Leaves changing colors and a sudden nip in the air proclaim autumn has arrived more forcefully than any calendar. With that change comes an ancient song. Like steps on the porch announcing a visitor, this song is the sound of summer leaving and fall approaching. Autumn’s musicians herald ice storms and frosts that will finish lingering tomatoes and late summer blooms.
When I arrived home from work, sandhill cries caught my ear. Knowing exactly what I heard, I moved to an open area where I could spy these primeval harbingers of spring and fall as they headed for the playas, or shallow lakes, of West Texas and Eastern New Mexico.
I heard the music long before I spied the musicians. A raucous combination of croaks, rattles, trumpets, and high-pitched cries announced another vanguard of cranes racing South ahead of the incoming cold front. With their distinctive long necks leading their gangly legs that trailed behind them, this awkward choir flew and sang. My ovation lasted long after they passed out of sight.
After spending a little time learning something about lesser sandhill cranes and migrating myself to Kearney, Nebraska, to observe cranes in their spring staging area, sandhills have cast their spell and caught me in their magic.
Aldo Leopold captures a bit of their mystique his book A Sand County Almanac. “A new day has begun on the crane marsh…Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language. The quality of cranes lies, I think, in this higher gamut, as yet beyond the reach of words.”
Part of their magic is because cranes have existed in a similar form for at least sixty-five million years. One site states that “fossil evidence indicates the sandhill crane has been part of Nebraska’s fauna for at least ten million years.” What a strand in the tapestry of existence! According to many researchers, humans have only been in
North America for 13,000
Another aspect of their magic is that hundreds of thousands of three and a half foot tall birds with six foot wing-spans know to fly each year to sand bars and riverine features between Kearney and North Platte, Nebraska. In this exact place, they find essential nutrients to fuel their migrations to and from Canada and Alaska where they nest and hatch young on the tundra.
Hearing autumn’s song reminds crane watchers to schedule a spring trip to the Platte. Gabbles of thousands of cranes rising from the river in morning mists or coming in from surrounding cornfields at dusk to descend on the sandbars creates a fraction of a moment where the watcher is woven into that ancient tapestry of million-year-old migrations.