I am not a winter person. That said, I love when winter arrives because it enters on the wings of sandhill cranes.
Each October, the cranes begin to settle in at Whitewater Draw. On a good year, there can be over 30,000 of them, but the record is nearly 45,000 in 2010.
The first time I visited, I filled my thermos and headed out before dawn. I wanted to watch as they lifted off and headed north in search of corn and other grains.
But they fooled me. I stood there in the pre-dawn, shivering in layers of socks and down. I listened as they discussed their day, and then whoosh! Whoosh! Whoosh! Off they went, before daylight. All I eventually saw was a few stragglers who took off in their own good time.
Since then, I’ve learned that it’s better to go out in mid-day. First of all, it’s warmer. I don’t have to bundle up as I did as a five-year-old headed out to play in the snow. Also, I can take a book, a blanket, and a small picnic.
I can stay for hours, alternating between sun and shade, reading and walking.
But the best part, of course, is the cranes themselves. There are six subspecies of sandhills, and two of them winter here. I believe they’re the Greater and the Canadian. The Greater is, well, greater, and can be as tall as five feet. The Canadian is shorter, sometimes topping out at only three and a half feet. But some of the Canadians are a bit taller and some of the Greater a bit shorter, and from the distance I see them, they appear the same.
The cranes spend the morning cleaning out corn fields and begin to return to the Draw in early afternoon – fifty, eighty, one hundred at a time. A distant speck in the north becomes larger, longer. Soon it’s a line of cranes, zig-zagging across the sky, swooping up and down, and eventually circling the water and touching down without a splash.
They spend the afternoon chatting, taking off in small groups to cruise the Mule Mountains, and returning again. The sound of thousands of cranes chatting is remarkable.
I’ve celebrated Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day with the cranes. I’ve gone alone and stayed apart from others. I’ve also gone for lunch with friends and to celebrate a birthday.
Even now, early September, I’m longing for winter days and time with the sandhills.