January 09, 2008

I'm just sittin' here watching the cranes

"The birds are best viewed at dawn or dusk". A little truth I've always known, and that was reinforced in whatever I read about Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge. I made fanciful plans to wake well before dawn and race across the vast Texas plains to make it there by about the time the sun chose to rise.

As these things seem to go with me, the plans remained fanciful. I couldn't get going in the morning, partly because of a late night, and by the time I got on the road, the sun shone bright. Resigned to seeing just a few birds, or none, I drove the two hours to the refuge on ruled-straight roads, keeping pace with a long freight train much of the way.

Muleshoe? In the winter, these 5000+ acres offer a home to migratory sandhill cranes, thigh-high grey creatures on long legs. They come in their tens of thousands, wintering here between October and April, and the best time to see them is in January and February. (Unusually for me, I'm actually in the vicinity of one of these places at the right time of year). February of 1981 was particularly memorable: 250,000 of these cranes turned up then.

But: during the day they fly off to nearby fields to forage for food.

Driving on one of the refuge roads, I find a coyote running along on the verge beside me, not fifteen feet away. Wary of the car, but not enough to flee far. I slow to a stop, and he does too, standing there in the sunlight looking around bemusedly. Then he takes off half-heartedly after something that scurries for cover, amid a little flutter of yipping in the distance. That's when I notice: prairie dogs. Furry rodents, actually, standing atop their burrows all over the area around me. Dozens: some watching me, some watching the fox, some just sunning. Three run to the same mound and settle behind some kind of lip there to watch me, only their snouts visible.

The lady at the office says they counted 55,000 cranes this morning, but they have probably all gone foraging by now. Still, she says, you might want to go watch for a while. Sometimes some of them come back in the middle of the day.

So that's what I do. When I reach the spot beside a small lake, there's a small flock of the birds out in the middle, perhaps 200 metres away. Through my binoculars, I can see them bunched up, I would guess a few hundred at most. But they are calling loud enough for me to hear, a sort of musical throaty croaking sound that seems to reverberate all around me.

Then I notice a few more dropping out of the sky. With the binocs, it's clear: they circle around, getting lower and lower in the sky. Perhaps 20-30 feet up, they stick their legs out and sink more rapidly before going into a stall, and with much flapping of their wings, they land and join their already landed colleagues. Like odd little stick figures with outspread wings, coming in to land. The performance reminds me of the "stacking" of planes at a busy airport, how each one circles around waiting for the lower ones to land before sinking lower themselves. Two land across the lake from the rest, stalk across the water to get home.

And as I watch these few doing this little routine, more come in. And then I raise my binocs and follow the trail of birds, skeins of them trailing higher and higher in the sky, I tilt my head further and further back until I'm looking straight up: birds all the way! Sometimes there are just two in the field of view, sometimes hundreds. And all of them doing that lilting croaking sound, it's no wonder it seems to come from all around.

Then another sound overhead. I tilt my head back again and search for it. Bah! Just a jet far overhead, heading for distant places at 37000 feet.

I sit for 45 minutes, and all through that time there are birds sinking out of the sky to join the flock on the ground. I can't see where they come from: they just seem to appear at a point high above, and circle and drop, circle and drop, till they land. The croaking getting louder and louder. I try some quick sample counting to estimate how many there are, but it's hard, because wherever I look to select a sample, there are more dropping in. Still, at the end of 45 minutes I am willing to bet there are 20,000 birds there on the ground.

And suddenly, no more in the sky. Just as suddenly, utter silence.

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