We quickly pulled as far as we could to the side, wheels barely dipping off the paved highway, while heavily-loaded logging trucks pushed tall walls of air ahead of their massive profiles rocking the car, and I wrestled free of my seatbelt, scrambling for binoculars and camera.
The graceful birds stepping along the horizon, then crossing the crest of the hill to an unseen field beyond, barely visible against the gray sky where it met a well-worn pasture and several weathered barns could only have been the cranes.
Until then, an image seen only in others’ pictures—illustrations to stories told of their great flocks in migration, partners paired for life, dances of courtship seen only by those of the northern plains, the birds with the prehistoric past.
In an instant they were gone, and I was left holding a foggy lens, still missing that crisp, clear view so desired of the tall bird with the crimson forehead, the long, dark bill.
Miles later, we entered Seney NWR—a great attraction of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula encompassing 95,000 acres of wetland, shallow pools, and deciduous and coniferous woods. Still bearing the scars of the lumbering trade, this previously exploited land is now managed for wildlife. Preserved within a tall glass case inside the visitor center, beside a fabricated tree from which the great owls of the north woods peered down with lifelike golden eyes, a Sandhill Crane stood, motionless in the characteristic pose straddling her fuzzy young colt. There, for one who might never have the privilege of seeing one walk in the wild.
I stood and stared from the other side of the glass.
Then, slipped out the back onto the short walking trail circling several pools. The woods smelled of Balsam, their quiet darkness interrupted only by sunny stands of paper birch and poplar, their light leaves quivering in a cool breeze. Afternoon sun set aglow fields filled with the tawny tones of Bracken fern and goldenrod. The last of summer’s water lilies dotted the clear amber water, tannin-stained of Hemlock bark and White Pine. And dragonflies big and small soared over open spaces. Seney’s wilderness is home to black bear and gray wolf, marten, bobcat and moose.
In the shallow edge water beside one of many small islands, providing safe and secluded nesting sites for the hundreds that gather here, a family of Trumpeter swans dabbled within view of the walking trail.
But, still I saw no cranes.
Returning to the car, and with instructions from the staff and parting good wishes for successful sightings, we drove the seven-mile, single dirt lane auto tour--a fine thread stitched in a winding path across Seney’s vast wilderness fabric, with scattered pull-outs for pauses, and a suggested time to be taken, one hour.
A young loon, his head still in brown velvet, beads of water slipping from his back, dove and disappeared again into deeper water. Herds of swans napped in the shallows. A beaver broke the stillness with a loud, “crack.”
And, wading beside a distant island, breaking the expanse of rippled blue, stood 2 tall, gray birds--afternoon sun on each crimson forehead, with the long, dark bill of the Sandhill Crane.
By evening, we found our way to an access road--closed to vehicles but taking a biker or hiker deeper into the refuge, where we left the car and set off on the less-worn path. The pool was large and littered with logging remains, its glowing banks stained the same amber shade as the waters around us. An enormous puddled plain, where faded stems of grasses hid the tall birds well.
And we sat at sunset watching, as, above us, others joined them.
In pairs, calling their rattled song, to one who would have the privilege to see a crane.