At my Sunday sanctuary the sermons are long and loud and the choir numbers in the thousands. Each Sunday we visit nearby Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area, winter home to over 20,000 Sandhill Cranes, to watch the cranes and answer the public’s questions about them. The cranes leave the shallow playa lake at first light each morning and fly fifteen to twenty miles to the valley’s corn fields. The corn has been long since harvested but the mechanical harvesters leave plenty behind for the cranes and they spend the morning gleaning the farmer’s fields, fertilizing as they go. I must admit, I am rarely there for the morning flight, but I know that by noon the cranes will have filled their crops and begin winging back to the playa lake. And I will be there waiting for the mid-day flight.
From the observation platforms at the wildlife area we scan the skies for what looks like distant puffs of smoke on the northern horizon. Gradually these dark clouds resolve into dots recognizable as flock after flock of returning cranes. Eventually we hear the distinctive bugling call ringing through the cold winter air and soon the air is full of cranes as these graceful four foot tall birds begin to wheel and drop to the edge of the shallow water. They drop their long legs and raise their heads to slow their airspeed until they reach stall speed and begin to slowly parachute to the ground.
Within the flocks of thousands it is easy to discern the fundamental unit of crane society, the family. Little groups of two to four cranes, the adults and last year’s young, fly together. Sometimes we can hear the high cheeping of the youngsters that haven’t yet grown the long trombone-shaped syrinx required to make the bugle. The cranes spend the rest of the day relaxing, digesting their corn and just loafing.
Next month the cranes will begin to head north. Several years ago we were lucky enough to spot a crane wearing satellite transmitter. We noted the number on the transmitter and, with a little detective work, we were soon in touch with the researcher who had tagged the bird. He sent us a map that showed our bird’s travels and we were delighted to see that the bird we had spotted was one of the approximately 10% of the Lesser Sandhill Cranes that travel across the Bering Strait to Siberia to nest, a flight of over four thousand miles. The departing of the Sandhill Cranes is bittersweet. I miss our Sundays together but if the cranes are headed north, can the arriving Swainson’s Hawks, warblers and hummingbirds be far behind?