Since I just returned from another fabulous trip to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico, I thought I’d post this article I had published a couple years ago about its magic. The bird count this year is 32,000 geese and 9000 cranes, but that’s the only change. You can see many more photos of the birds on my Facebook page.
“Wildness incarnate,” conservationist Aldo Leopold called the sandhill crane. Standing at the marsh edge in the freezing January wind, I close my eyes and feel his meaning as a cascade of plaintive hoots sets my brain afire. A group of sandhills flying overhead, headed for their evening’s refuge, is the source of this eerie anthem. The sound is unlike any other birdsong I know—primitive, strange, and heartfelt, it evokes an era and its creatures long since vanished. Yet the cranes are still here, very much alive after more than two and a half million years on earth. They may be even older: some fossil evidence from Nebraska suggests the sandhill crane may be ten million years old, the current version little changed from that ancient prototype. Unlike the dinosaurs, however, they have somehow managed to escape time.
I’ve come to southern New Mexico to see and photograph the migratory birds over-wintering at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. This means mainly snow geese (an estimated 48,000 “light geese” this week, according to the posting at the visitor’s center) and sandhill cranes, though there are other waterfowl and shorebirds here, and a handful of bald eagles. The geese are spectacular, rising en masse from an icy pond at first light amid a literal thunder of wings that fills the rosy sky mere feet above my head. The din conjures a freight train in the frozen air, and the first time I hear it I look around for one, not realizing that it is the rush of feathers assaulting my ears. All around me on the observation deck, gasps of wonder and amazement escape from seasoned birders and photographers and first-timers alike.
But it is the cranes that captivate me: roughly 13,000 are in the refuge at the moment, every one a beautiful enigma. Necks out straight and wings spread to the limit, they trail their legs behind as they travel from their daytime feeding grounds to the pond they have chosen for the night. Watching them land is a delight, and often I find myself not even reaching for my camera—though that is the reason I am out here like a fool, shivering in the wind chill and bemoaning the icy needles tormenting my fingertips—the better to enjoy the sight of their wings tenting upward as they spot a likely landing site, followed by those legs! Those long crazy legs now stick straight down, prehistoric toes spread wide like forks, as the cranes spiral slowly to the water. The ballet is the same every time, and I never tire of it, this odd vestige choreographed back in the Pleistocene.
Sandhill cranes are large birds, weighing in at roughly 7-10 pounds and with a wingspan that can be five to seven feet, depending on the subspecies. On land—and especially on ice—they are gawky, even hesitant in movement. This is most affecting as they tap their toes against thin ice in the low-slanted early morning light, gauging whether it is thick enough to run and lift off from. Satisfied that it will bear their weight, they lean forward ever farther till it seems they must pitch over headfirst. A few more tentative steps forward, a few more degrees of tilt, they inch across the ice, toes still tapping. Just at the point where you think capsizing is inevitable, the wings bow upward in a feathered arc. Legs and wings begin to churn, and suddenly there is liftoff. Watching it reminds me of being on an airplane, trying to feel the precise moment when the wheels lose contact with the tarmac: it always catches me like perfect magic. One moment you are rooted, solid, and the next—without ability to name it—you are loose, weightless, flat earth slipping out the corner of your eye.
Once the sandhills are aloft their gawkiness morphs into grace, as anyone who has seen it will attest. The goofy tuft of feathers on their rump, so odd and frumpy when the birds are earthbound, becomes elegant and streamlined in the air. The long neck and legs fuse in one elongation punctuated by slow beats: up, down, up, down, up, down. Unlike the geese, whose rapid wingbeats seem more than a little frantic, the cranes have a laid-back flying cadence. Feathers at their wingtips fan out wide to catch the currents. The long downbeat is unhurried and imposing, huge wings like hushed grey blankets descending through thick air, while the upstroke is more lively and ephemeral. As the wings rise, widespread feathers at each wingtip are etched with burnished back-light. Coupled with the cranes’ haunting cries, this flight pattern is a spell that binds. I know I should raise my camera and get to work, but I just can’t, not yet. Time enough after this batch passes, or the next, or perhaps tomorrow morning.
One morning there is mist, some odd conjunction of warm sun the afternoon before and chill pre-dawn air causing it to rise from the ice like spirits seeking consolation. The cranes huddle in the cold, resting on one leg with the other folded up against the body. Many have their heads tucked under one wing, turning them into an orchard of fuzzy lollipops planted in the ice. Others preen their rump feathers, narrow bills darting here and there to put them right. The mist turns mazy orange as the sun begins its morning circuit, and the mass of birds is silhouetted in breathtaking luminosity. In front of the cranes are rows and rows of snow geese seated on the ice, heads popping up in random agitation to show against the coral-shaded mist. I’d seen photographs of mist like this at Bosque, and hoped fervently that conditions would be right during my visit. This truly is amazing luck, and there is no way I will waste it. Despite the bitter cold, and the folly of having left my tripod in the car, I click the shutter furiously as the color shifts from tangerine to cantaloupe to honey and the mist begins to dissipate. Wide-angles and tight zooms, artistic blurs and requisite crisp-focus shots, I fire away until the mist—and the memory on my camera card—is nearly gone.
The sun rises, and the mist vanishes. The geese and cranes are still on the ice, and give no sign of taking off anytime soon—or none that I am able to interpret. After several days in the refuge, I’ve begun to think I know their pattern: sleep on water safe from predators, rise in tandem with the sun, fly to corn fields for a full day’s feasting, return to marshes as dusk nears, and sleep again. But now it’s bright, sharp morning, the light is fast becoming flat, and they’re not going anywhere. It’s nearly time to stow the camera gear and find a way to fill the hours till late afternoon, when shadows lengthen and the angle of the light is sweet again. For now, though, I will stay and wait, watching these old spirits and wondering at how little we understand of the rare wild things and places left to us. Finally, after what I’d swear is hours but is really more like twenty minutes, a few cranes forsake the ice and fly over me. I look up and listen keenly as wildness, made flesh in these great birds, sends a haunting call into the sky and trails its dark legs high above.
A shorter version of this essay aired on KQED-FM (88.5 in the SF bay area) on February 3rd, 2011, as part of its ‘Perspectives’ series. See their website for downloadable MP3. (program = perspectives; search = peggy hansen)