I’m a city boy. Didn’t leave my Melbourne until my teens and then only briefly. Didn’t hike until my sixties. I reside in front of two screens most of my days.
Well, today naturalists Erv Nichols and Sandra Noll have graced me with a seven-minute YouTube glissando of bliss. Migrating with the Sandhill Cranes was made in 2018 – how did I miss it? They follow six hundred thousand massed Sandhills, greeking and calling, soaring on thermals, all the way from America’s southwest up to Alaska above the Arctic Circle. I cried.
I watch a five-minute video put together by the International Crane Foundation. I imagine doing what they portray, joining a small crew of birders in a hide on the Platte River during the annual migration of millions of birds, including thousands of Sandhill Cranes. Then, I’m urged, lift your binoculars and lo, there’s a bigger bird. It’s a Whooping Crane! When (if?) I go to the Platte River, will I be lucky enough to see a Whooper? The end of the video shows just-released latest Whooping Crane numbers: there are 808 birds in this species, which once was close to being wiped out. Since there are over 800,000 Sandhill Cranes, I guess my chances of seeing a Whooper are one in a thousand. A dream worth having.
This Cranes project … is it a chimera? I’m quarantining in Darwin, out of Melbourne lockdown for a while, but even when we are released into the Darwin population, we’re unlikely to see any Brolgas or Sarus Cranes, simply because it’s the tail end of the dry season and they’ll be hunkered down, either in the Atherton Tablelands in Queensland or the remote wilds of the Gulf of Carpentaria. And of course travel to see the other thirteen species in Africa, USA, Europe, China, Japan, Bhutan, etc. is a scary prospect with a global pandemic still raging.
So it was with an aching heart, leavened by gratitude, that I read Charles Larry’s wonderful, cogent, lyrical overview of Sandhill Cranes on the website of the Nachusa grasslands reserve in Illinois. This reserve has been honored with its first nesting pair of Sandhills, with two fledglings. I commend it to anyone drawn to connecting with our natural world.
I’ll never get to the Nachusa reserve, beautiful though it seems. My aim is to see the Sandhill (and the Whooping Crane) at the Platte River in Nebraska. Will that happen? In my quarantine compound I dream.
EAAFP’s Story #5, “Do you know all the crane species in East Asian – Australasian Flyway?” sends the imagination soaring. Quirky, pithy notes on the 9 species (besides these 9, 4 reside in Africa, one is solely in USA, and one lives in Australia) are a pleasure to read. I bask, doing my best to picture how I might see each of the nine on location. The glorious Siberian Crane (you only see its black wingtips in flight) – I think Poyang Lake is where I’d go, and I’ve seen photos of that sumptuous wetland reserve in China. I’m unsure where the Red-crowned Crane, “tall and elegant” with a black neck and tail feathers, and I will intersect. Bhutan is my best place to view the shorter Black-necked Crane with a white eye ring that gives it a glaring visage. The Hooded Crane with its mini frontal grey-and-red hood, and its brown-grey bustle – who knows where? The blue-and-grey White-naped Crane is drawn with splashes of shades of grey – again, where? The tallest flying bird on Earth, the Sarus Crane, with its red head and neck, has a subspecies way up north in Australia, where I’ll travel when Covid-19 is beaten or finally peters out. The voluminous Eurasian Crane (“has no beautiful features or cultural background but has the best adaptive capacity”) is, for me, best viewed in Estonia, my now-deceased parents’ homeland. I have a dream to see the Demoiselle Crane, the tiny one of the fifteen, soaring over the Himalayas. And Nebraska is the spot to witness tens of thousands of grey-brown Sandhill Cranes. Lockdown … sigh.
A wondrous bonus of the pandemic lockdown has been a weekly educational webinar series from the International Crane Foundation. You can catch them afterwards via YouTube but I recommend you experience them live (even if, as with me, that means a 2 AM alarm), because they’re given by real-world conservationists and ornithologists and you rarely glean such wisdom. As a small example of the bounties in store, here’s a visual put up by a Chinese field researcher. No doubt thousands of bird experts appreciate just how the migratory birds straddle the world, spreading out to every corner. No doubt coffee table books glorify such barely believable images. But to this amateur, glimpsing such a vista, slapped up on a screen in order to clarify why such-and-such a conservation tactic is needed … wow, feasting upon this revelatory picture was life-changing. I’ve known for a while that, of course, Earth’s birds were here long before the human race. What I hadn’t quite appreciated is how comprehensive their global coverage. There is nowhere on our planet a bird has not flown to!
Up at 2 AM this morning, soaking up the best quality research material as ICF’s Anne Lacey gave a superb summation of the 6 subspecies and 8 populations of the magnificent Sandhill Crane. Black night … lockdown … hey, my heart was singing!
What staggered me is the level of research and conservation effort that the United States puts into this thriving (mostly) species. Here in Australia, our own Brolga also seems to be stable or increasing, and its numbers are quite high (if only in the upper north of the country), yet it’s a bird that has no public or official recognition. The difference between the two countries is stark. I think I know why but need to talk to the experts.
A birder’s reading delight, ornithologist Bruce Beehler’s “North on the Wing: Travels with the Songbird Migration of Spring” savours his 2015 four-month odyssey from southernmost U.S.A. to blighted woods deep in Ontario. I sipped the book, treasuring a rare look at the world through a naturalist’s honed eyes. Beehler was chasing thirty-seven species of warbler (amongst other more general aims) but I watched out for his sightings of my bird of interest, the Sandhill Crane. Let me extract them here:
Autumn migration here is famous for its Bald Eagles, Sandhill Cranes, and many species of waterfowl. … Standing on a dike cloaked in early-morning mist, I listened to abundant birdsong. Cranes were bugling. … At 8: 20 p.m., two Sandhill Cranes bugled. … Then a statuesque Sandhill Crane posed for me, allowing me to photograph him from various angles.
The three-hour drive from Duluth was punctuated by a close encounter with a Sandhill Crane family foraging at the very edge of the highway. In front of me, a large truck roared by the group, and its slipstream toppled the two rusty-colored and fuzzy young into a grassy ditch. The parent cranes appeared nonchalant about this.
Day after day I hunted the tall, bog-fringing spruces … A few pairs of tannin-stained Sandhill Cranes nested in some of the larger boglands, and their bugling sounded in the distance from time to time. This haunting voice, heard mainly at a far remove, is the song of the wild.
I’m writing this on a cool spring day about to warm up. Australia’s annual Backyard Bird Count runs for this week and shortly I’ll head onto my apartment’s balcony to do my requisite twenty minutes of birding and recording. But what I long for, courtesy of Bruce Beehler’s magic, is to head for the airport and fly to America and hire a car and go see, for my very first time, those statuesque Cranes.
(The maps above are from Beehler’s book and show his amazing journey.)