Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Taking Flight

or Against the Sun

Perhaps it's because I'm usually there on winter afternoons when the sun is low enough to catch in feathery seed heads and dried grass stems, or perhaps it's because those afternoons glow for weeks in my memory, but I always think of days in the bosque—the wooded area along the Rio Grande—as backlit days, seen against a scrim of radiant light.

I had heard some sandhill cranes fly over the garden on Saturday, headed due north, so high that they could barely be seen—so high that they weren't just moving from one cornfield to the next but had to be set for the long haul.  They were probably just the vanguard of the migration to come, but in the next few weeks the cranes will be taking flight in earnest.  I will miss their creaky purr once they go—they are among my favorites.  So, wanting to see them once more before they leave, I took advantage of the three-day weekend to spend an afternoon at the Bernardo Unit of the Ladd S. Gordon Waterfowl Complex about 50 miles south of Albuquerque. 

The cranes were there in the thousands.  The thousands.  I cannot get over the sheer numbers of them.  With my car parked on a dirt road between wetlands on one hand and a cornfield on the other, I sat on the hood for over an hour and—I can't even say "watched" them.  I experienced them flying past from pond to field.  A grouping of a dozen, then another, a few odd strays, another dozen, perhaps a hundred birds a minute.  A brief pause, enough for a handful of breaths.  Then another series of small groups, another hundred birds.  A pause.  Another group, stream after stream after stream.

And all the while that purr is filling the air, first on one side, then another, from one V higher up, another farther out—and then suddenly a group flies past in silence, so that you can hear the air whistling through their wings, beating with each downstroke.  Their shadows play along the ground, while light shimmers off their wingtips against the sun; the red spot gleams on their foreheads.

A little later, from a bird blind overlooking the wetlands:  the cranes can't see me and are no longer veering to one side or flying high in wariness.  I am surrounded by rushing wings and that primal, throaty call.  The thrill of wildness runs through me—heart leaping, I find myself wanting to shout, "Yes!  Yes!  Wait for me, I'm coming!"

(Fortunately, they are just going to the next corn field, and I can follow in my car.)

Later still, between wetlands and cornfield once again, I am waiting for sunset—a sunset free of telephone wires and rooftops and antenna towers.  Shortly before the sun skims the horizon, the curfew sounds from every voice at once, not only from the cranes but also from ducks and geese and songbirds and crows, a free-for-all of a warning bell.  The fields take flight as bird after bird returns to the water side of the road to roost, their silhouettes dark, almost shapeless against the lowering sun.

At one moment, overhead I can see all their different models of flight at once:  the frantic wingbeats of ducks, the air singing shrilly around them; the Canada geese flapping just as frantically, but on a larger scale; the steady thrum of the cranes, their wingtips turned gracefully upward even as they struggle for more height; a flock of blackbirds rising and falling in clouds, like the day's ashes blown on the wind; and above them all, a lone hawk circling, its wings from the distance looking perfectly still.

In a haze of gold, backlit by the sun, the cranes are returning home.


  1. Wow. I spent one of the most magical nights of my life camping on a platform in Okefenokee Swamp (GA) last winter. There was a storm of lashing wind and rain, alligators slapping around in the water, and sandhill cranes! so many cranes! They made noise all night and kept blowing over the tent (or so it seemed to me) - they were amazing. So I think I know just what you mean when you say you experienced them, rather than saw them. The sunset roosting must have been wonderful.

  2. Stacy! This is exquisite writing. You are a wonderful storyteller. I did feel as if I were there with you in the field hearing all the calls and seeing the glowing sun on wings and the shadow plays. What a beautiful sanctuary you have to visit. Beautiful photos too! What a thrilling day you had.

  3. Zoe, that sounds like an amazing experience - just to be in the midst of *wildness* like that. With the cranes I keep thinking about a line from a Peter Wimsey mystery, where he says, "How fleeting are all human passions compared with the massive continuity of ducks." (It needs a little more context to do it justice...) Somehow they give you that delicious sense of smallness compared to the vast scope of nature.

    Carol, thank you so much! It really was a thrilling day - I'm glad I could convey some of that.

  4. Wow, yes. Now that you have shown me the birds I am even more amazed by talk of hunting sandhill cranes. Worse still, they say, they make good eating. Me, I'm a vegetarian.

  5. That was beautiful! What an experience that must have been. I felt like I was there--- reading your words.



  6. Diana, my sister and I were watching them once and ended up getting an earful from the man next to us about how good cranes taste. Not what we wanted to listen to! If you're interested, here's a link to a short video someone took at Bosque del Apache - "dqtaz" really captured them well.

    Elaine, thank you - I'm so glad you enjoyed it. It's a pleasure to have people to share such wonderful experiences with.

  7. Thanks Stacy - that video was magical. Wondering what you and your sister said to him? But then we were stuck, politely in a birdhide, with an idiot who seized the opportunity to tell us his life story ...

    (you are, aren't you, getting more readers, and more comments?!)

  8. Diana, my sister and I did a lot of polite but discouraging "mmm-hmm"ing, because he seemed inclined to talk. (And talk.) He may also have been showing off just a little bit...?

    Definitely more readers, and more comments in different places. It's nice. :)

  9. I'm not sure where you are, but I'm in Nebraska. The cranes will be 90 minutes west of here in a week or two, in the tens of thousands. I must see them before I move away! How you feel about them is how I feel about geese. I swear one of these days I'm going to drive off the road staring at low geese formations through my car's sunroof. Take my breath away.

  10. Benjamin, I'm in New Mexico. Whenever I've Googled sandhill cranes, every other site that pops up always seems to be either from NM or NE, although I suspect we get different crews. Yes, yes, do go see them! I would never have thought that my happiness could be so affected by a bird. Fortunately, people build preserves for cranes, so I can see them without endangering myself and others in fast-moving vehicles, but no one seems to set aside special areas for geese. Be careful out there!

  11. Stacy,

    You blog is beautiful and te images in this post are stunning, I am glad Jean recommended it. Best, Lula

  12. Lula, thank you so much - I'm really just a glorified point-and-shooter, especially compared to your painstaking work. Thanks for visiting.

    First they want to hunt them in Tennessee, now in Kentucky?!

  14. Aargh! I can totally understand the occasional "cull" in the absence of natural predators, but why does that never seem to be the point? Thanks for the link, Diana. :-/

  15. A beautiful post, recommended by Elephant's Eye. I don't know why they catch our imaginations the way they do--except sheer beauty and wildness.

  16. Ecological Gardening, thank you. I don't know quite why either, but sheer beauty and wildness comes close.