Monday, March 14, 2011

Sandhill Cranes at Bosque del Apache

If going to Bosque del Apache (the Woods of the Apache) in New Mexico taught me one thing, it's that there is a place on this Earth for all approaches to life; there is a niche for every creature, no matter what its disposition. The relaxed and unhurried, the frantic and driven; the casually sociable, the desperately communal. Take the wintering Snow Geese. They huddle close together on the ice for the night, and the very first instant the sun hits them, they pop up, one by one in rapid succession, as if someone flipped a switch --

And all at once, as if they were each a part of one much larger creature, they snap into the air, with a deafening, disorienting, exhilarating beating of wings. They have fields to eat their way through, and they must do it NOW, with everybody else.

I love Snow Geese. I've loved them ever since I read "The Snow Goose" by Paul Gallico when I was a kid. I liked the idea of being that migrating Snow Goose, having the freedom to fly away and then return each year to the friendly man in the old lighthouse who'd saved it from hunters. But at Bosque del Apache, I had to admit that I am nothing like a Snow Goose at all. The Sandhill Crane lifestyle is much more my speed.

A half hour or so later, most of them are still clacking around on the frozen pond, doing a slow-motion tap dance. No rush for them. There is preening to do. And spying --

They don't feel the need to conform and all fly at once. It's an individual choice, it seems. But there is a lot of umming and ahhing about it. First there is the pitching forward of the neck. They always pitch themselves forward like this when they are about to take off. But the simple fact that a bird is pitching itself forward does not mean it's about to fly. No, it might well change its mind. What is it waiting for? Who knows.

Well, there is more preening and spying to do.

Wings to stretch.

And talking. A lot of talking. Sandhill Cranes are very chatty.

Eventually, a bird will not only pitch forward but will move to the next phase and actually take a few loping strides forward across the ice and begin to lift off -- with all the lightness of a C-130 cargo plane. There is a kind of uplift, but then after a few flaps there is a moment when you think "No, it can't possibly get fully airborne," but then after a few more flaps, the bird is arcing through the sky gracefully -- yet making a call that sounds like a person joyously and enthusiastically trying to play the bugle for the first time.

That the Apache camping here hundreds of years ago probably watched the ancestors of these birds do exactly this just makes it all the more extraordinary to witness.


  1. Great capture!

    Kah Wai

  2. Thanks! The good thing about them taking a while to get off the ground is that I didn't do my usual thing of standing there going "oh wow, look at that!" and forgetting to take a picture.

  3. Your reflections on the cranes are lovely - for me, they are a sign of spring here in Minnesota when I see them flying overhead. I had that treat last week, even though winter is making another run at us today! I love your writing style, too - it reminds me of my own meditations on birds, as envoys of greater realities!

  4. Envoys of greater realities -- what a beautiful phrase. How lucky you are to have them fly over at the start of spring. (I get excited here when the Song Sparrows and the Red-wings start singing!)

  5. Your very chatty crane shot is superb, and really made my day! Thanks. Frank

  6. Great photographs! And perfect story! I also like both Snow Geese and Sandhill Cranes.

  7. Thanks, Alexander, they are really amazing birds!