Guest Author: Bev Paulan

Migration. It is a topic that has been studied and written about extensively. Then studied and written about some more. It is why we are here, and why we do what we do. We teach a migration route to young Whooping cranes in the hope that they learn the route and in turn will teach it to their offspring. It works. Chicks that have hatched and fledged in the wild have been taught the route by their parents. Success any way you define it.

The question I have is: what makes a bird migrate? I mean, what is the trigger that goes off in their head like a starting gun at the beginning of a race. I know the science behind migration: the seasonal movement of an animal driven by a search for food and breeding grounds. (I just finished reading an excellent book on migration, On the Wing by Scott Wiedensaul. He delves into the whys and wherefores of bird migration in an easy to digest way.) But I want to know why today of all the days in a season, does a flock of Sandhill cranes leap into the air with much calling and climb to join the thermals, heading to unknown northern latitudes.

After early morning chick check today, and over a late breakfast, Brooke said he wanted to head back over to the refuge. I asked why, and he stated that due to the clear skies and quickly warming temps, he thought the Sandhills might leave today and he wanted to catch the departure. Slowly, over the course of the last month, they have been leaving on their northward trek. From a peak of 11,000 Sandhills a little over 4 weeks ago, to a total of 250 at last week’s count, they have been heading skyward, joining the thermals that will ease their way home.

We arrived at the parking area at 9:30 on the dot, and as we walked out to the blind, we heard the distinctive flight call of the Sandhills. It is different from their normal conversational call and if you have heard it before coming from high above, it is not easily forgotten. Encumbered by my camera, I told Brooke to run ahead to the blind so he could see the birds go.

I caught up just in time to see the birds climbing high in search of the lift they need. They continued circling and soon found the thermal. With no more flapping, they turned north and drifted out of site with their calls still trailing behind.

Why this day? What combination of weather and instinct and desire for home pulled them skyward? I don’t know if there is a definitive answer to that question. I do know that it is a mystery that greatly appeals to me. The timelessness of it, the rhythm of it, the continuity from one generation to the next, are all part of the appeal. The sight of a flock, all calling, all flapping, then soaring off in a V formation, moves me in a way that is hard to explain. As I watch this flock, just like every flock of cranes I have been fortunate enough to see every year for over 30 years, I wish them god-speed and safe journey, knowing all the hazards that can be encountered along the route.

Coming back from my reverie, I look back across the field, now empty of gray bodies and see nine mostly white Whooping cranes, nonchalantly probing the earth, seemingly not caring that they are now alone on the refuge. They wait, as do we, for their personal starting gun to go off, signaling their journey north, and their place in the rhythm of migration.


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