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With the Sandhill Cranes 2008: Part Two: A Good Friday


It is the day after the equinox, Good Friday to boot, and I suppose this is our celebration, since watching wildlife is as close as we get to spirituality. We are in the viewing area about quarter to seven this morning. There are three or four cars and a few people with cameras and scopes already set up in the pull-out. The sun is still behind the Sangre de Christos, but it is light enough to see the birds roosting. Steam rises around them.

Sandhill cranes begin to stir with the sunrise in Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge.

Sandhill cranes begin to stir with the sunrise in Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge.

Most aren’t moving yet, or if they are, just beginning to stir or preen. (Click on the photo at the top to get the idea. La Veta Pass is between the two ranges, Mt. Blanca on the left.) But as the minutes wear on, they begin to move around more freely. From the further reaches of the refuge, cranes begin to rise. A few from in front of us join them. Others are jumping in anticipation. The energy level rises with the sound of their cries, and soon it is as if the ones in the air are screaming at the others to get off their cartilages and join them.

About 7:15 we drive over to Eight Mile Road, pull off the side of the road and just let the birds waft over us. This is the greatest thrill, to see the birds honking overhead, getting into formation, occasionally running into each other as they head off. They rarely fly directly overhead, but sometimes they are low and close enough that you can hear the quiet, almost mechanical whoosh-whoosh of their wings beating. Wow.

Our friend Kathy, who first turned us on to the crane phenomenon, had suggested driving farther south on Gunbarrel Road. We took off, passing more small farms and ranches. Behind one ranch house, there are literally thousands of cranes standing out there amongst the cattle – a real sight. The pavement ends. The ranches disappear. A sign offered lots two miles off a dirt road near the foothills. We wind up next to a field with junked cars lined up to the horizon. In front of the trailer home where, I assume, the owner lives, there are some metal crane art pieces. I didn’t get a very good photo with the iPhone.

I really had fun with the iPhone camera app, though. It is desperately simple, takes excellent photos, and I found it an invaluable device for recording a trip like this. The photos came out better than I expected, and for someone who likes to document travel, this is as easy as it gets.

After breakfast at the Mountain View Restaurant, we head back out to the refuge. Last year we found a large group of birds along a road in a field and watched them during the day as they mingled, ate and danced in the high grain. But today there is no high grass and no birds, either, on the eastern road inside the refuge.

It was top for a nap, but soon, after stopping for some coffee and a donut at Don Thomas Bakery, we were back in the refuge. Arriving about four p.m. at the circle area on the south end on Eight Mile Road, we set up and get more than an hour’s worth of intense crane interaction. Birds are flying in and out all over the place; it kinda reminds me of a SXSW afternoon schmoozing session for cranes.

We get ample opportunity to watch the birds take off and land. It seems so effortless. Some glide in from high above, falling out of the sky, dropping their legs as they get closer to the ground to slow their descent. Just before they hit, they flop their wings a couple of times and land in a quiet flutter. Some glide in like bullets on a straight line across the field not fifteen feet off the ground before the characteristic leg dropping, fluttering and landing.

Taking off seems just as easy. A couple of hops and they are airborne, and those flapping engines take them easily into the air and upward. They bark at each other as they organize their formations. Sometimes one bird, sometimes two, often many more, head off together. Apparently, cranes, who mate for life, also travel in family groups.

Far above us, another group of maybe 50 cranes are circling. They are up high enough that they are difficult to spot with the naked eye unless the sun is just right. With the binocs, you can watch them speeding up, gliding and slowing down so each can maintain his/her position in the circle. It’s mesmerizing to watch, a crane merry-go-round in the sky.

After asking a guy to move his car and stop approaching the birds with his camera, a ranger walks over and watches the high flyers with us for a few minutes. Nobody really knows what they are doing up there, but his theory is that the birds are circling to check the winds, and if they find a good thermal going in the right direction and the time is right, some might take off for the north, toward their breeding grounds.

Dinner tonight is at Baldo’s, the Mexican restaurant Kathy suggested. It was great. And then back out to the refuge for the fourth time today. It is still warm as the sun pokes in and out of clouds above the peaks before setting, and again we get to watch waves of cranes taking off and dispersing into the night. You can’t ask more; the cranes have behaved perfectly all day.

March 21, 2008
Monte Vista, Colorado

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