When I was young, all the kids in the neighborhood would take to the farmers fields with our BB guns to play war. We would build forts made of hay bales back when they were square and movable by one adult — or four kids. We would paint our faces and belly crawl through the crops like pretend commandos. That was before paintball guns and safety glasses so our battles were serious, or at least they were to twelve-year-olds. The memory of those carefree and careless years came flooding back last Friday as Brooke and I belly crawled through the tall grass east of Princeton.
He and Colleen had been watching a pair of Sandhills and a chick as they foraged in a field next to the marsh. Like most breeding crane parents, they were hyper-sensitive to anything unusual. They seem to understand that the chick is harder to spot than they are, so at the first sign of danger, they instruct their offspring to hide, while they move away instead of drawing predators closer. In fact, if they start screaming at you from a quarter mile away, it’s a good indication that a pair are protecting a chick or two.
In this case, we had to cross an open field to reach them and before we had placed the first step, the chick headed for the tall grass and the parents began moving off in the opposite direction. Like a needle in a haystack, it’s almost impossible to find a chick once it reaches the safety of the tall grass – so the direct approach was not workable. The only viable option was to approach from the marsh side.
If we could get close enough, the adults would fly off, leaving the chick to hide in the shorter grass where it was far easier to find. Except that meant bushwhacking through scrub and grass for a half mile and then crawling the last hundred yards to the edge of the field. We were wearing chest waders and marsh boots with bug jackets covering the top half but it was more comfortable than it sounds. We wear nylon pants over the waders to protect them from brambles and thorns. The grass was still wet with dew so the pants were soaked and cooled my legs like an evaporator. I had my backpack on with a communication radio clipped to the shoulder strap to hear Colleen’s direction’s.
We couldn’t see the family but knew from her where they were. When we were both in position I raised my head just as one of the adults turned to look directly at me and then quickly walked away. We charged through the last fifty feet of grass and out into the open, low vegetation. The adults took off but the chick was already gone. All three of us gave up the search after twenty frustrating minutes.
Colleen had watched the entire episode through binoculars keeping her eyes on the chick at all times so she could let us know where to look first. As it turned out, our approach was perfect but we came out just as the chick went in and I likely missed it by a few feet. I was checking the open field while it was already in the tall grass, moving rapidly away from us and laughing the whole time.
It likely found a safe hiding spot to watch us walking in circles thinking to itself that we looked like pretend commandos with BB guns.