Leaves turning from green to gold and russet, nippy mornings, and blue skies tinged with just a hint of gun metal gray leave no doubt that autumn has arrived, delivering its basket of harvest goodies. Many of us see the colors of fall and feel the changes in the daily temperatures, but few catch the haunting notes of autumn’s unusual song, trumpeted through the long larynxes of thousands of migrating sandhill cranes.
These same cranes flying over by the hundreds of thousands herald the first warm days of spring each year as they fly north to their staging areas on the Platte River and later to nesting areas on the Alaskan and Canadian tundra. Then each fall they tug winter’s frosty blasts behind them as they wing their ways overhead on their return to the playa lakes of South Texas and Eastern New Mexico.
Long before I see them, I hear that hoarse, rattling, trumpet that only a bird with a three foot long, curved larynx could make. It is an old song, one that has possibly been heard for 65 million years, with at least 10 million of those years in the region of what is now Nebraska. Some part of my brain, perhaps a segment that evolved eons ago when human footsteps were still new in the dust of this planet, responds to these lyrical notes. Who knows? What I do know is that like folks who play “name that song” games on the radio, I need only hear a note or two to distinguish the song of the lesser sandhill crane from other migrating birds flying south.
I first heard it this fall as I opened the car door after work one October evening. Leaving the pots of still blooming petunias, moss roses, and geraniums and the canopy of golden leaves shading the drive, I hurried into open pasture where I could scan the sky easily to search for the almost reptilian shape of these long necked, long-legged birds. After seeing their flight silhouettes, it isn’t hard to imagine these birds as prehistoric creatures. Soon I could determine that their flight path took them east of my position in the open field. I noted the slow wing beat and the careless grace of a couple hundred birds winging their way south. The sun would have set that night somewhere between six-thirty and seven. These birds had another good hour of flight before darkness descended.
Keeping the cranes in view as long as I could, I silently wished them a safe journey with plenty of food on their way to the shallow lakes of their winter homes. Just as I could hear them before I saw them, the last notes of their chorus faded after they had faded from sight. For a moment I wondered if I had imagined seeing these magical birds on their migration south. Then I heard the arriving notes of another flock winging its way along the same path.
By the next morning, I knew why I had heard the crane song so loud and clear the night before. The birds were literally racing a cold front sweeping in from the North. We awakened to a frosty world where ice imprisoned the bright blooms of the previous evening and etched windows and lawn furniture with fanciful designs.
Every now and then when I am outside, I catch the faint notes of stragglers following their fellow cranes south. I wish them the same good fortune I wished their swifter fellows. At the same time, I long to hear that ancient song announcing the arrival of another spring.