Watching Cranes

By Dick Walker

December 15, 2017

Looking back, my first photos of Sandhill Cranes were pretty easy. I was parked before daylight along a pond I had scoped out earlier for sunrise photos. First – still dark, I hear a few subtle chirps. Slowly a faint blush of light and more bird noise – Red-Winged Blackbirds, Coots, misc. ducks, CRANES! (Switch lens)! The light comes quickly, soft and golden, reflected off the clouds and the cranes gently start moving, stretching, drinking, casting mirror reflections on the still water. Magic! It was like Thomas Quinn was taking the photos for me! Watching cranes in early fall in NW Montana has become an obsession of mine. I’ve shot many hundreds of photos of cranes, in all conditions and have never again gotten that same warm light, dark shadows, calm birds and soft reflections as that first time. I’m still trying.

You see many things watching cranes – the closeness of family groups and the comfort of the flock at nightfall. I have crawled in the dark through tall grass and mud and when I finally peek through the edge of cover to get a better look at them, they are all looking right at me, “craning” their necks trying to see which boogie man/monster is trying to get them this time! And you see them, a pair, or half the flock spontaneously jumping, flapping, and careening about. They feed through the grain stubble, slowly pecking at heads of grain or probably even individual kernels of grain lost by the harvesting equipment. Sometimes one will make several quick erratic steps as though chasing a fat grasshopper or maybe a field mouse. The adult cranes finish their molt and refuel for their next leg of fall migrations. I’ve heard them murmur to each other as they pass low over my photo blind to land on the mud flats. It is a soft chuckling sound, like a feeding Mallard hen only much slower, completely unlike the loud raucous calls they are known for. You see beautiful sunsets and moonrises and Green-Winged Teal pushing themselves through sloppy mud channels slurping whatever they slurp. Long-Billed Dowitchers and Semipalmated Plovers, fox puppies, a Dunlin, a Swamp Sparrow, Merlins, Peregrines and a Prairie Falcon. Sunspots on a fire season sunset. Then one day, the flock will all take flight and climb in a spiral, up and up till they are barely visible, barely hearable, and then they turn south and they’re gone.

The fields where the cranes fed are now being gleaned by Mallards and Geese. Great Horned Owls and Rough-Legged Hawks cruise the fencerows and wetland edges. The Pheasants and deer also use the edges, the willows and cattails and feed in the grain stubble. Eagles and Coots, mink and muskrats, this place of cranes is alive and ever changing.

Winter is a time for cleansing the gene pool. A warm spring feeds a series of small ponds which hold hundreds of mallards. A Golden Eagle and several Bald Eagles wait in nearby trees to pick off the slow and unwary ducks. Most winters a Gyrfalcon keeps tabs on the Collared Doves and Pidgeon populations around the farmsteads. There are Snow Buntings and Redpolls – perfect for Pygmy Owls and Merlins. The coyotes, raccoons and foxes specialize in whatever it takes to make a meal, to get through until spring.

In mid March as the ponds thaw and snow recedes from the grain fields, the ducks come back; Pintails by the thousands, Widgeons and Mallards and almost every other species of duck known to Montana. Geese and Tundra Swans, flocks of Avocets and Black-necked Stilts, it’s a busy place. As the grain greens up, the Tree Swallows and Mountain Bluebirds arrive along with Savannah and Vesper Sparrows, Sora Rails and all the rest of our summer birds, wildflowers, fawns and gophers, badgers and skunks. Two or three crops of hay will be cut and the amber waves of grain are harvested in August, and finally the first of the Sandhill Cranes return. The circle is complete!

In the West Valley there are 8 ponds within a mile radius. They are fed by groundwater and are unpredictable in their annual water levels. Each fall one or more of the ponds will have that ideal level of exposed mudflats and extensive shallow water that cranes, shorebirds and waterfowl require. In a broken two mile radius are grain fields, wheat and barley and alfalfa hay. There are farmsteads and scattered small subdivisions, but not the strip malls, offices, rush hour traffic and city limits just three miles away. Through the efforts of the Flathead Land Trust, over 400 acres and the largest pond in the heart of the wetland area have been protected with a permanent conservation easement. Hopefully more area will be protected soon. It is a gift to us all; the cranes and the entire wetland/grain eco system, the farmers, school kids, all of us lucky enough to have visited the area, and those who never will but just know that it and other areas like it are there. I applaud the Flathead Land Trust, the landowners involved, and all those who contributed to make this easement happen. We at Wings In Nature are pleased to have been a part of this effort.

It is now nearly winter, almost time to head south ourselves. We will look for cranes in SE Arizona and New Mexico and follow them back home in early spring. Perhaps somewhere along the way I will again shoot that golden sunrise crane reflection photo!