Born to be one with the sky, these magnificent creatures walk with graceful, hesitant awkwardness when they are earthbound. I felt lucky to see them on Madison's lake Wingra recently. I had walked down to Wingra Park to shoot some photos of the sun setting on the lake. Standing on the pier at the boat landing, I looked west and saw two specks I thought might be cranes standing in the water a few hundred yards away.
Classic photographer's dilemma -- I only had a point and shoot with a very short zoom with me. Try to go closer with the camera I had, or hurry home to get the DSLR with the telephoto but risk having them fly away? I opted for the bird(s) in hand and hurried off through the woods along the shore. When I got closer, I shot what I could, but the pictures were just pathetic reminders of what I missed by not having a longer lens. I raced home, got the telephoto, and raced back -- but they were gone. Or so it seemed. Just as I was about to turn around, these two beauties walked out from the brush along the shore, where they had apparently taken refuge from a passing boat. I started clicking away. At one point, while its mate groomed itself, the other crane turned and seemed to be staring directly at me. Must have heard the shutter. I was afraid they would fly away, but it seemed to conclude I was harmless. Maybe it was used to being photographed.
For a long time they both stood there gazing at the lake as the pink light darkened to violet and night prepared to fall. They might have been meditating or praying. It was a deeply moving moment, a momentary bond with these magnificent creatures whose species has been on this planet far longer than humans -- a living link to the time of the dinosaurs.
They won't be here long. They'll be flying south in a migration that's now 60 million years old. Their migration featured prominently a couple of years ago in Richard Powers' novel The Echo Maker. I loved this passage from his description of the migration:
They converge on the river at winter's end as they have for eons, carpeting the wetlands. In this light, something saurian still clings to them: the oldest flying things on earth, one stutter step away from pterodactyls. As darkness falls for real, it's a beginner's world again, the same evening as that day sixty million years ago when this migration began.Unlike many other migrating species, Sandhill Cranes find their way not by magnetic fields, not by celestial navigation, but by memorizing landmarks -- a memory so accurate that it guides a pair back to exactly the same nest in the arctic tundra where they hatch their young, year after year, and within months begin teaching them the same route.
Maybe that's what this pair was doing when they stared at the lake so intently: Memorizing every detail, so they can find it again the next time they pass through.
(Click on photos to enlarge in Flickr. Click on All Sizes tab in Flickr to enlarge further.)