Last week I heard a familiar sound from above while returning from my regular run. At first, I thought surely it was a flock of geese and then the sound kept nagging at me to identify it other than geese. Rightly so. Above the meadows came a flock of Sandhill Cranes. More than I'd ever seen at one time. I began to count: two, four, six, eight, and so on. There were twenty-three and then another sound from about 800 yards back: the twenty-fourth was doing it's best to catch up. Just over our ranch the flock circled slowly and the twenty-fourth managed to catch the tail end just as they returned to their northly flight.
The simple sight of the Sandhill Cranes has always been a special announcement of spring, of return to a familiar and joyous season. Their deep trumpeting sound somehow exotic and reassuring all at the same time.
The following is a short excerpt from an essay in my manuscript about the Sandhill Cranes returning a number of years ago.
The Cranes Return
I often hear the Sandhill Cranes before I see them. Today, just before noon, I see seven of them drift east overhead and then turn, circling the river. The flock rides leisurely on the warmth of a rising current of warm air, circles for a few minutes, and then peels out of the thermal like a licorice string from its coil.
They head north, two Cranes in tandem and the remaining five flying one behind the other. I wonder if the two flying together aren’t related, perhaps a parent flying with a young one, showing him the way, giving him a push if needed, the thermal just one stop on a tutorial flight. I watch until I can no longer see them. I imagine the late morning outing carrying on north, taking a left hand turn across the river, and landing at home again, on the low lying western banks of the river.
Sandhill Cranes, a long necked, long legged species, trumpet like a French horn. With a wingspan of over six feet, they fly dutifully in a V-formation from the Rio Grande to the Salmon River. They stop over in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado on their way north in the early spring and on their way south come fall. Along the way groups drop off in summer nesting grounds near mudflats around reservoirs and moist agricultural areas finding rich sources of food for survival and safety from human encroachment.
We used to see only one pair in the spring and think we were on safari in Africa witnessing a rare species. Now protected, they are common overhead: more nesting pairs finding adequate security and resources to claim their place in the Elk River Valley.
As the numbers of Sandhill Cranes have increased, I have more opportunity to watch the rare species fly overhead: their long bodies stretched as though they’re reaching from the Elk to the Rio Grande. I follow their flight and feel connected, their flight infused with divinity. I am grateful for the gift of freedom this land provides us and for the homesteaders whose footprints we followed onto the banks of the Elk River.