, but I still felt privileged.
Grabbing the bird book and heading to the internet, I started reading up on sandhill cranes.
They are large, weighing 7-14 pounds. Except for a couple unique species in the southeast, they are amazing migrators who can cover 200 miles a day and travel up to 5,000 miles. Most of them stop in March to refuel in central Nebraska.
Half a million cranes pass through the Platte River Valley on their annual flight north. They hang around there for a few weeks, putting on weight for the remainder of their migration. 500,000 birds! That is 25 times as many as we saw in New Mexico. Next year, a trip to Nebraska is on the top of my bucket list.
Meanwhile, our local cranes woke us up like an alarm clock at 6:30 a.m. As the days got longer, it crept back to 5:15 a.m. They were incredibly loud, but I didn’t mind the opportunity to head out the back door in my pajamas for one more glance at my gigantic friends.
Then, days went by when we didn’t see them at all. Sometimes they’d stop by for a brief visit, but now it’s been over a week with no sightings. I hope they’ve found a safe place to nest.
With any luck, maybe they’ll stop by to show off their baby sometime before they head south for the winter. If not, I’ll be looking for them on the Platte River next spring.