Sandhill Cranes and Friends – Day One
I worry you will think less of me, but… I admit it publicly, I’m just not an animal person. I’m surrounded by people who adore their fur friends, and have wonderful stories of the deep love for these family members. But after our long ago dog ran off for the last time, I was done. My growing family and busy life left no time or desire for the care involved – cleaning the fur, shit, and fleas, the vet bills, taking walks at inconvenient times, and another mouth to feed. I’ll admire your cat and laugh at their antics. I’ll play fetch with your dog and enjoy their sweet nature. I’m glad for the love you share, but it’s not for me.
So I was surprised to find how much I like birds these days. I blame the pandemic (the answer to everything). While I don’t have bird feeders in my yard (yet), I enjoy watching their habits, their beauty and colors, the varied flight patterns, their mating rituals and nesting practices. I put peanuts out for the nervous scrub jays and find myself sweet-talking them.
I keep going to wildlife refuges, where unlike other wild or domestic animals, the birds live parallel to us and in plain sight, but without needing us (and would be better off without us). Their songs lighten my mood, their flight lifts my heart, their survival against the odds of weather and predators is inspiring, their feathers and colors are magnificent. Some mate for life. Migratory birds instinctually answer to an ancient call, even in their first winter.
Ever since reading about the magical Nebraska Sandhill Crane migration in Richard Powers’ The Echo Maker, I’ve wanted to see them gather in large numbers. When I heard that they wintered nearby, and that the Columbia Land Trust was inviting the public to hear all about them, I jumped on it.
I’m using some of Alan’s fantastic photos from a real camera,
and you should go see them all here
They come our way every September from Alaska via the Pacific Flyway, the north-south skyway highway for migrating birds, and then return north in April. More than a thousand of them spend the winter at Cranes’ Landing in Vancouver, Washington.
With our 10 year old bird-enthusiast granddaughter, we crossed the Columbia River in a cold downpour. What a thrill to stand alongside this expanse of land covered with Snow Geese, Canada Geese and Sandhill Cranes. Our first glimpse was the glowing ultra-white Snow Geese (noticing that their wing tips are black). They outshone the gray and tan cranes that blended with the terrain of dried stalks and weeds. But the cranes stood out with their 4-foot height (Oregon’s tallest bird), graceful movements, and bright red heads, a crowning glory.
The details can only be seen through binoculars, but the bugle rattling clattering call of the crane is electrifying. They have a pre-historic look to them, and in fact have been around for at least 2 ½ million years, since the Ice Age. Their feathers fan out in a bustle, giving them a comical look as their heads bend to probe the earth and graze.
But to watch them majestically take off and soar, or wheel around for a landing, is to stand in awe, rooted. Either in small groups or en masse, they rise like a wave, ascend skyward with wings spread six feet across, legs streaming straight behind like a kite tail, long neck stretched out ahead, perhaps a way of balancing out their proportions. As they approach land once more, their feet come down like landing gear, their wings arch gracefully, and they lightly touch down.
These cranes travel 1300 miles in a single week, without food or sleep. Various sites to the north pass along the news – “they’re coming, get ready!” and my mind goes (again) to the Lord of the Rings, and the Beacons of Gondor, signals along a path.
The cranes are omnivores, and feed on invertebrates, roots, and small mammals, and the land trust people plant corn, wheat, and alfalfa to replicate the environment that cranes flock to in Nebraska, as a way to expand their shrinking habitat. It’s been trial and error since they started in 2016, learning what encourages the cranes to eat without fear of predators, while also not “baiting” the birds.
As we listened to our speaker, Rosa, a think out loud child, interjected her own observations, theories, and calculations, having read up in advance about loss of habitat and crane behavior. The speaker was pleasant and encouraging, and she was alive and alert, and ready for it all. Homeschooling in action, and gratifying to share this passion.
The rain and cold finally defeated us. We continued on to Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, where birdwatching happens in the car – a rolling bird blind – in a slow four mile loop. Otters swam and played along a stream. Rosa finally saw Red-winged Blackbirds, which she’s been waiting for since she began birdwatching a year ago. A bald eagle and kestrel flew overhead, and there were plenty of ducks, swans, and geese.
Still raining, heater blasting, we made it once around by the time the sun dipped down, so we headed home in the dark, rainy traffic. Tired, damp, and excited by all we’d seen, we found one more miracle. My daughter was pulling freshly baked cinnamon rolls out of the oven.
Coming up: our second visit to the cranes, and better weather, sort of
Watch this short video of the beauty of cranes and geese
Here’s a much longer video to learn more about cranes and this protection project