Yesterday brought a rare dry day to Sauvie Island. Occasionally a leak in clouds let sunlight spill across the land. Geese were cackling and honking, a pair of Osprey were whistling from their nest. Wigeon and mallards contributed squeak and quack to the cacophony. Yet over it all spread the bugling of Sandhill Cranes. Their calls made the air vibrate, hinting of primitive compulsions carried across time from ages when long-gone species ran and swam in seas and prairies that are gone as well. The sound of the crane reverberates through an elongated and convoluted trachea that can only have evolved to produce such music. We humans can only listen and marvel that such a sound pre-dates cave art, villages, stone tools and even digital recordings. The crane sound is both ancient and inimitable. I much hope their kind can out-live the damage humans are determined to commit upon this earth. Whatever sentient creatures are about in some future millennia will be sure to halt and listen when those yet-to-be cranes bugle.
“When we hear his call we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution. He is the symbol of our untamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men…The sadness discernible in some marshes arises, perhaps, from their once having harbored cranes. Now they stand humbled, adrift in history.” –Aldo LeopoldIn several marshes the Trumpeter Swans and cranes were feeding side by side.Sauvie Island usually has the northernmost wintering populations of cranes in North America. In Europe the Common Crane may winter even further north, not far from Troyes, France.
In late winter the crane population is augmented by the arrival of cranes heading north from California. The cranes using Sauvie as a stopover are traveling the Pacific Coast Flyway. That population is less than 5% of the total Sandhill population. Cranes we saw yesterday included both the lesser and greater sized cranes.
ABOVE US ALL
Compelled by nature’s uncaring demand for survival and adaptation the cranes now have a flight that is elegant, graceful and strong. With wings moving in fluid flaps, the long. thin legs trailing like a streamer, the sharp spade of a beak thrust toward the future, a flying crane is kinetic art of the finest.
“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.” –Aldo Leopold
Cranes often gather together in big flocks for migration or simply to find better forage.Riding tail winds or seeking thermals cranes may migrate at elevations up to 15,000 feet. Some cranes in Asia fly over the Himalayas thus topping 20,000 feet elevation.
“For sixty million years, the call of the sandhill crane has echoed across the world’s wetlands and waterways, and it’s been heard in North America for at least 9 million years. Sandhill cranes, the oldest living bird species, have seen the violent birthing of entire mountain ranges, and then watched these same experience slow death at the hands of wind and rain… Long before man first took feeble steps on two legs, or raised a rock in anger, sandhills were already ancient.” Jim Miller in Valley of the Cranes