Monday, February 25, 2008

I Traded Crepes For Cranes

It was my birthday this past weekend. I thought I would be spending the day alone. Gus was scheduled for a flight out of Tucson Thursday night. He was going to see his parents and our grandkids, whom he had not seen in a year and half. I had resigned myself to a quiet day at home doing art work or working on my Blog. I dropped him at the airport to catch the redeye and headed home in the darkness. I was almost to the interstate when my cell phone started ringing. When I answered it I was shocked to hear Gus say, “Come pick me up. My flight’s been cancelled.” I drove back to the airport pounding the steering wheel shouting “No! No! NO!” to the elements that caused this change. Though the weather was fine here, a big storm on the east coast caused his flight to be cancelled. Not only was it cancelled, they wouldn’t even be able to fly him out until the 25th and his return flight was scheduled for the 26th. He was supposed to change planes in New Jersey. We saw on the news the next morning all the flight cancellations and delays, and the ice and snow that fell in another world but was affecting ours.

Once home I realized that we could do something special for my birthday instead, though I would have traded it all in a heartbeat if we could just get Gus on a plane. I talked to Gus about having lunch at a French restaurant a friend had told me about, and then maybe going to the University of Arizona Art Museum, which we have not been to yet. I fell asleep thinking of crepes and culture and woke up with cranes on the brain. During the night I remembered that Jean, the leader from my IBA survey group, had said she had been to Whitewater Draw just a week ago and saw thousands of Sandhill Cranes. Just last week a count was entered into the Great Backyard Bird Count of 12,000 Sandhill Cranes at McNeal, which is where Whitewater Draw is located. I wanted to see what 12,000 Sandhill Cranes looked like. I know they will be migrating north in a few more weeks, so I proposed we give up crepes and travel to Whitewater Draw instead. Thankfully Gus agreed.

Whitewater Draw is about 1½ to 2 hours drive away from here. There is nothing else out there, so we stopped in Benson to buy drinks and snacks to eat in the car. Our route takes us through the historic town of Tombstone which is busy with tourists as we drive through the center of town. Just south of Tombstone we take a left on Davis Road and head east for 22 miles. Finally we see the sign for Whitewater Draw and head 2 miles down a dirt road. As we get closer to the entrance to the Conservation Area we see the cranes wheeling in the sky. Waves after wave of cranes descends into a flooded field past the entrance. We drive past the entrance and pull off the road and park.

Though the wind is howling it still can’t cover the cacophony of crane voices. I’m so excited I can hardly stand it. While Gus gets out his camera, I jump out of the car with my binoculars and start scanning the skies and the ground. The wind whips my hair into my eyes and sears through my jacket, but I stand firm and watch. There are cranes everywhere. The field is thick with gray bodies. Up above the sky looks like it is covered in fleas. It is amazing to me that these huge birds can attain such heights. As they descend they switch from their fighter plane silhouette to their landing position. They bend their outstretched necks into a chair shape, then they drop their extended legs beneath their bodies, and their wings fill out like a parasol. When I sent photos to my birding friend Kathryn from Utah she emailed me back that they look both gangly and graceful at the same time. I would have to agree.

We watched and watched cranes for 30 to 45 minutes. Waves after wave of cranes descended. The field filled up more and more. I tried to do the counting method described on the eBird for counting large flocks. I counted out a group of 100 birds and multiplied that block over the flock. I gave up counting after I reached 8,000 birds. I decided to trust that there are still 12,000 cranes here today. 12,000 cranes for my birthday. Not a bad gift, don’t you think?

By the way, Gus shot over 800 pictures this day, and I met some really nice people as we walked around the rest of Whitewater Draw. We met a couple of beginning birders from Tucson named John and Mina. We had fun watching a flock of snow geese and a couple of wading avocets. Then I met a woman from Pennsylvania named Nancy B. She has an orchard out there but every winter she and her husband try to take a trip out here to see the birds. While we were talking with John and Mina, something must have startled the cranes for the huge flock rose noisily into the sky and started whirling about. Some cranes broke off and flew over us until they felt safe enough to settle down again. I had to remember to keep my mouth shut as I tilted my head back to watch. Fortunately none of us got bird bombed!

It’s still hard to grasp that I saw that many cranes that day. Until then, the most I had seen at one time was maybe 50 birds. This has to count as one of the best birding experiences of my life. On Saturday I received a gift from my friend, Kathryn. It is a book by Jonathan Rosen called The Life of the Skies, Birding at the End of Nature. Though I have only just begun it I am already hooked. Rosen writes about why we bird and why we are so drawn to birds. He writes about his love for birds in one passage describing it this way, “Just as I love watching birds, knowing full well they couldn’t care less about me. Their existence is still bound up with mine, we share a secret, though I am hard pressed to tell you what it is.” For me, part of the attraction is the mystery of flight. Oh! to soar on silent wings above the world without boundaries! Part of the attraction is what Rosen also writes about; it is the chance to glimpse a bit of the wild even in our urban and suburban landscapes. It reminds us there is a natural world out there, that all is not artificial and manmade. Finally, it is the beauty of the creature, the endless color combinations, the exotic plumage, the shining feathers, the wild discovery, the chase. It is pursuing without harming and the serendipity of the thing. You go out expecting one thing, and come back with a basket of surprises. Birds bring us closer to nature and closer to God, and, as Rosen says, they help us to more fully understand ourselves.

My birthday ended with dinner at the Longhorn Restaurant in Tombstone. By the time we arrived most of the tourists had left. Then we wandered across the street to the Silver Hills Trading company where we met a woman named Claudia who visited Tombstone, fell in love and moved there permanently. Gus also bought me 2 pairs of earrings for my birthday, though I was already overwhelmed with all the goodness the day had brought me. But it was not over yet. When we finally pulled into our garage and I started unpacking the car, Gus came walking in with the most beautiful bouquet of flowers from my oldest son and his wife. I went from an expectation of a lonely birthday to a day of abundance and joy. It will be a day I will remember for the rest of my life.


Beth said...

What a birthday! I can't even imagine that many cranes in one place, thank you for sharing the experience with us frozen folks in the North.

Kathie Brown said...

Glad to Beth, though Gus was on his way to Maine and he would have been in the same frozen north as you! If you ever get the chance to come down here, it is certainly worth the trip!

jalynn01 said...

Oh! That would have been an awesome experience to see a kzillion cranes all in one place. Thanks for sharing it with us. And, Happy Birthday! From PA.

Mary said...

Oh wow! I'm going to show these to my sister in Tucson. What a neat sight to see. I'm glad you had such a lovely birthday.

Ruth said...

Happy belated birthday. What a sight! Some of those cranes may end up on Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron by April. My husband sees them there on his spring fishing trip which he takes the week after the ice is off the lake. I saw them last summer for the first time.

Kathie Brown said...

Thanks everyone for the Happy Birthday greetings!

It is so much fun to share this experience with all of you. I can only encourage you all to come check it out for yourselves, if not here, then in Nebraska or Wisconsin, which is where they will migrate to next on their trips to their breeding grounds in the north.

Hello again mary, Jalynn and Ruth. Glad you got to see a sandhill crane Ruth. They are such impressive birds and their garooing is such a wild sound. It tugs at my heart and makes me restless. It makes me want to run wild myself!

Lynne at Hasty Brook said...

I'm late to say so, but Happy Birthday!! It sound like you had a day to remember. I've got the book you received on my wish list.

Larry said...

Happy Belated Birthday Wishes to you! That sounds like a once in a lifetime experience.-I've never even seen one Sanhill Crane.-I've tried too but with no luck yet.-That sounds amazing!

Mary C said...

Hi Kathie - what a beautiful birthday! And you wrote about it so eloquently. I didn't realize sandhill cranes "visit" southern Arizona. I've seen them in Alaska (only once near Fairbanks). And I usually attend the Festival of the Cranes in Socorro, New Mexico every year (or as often as I can). If you love the cranes, consider attending the Festival - it's got to be one of the best birding festivals around. I heartily agree with you that these birds are so awkward looking yet so graceful. My description has always been that they look like one of those glider planes especially when they come in for a landing. Thanks for sharing your experience and birthday with us.

Kathie Brown said...

Lynne, thank you! I hope you get to read that book. It's very intriguing and the author verbalizes what many of us feel but haven't yet put into words.

Thank you Larry, I do hope you get to see and hear a sandhill crane someday. If you can't get out west, I have seen them in Florida. I don't know how far up the coast they come. Perhaps some other bloggers can tell us.

Mary, I have heard of the crane festivel and the Bosque del Apache wildlife refuge in New Mexico. I wanted to go this year but it is a 5 hour drive and with my husband's work schedule we just couldn't get the time off. I'm hoping maybe next year. They also hold a crane festivel here in AZ called Wings Over Wilcox, which is only an hour east of me. I'll have to catch it next year though. Thanks for the tip and thanks for visitng my blog!

Mary said...

Happy Belated Birthday, Kathie!

I'd take 100 cranes over any other gift (except for diamonds, maybe) :o)

You took excellent photos of them.

Anonymous said...


We get rather excited about seeing one Crane in the UK, let alone all those at once.

Patrice said...

A belated birthday to you! To me, that sounds like the perfect way to celebrate your day. Thank you for taking us along!