The world was shades of copper and bronze, the sand of the desert glowing pink in the dawn light. Wisps of clouds over the mesas reflected the glow of the rising sun. It was already hot, the sky as it lightened a clear blue, the only sounds the rasp of ravens. Overhead, a long V of birds crossed the sky: not geese, long necks, long legs, birds the colour of the desert sands. We stood by our car in the Texas dawn and watched them fly south, heading for the Gulf of Mexico and their wintering grounds. Sandhill cranes, birds we’d never seen before, birds that the great American writer Aldo Leopold predicted would disappear: “the last crane will trumpet his farewell and spiral skyward….” (Marshland Elegy, 1937). In 1987, fifty years later, the populations had just begun to increase. We knew we were watching something special, something that could have been lost to the world forever.
We were there in Texas in November because in ten days, we were both due to be giving graduate student papers at the American Society of Agronomy conference in Atlanta. With our theses supervisors’ blessings, we had taken two weeks holiday prior to the conference, and had driven our Honda Civic, laden with camping gear, south. Two days of steady driving; on the third morning, we left the last green fields behind and drove into the vast deserts of southern Texas, a world completely alien then to us both, and filled with birds we’d never seen.
It seemed that November that we could barely drive a mile without stopping. The fences were full of sparrows; the cactus and sage full of wrens and thrashers. In a little wash along a highway somewhere we stopped to scramble down the side to see what might be found in the green scrub along the side of the tiny creek, and found our first wild turkeys. Bay-winged hawks (Harris’s hawk) or Swainson’s were on every utility pole, it seemed. At dusk of the same day that had started with sandhill cranes in the dawn, we stood at the Rio Grande, where it runs between huge, bare cliffs, and heard for the first time the haunting, sorrowful descent of the canyon wren’s song.
There were so many ‘firsts’. Some stand out without recourse to notes: the Say’s phoebe at the headquarters of Big Bend National Park; the vermilion flycatcher in a stand of cottonwoods in the same park. The “King-Kong-fisher” (the ringed kingfisher) at Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park, and the tiny green kingfisher on a creek at the Santa Margarita Ranch – a Spanish land-grant ranch, held in the same family from the years when Texas was part of Mexico, not the USA; to enter, you drove in, honked the horn, held up your binoculars, and paid the non-English-speaking old woman who came out from the ranch house two dollars. Green jays and plain chachalaca. Crested cara-cara. And from a boat, where as Canadian visitors we were given the best seats, the last flock of migratory whooping cranes in the world, wintering at Aransis.
Seeds were sown that trip; not just the seeds of birding further afield, but those of a love for cranes. From that first V of sandhills in the dawn, and the fragile tenacity of that flock of whooping cranes began my connection to these birds; birds of grassland and wetland, wanderers of the great plains of the world. The ‘Birds of Heaven’* would take me to the Platte River in March and the muskeg of Manitoba in July; to South Africa, to China, to the Norfolk Broads. Ten springs ago, just north of the tiny southern Ontario hamlet we lived in at the time, I stopped the car in wonder and joy: in a field of corn stubble, four sandhill cranes were feeding. I was looking, with tears in my eyes and my hands shaking, at birds not seen in my locale in the best part of a hundred years. Aldo Leopold was wrong, on this. I am thankful beyond words he was, and I believe he would have been, too.
* The Birds of Heaven is the title of Peter Matthiessen’s beautiful book about his travels to see the cranes of the world.