I have spent much of the past months seeking the company of birds more wild and ancient than I can sometimes imagine. No ordinary birds these, not birds of common nature or simple design. Large birds that can inspire respect in their imposing stance, and bring wonder in their power-winged flight. Birds of wild places that celebrate that wildness in their call that lifts like a spirit and rides the wind like a phantom.
They are not cute birds, not the feed-from-your hand chickadee, not the orange-breasted robins that ply the back yard for food, or goldfinches that light the feeder like bits of sunlight. These are not pretty birds in the sense of wood duck or warbler, for their colors are drab. These are not birds whose sheer numbers bring insignificance. Not these birds.
These are birds that friends call “spirit birds” for what they do to their hearts and their souls, birds that can bring light to a weary soul by the mere sight of them or in their far reaching call.
In their eyes, (for I can see their eyes close in photos I take and know that the eyes are the path to the soul) I see wisdom and intelligence and, yes, worry and pain. In their flight I feel the envy of any child who looks skyward to see birds on wing and stands, that child, rooted to the ground and wishes they could fly.
I follow the birds with camera and binocular, on foot and on water, hidden in blinds or in plain sight. I crawl on hands and knees to get a better vantage for the camera or push off in icy cold water of springtime, hands numb, to get the kayak closer. I never tire of them, never weary of seeing the big birds, the sandhill cranes.
The cranes ride in on warming breezes in the lengthening days of spring, when snow is often on the ground and ice along the edges of the rivers. The western flock winters in New Mexico and pushes north to nest in the northern states or Canada or Alaska or, with some of the long distance fliers, cross to Siberia.
Their feathers are light gray when they arrive, and in the right light gleam as if burnished stainless steel. Once here they daub mud on the feathers, the better to blend in the dead grass browns in March and April and the better to camouflage the birds on the nest.
I see the birds in early spring, see them dance and posture, hear the clear, wild calls echo across marsh and field. I work as close to them as I can in kayak or on foot, camera in hand.
They are birds of some attitude, broad of back and chest, red-topped head, golden-yellow eye and they act as if they are superior to all they see and that includes any mere human pretender come late to this state. They lay two eggs and trade off warming them and if they are lucky both eggs hatch and if there are very, very lucky one bird lives long enough to take flight.
Three weeks ago I got a call from a friend: cranes nesting on his lake, close to shore and approachable. Would I be interested in coming out with the camera? I was.
They were close to the shore, nesting on a mound of matted weeds. They nest in wet areas, the better to hear the footfall of predators in the dark of night, but for all my time watching them I’d never seen them on a nest. Now here they were, in the open, close to land; a perfect setup.
I shot a series of photos then backed out. Next day I was back. The next day as well. One of the adults tolerated me; the other did not, striding away at the sight of me, stiff legged, angry, calling out. I’d take a few shots and then leave; I did not want them off the nest too long.
On some days I’d crawl, belly snake-flat, easing forward, pushing the camera ahead of me, then rise up slowly to take photos. Other days I’d walk slowly and never look directly at the birds. Some days I got a good series of photos; on other days nothing.
Several weeks ago I started to see young cranes in the fields and along the road, moving like the long-legged, slightly uncoordinated birds that they are (those lanky legs give the young birds their title: colts, after the leggy young horses they vaguely resemble). Yet still this pair sat, patiently, day after day, one week, then two after I first saw them and three weeks after the first reports of young cranes in the area. I wondered if the eggs would hatch at all.
On Sunday I walked to the nest. The adult bird saw me and walked away but then did something unusual. It dropped its wings in a posture that I’ve never seen before. Wings down and fanned out, head low, silent, facing me. It reminded me of a raptor over a kill; mantling. I had the thought that it might be a protective posture, or maybe a variation on the broken wing display of a bird distracting attention. The nest still held two eggs, mute and unchanged.
Overnight the first one hatched. The bird was wobbly but alert when I saw it in mid-morning. It left the nest and swam like a duckling, waded through some weeds, hid under one of the adults, then made its way back to the nest. The adult bird settled down over the remaining egg; the newly hatched bird snuggled next to the parent and worked its way under the wing and rested.
On Tuesday morning the second egg hatched after daybreak. When I arrived the bird was still damp from the egg, barely able to stand, stumbling and weak. I knelt on dry land, camera on tripod and took over 100 photos. The big birds were aware of me, but not alarmed. I stayed for 45 minutes and then left. That was the day of the election, and back home was news of politics and turmoil, but on the marshy lake things were more simple, more basic. On the marsh it was a time of new life.
By Wednesday both young birds were on the move, and the larger of the two walked perhaps a quarter of a mile with one adult, feeding in the shallows of the lake. Two days old and it could already walk that far. The other bird, all of one day old, stayed close to the nest with the other adult that kept an eye on me, then settled down and began to feed the young bird small insects and worms.
I knew that if I was very fortunate I’d see the birds grow, see them fill out and see the down turn to feathers. I knew also that the odds were against that. I knew that from seeing other cranes in other years, see them over a few days and then never again. At that age and at that size they are simply too vulnerable. I knew also that sandhill cranes are among the most ancient of birds, and that over the eons they’d managed to survive as a species.
But on that warm early summer morning with the sun beaming down on the young birds and their golden down looking as if it was afire, I knew on that day that things, for once, for one snapshot in time, were as they should be, and in that I found comfort.
Editor’s note: To see more outdoors and wildlife photos, “Like” the Star Journal and Mel’s Trading Post Facebook pages. A series of Mitch’s crane shots is also available in a photo gallery at StarJournalNOW.com.