Leaves changing colors and a sudden nip in the air proclaim autumn’s arrival more forcefully than any date on a calendar can.. With that change comes an ancient song. Like steps on the porch announcing a visitor, this tune is the sound of summer’s exit and fall’s approach. Vernal musicians herald ice storms and frosts that destroy lingering tomatoes and late summer blooms.
As I arrived home from work the other evening, sandhill cries caught my ear. Knowing exactly what I heard, I moved to an open area where I could view these primeval harbingers of seasonal change as they headed for the playas, or shallow lakes, of West Texas and Eastern New Mexico.
I heard the melody long before I spied the musicians. A raucous combination of croaks, rattles, trumpets, and high-pitched cries announced another vanguard racing South ahead of an incoming cold front. With their distinctive long necks guiding gangly legs that trailed behind, this awkward choir flew and sang. My ovation lasted long after they passed out of sight.
Long ago, I studied lesser sandhill cranes. I traveled to Kearney, Nebraska, to observe cranes in their spring staging area. Since then, sandhills have cast their spell and trapped me in their magic, sending me on an annual migration to join them on the Platte.
Nature lover Aldo Leopold captures a bit of their mystique in 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 the allure is that cranes have existed in similar form for at least sixty-five million years. One source states, “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 years.
Another part of their charm is that hundreds of thousands of three and a half foot tall birds with six foot wing-spans know instinctively to fly annually to sand bars only between Kearney and North Platte, Nebraska. In only this exact landscape do they find the 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 me to schedule my spring visit 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 fashions a moment when I, too, become part of the fabric of million-year-old migrations.