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.