For several hours, birds continued to arrive--in pairs, small family groups and even great strings. Then forming large flocks facing the sun and with a few effortless steps, they took noisily to the air, flying low and calling out above the tower. We watched them leave for the surrounding fields, their necks stretched forward and black legs trailing, red foreheads brilliant in mid-morning sun, dancers' toes pointed, nails curled. They did not seem to mind the flurry of camera shutters, as all locked onto their steady orange eyes, and wide wings took them from view.
Later that day, we drove the nearby roads and easily spotted groups of them, standing in contrast to the dark, fertile soil, gleaning spilled corn from the expansive harvested fields, miles beyond Goose Pasture. Great flocks soared overhead reaching extreme heights, riding thermals, wing-to-wing as afternoon skies turned to blue.
Those that remained in the pasture for the day lined the grassy edge of the narrow drainage ditch--stepping in for a great, splashy bath; stepping out and preening in the warm, mid-day sun. With their long, dark bills, they probed the tender ground, raked the tall grass snagging small tidbits--earthworms, insects, and a small mouse-like mammal, which, with its discovery, became the object of much envy. Cranes beside the shallow puddle dozed in a one-legged stance, head tucked behind a wing. An occasional flutter would erupt from the otherwise calm crowd, and the pairs of cranes danced once again, bowing and raising their bills.
Looking out across Goose Pasture and the thousands of cranes gathered there that afternoon, each one just a part of this great migration, I could not help but think back to my first crane sighting, just months before, while we traveled through northern Michigan.
How we struggled to find just the few, and reveled in catching a distant glimpse as they hurried out of sight, and hid themselves deep within the refuge.
How their hollow, rattled call in that vast, empty wilderness carried an almost melancholy air.
More than merely time between two places, I have come to understand that it is this great gathering together in migration that defines the Sandhill Crane.
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