Sunday, November 29, 2009


We traveled up the highway in the dark, leaving the city lights behind, as flat farmland unrolled around us in every direction. Aside from the occasional cluster of buildings whose pointed cone roofs rose above the faint forms of small homes, their lights glowing warmly within, there was much of nothing to see.

Then against the barren black, one red, flashing light in the distance became many.
And a broad, pulsing bank appeared, hundreds of acres across.
On the horizon, beat the heart of a sleeping giant.

By day, it looks quite different.
The tall turbines of Horizon Wind Energy stretch in lines, or arrays, towering up to 300 feet above the fields in northwestern Indiana. While beneath them, combines and trucks roll like the toys of a child--the season’s harvest, now, both wind and corn.

Operational since October 2009, Meadow Lake Wind Farm’s 121 wind turbines, whose rotors and blades each sweep an area 250 feet across, have the capacity to provide 60,000 homes with clean energy each year.

farm vehicles working beneath turbines (above)
close-up of area beneath turbines for scale (below)


Clean and white, their long arms slowly and silently sweep.
By night, their presence nothing more than a heartbeat.

wind turbines above farm fields
(click to enlarge)

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Thursday, November 26, 2009

Sunset of the Cranes

For the day's events leading to this sunset, please begin here.

Sandhill Cranes at Sunset
Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area
Medaryville, Indiana

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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A Day with the Cranes

Paired for Life

From behind us, a rosy sun emerged above the stand of pines, glowing warmly on our backs and upon the breasts of the gathering birds, casting their gray feathers countless shades from icy white to slate blue, and lavender to silver. Growing steadily in size as more arrived from their overnight roosts in the marsh, the massing in the field stood around a shallow puddle, facing the warming rays, their red foreheads ablaze. Across the brightening sky, the stars stepped back and hundreds of tiny, dark specks became the long chains of the noisy birds, drawn to gather here each morning, and whose distant rattling calls began to fill the quiet of a cold, November dawn.

Ritual of the Dance

Those already on the ground danced and displayed, calling to their partners, standing with their young. While hundreds more dropped from the sky, joining the assembly from every direction. Out of perfectly synchronized spirals above the field, large groups turning as one, banking their 6-8 foot wingspans, landed--small parachutists floating gracefully to the grass. Then, they too, danced with their mate, this partner paired for life and tireless traveling companion. Barely heard between their constant calls, as the thousands of cranes filled Goose Pasture, was the airy whistle of the juvenile birds, this flight, their first of many.

The Arrival of One Hundred

Goose Pasture,
Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area

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.

Greater Sandhill Crane, Grus canadensis, in flight

Flying off to the fields to feed

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.

To Soar

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.

Caring for those lovely feathers

"Whatcha find, a shrew?"

Adult and juvenile cranes

Two pairs dancing

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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Monday, November 23, 2009

Sunrise of the Sandhill Crane

Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area
Medaryville, Indiana

We drove alone in the dark, down the straight, narrow roads of a small, rural community in northern Indiana, its massive fields of shortly cropped corn still covered in wisps of early morning fog. Aside from small blinking lights on distant towers and a scattering of stars above, the clear sky in total black on this day in late November had let every bit of yesterday’s warm afternoon escape.
Fueled with anticipation, I almost did not feel the cold.

Sandhill Cranes in predawn sky

It was a race to be the first—to arrive at this site before dawn and watch the gathering of the sandhill cranes. From their nighttime roosts in the nearby marshes, each morning at sunrise thousands of the large, migratory birds assemble in Goose Pasture of Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area, and then fly off to feed for the day in the harvested fields before returning to the pasture at sunset, and flying off again to the marsh.

The lot was empty as we pulled in.
Beyond a row of pines, I could see the grassy field and the shadowy form of the tall, wooden deck overlooking it, its weathered platform and long rails waiting for the day’s crowds to arrive. At the peak of the cranes’ 3 to 4 week stopover along this route of their southern migration, numbers can reach between 15,ooo and 30,000 birds. Predictably, birdwatchers arrive by the busload.
Dimming our lights and silently pressing the car doors closed, we assembled ourselves in the dark—jackets, hats, and mittens—and made our way quietly down the paved trail to the observation tower. A light covering of frost had been left on each stair, and in the predawn light I clung to the safety of the rail, feeling my way along, climbing carefully to the top.

Goose Pasture

As far as I could see, the pasture was still empty.
Fog hung in the low areas, curling around the bases of trees where the field met the woods in the distance. A small drainage ditch trimmed in tall grasses and filled with the white mist ran at an angle toward the back and broke the space into two sections, one, uncut and tangled brown; the other in front, short and green. Behind me, the starlit sky hinted of a pink dawn. A distant farmhouse sat quietly by, with windows softly glowing.
And from deep within the safe and grassy space, day began with the voice of a single sandhill crane.

return of the cranes at sunrise

(all photos click to enlarge)

Greater Sandhill Crane, Grus canadensis

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