After spending about 10 weeks in the Rio Grande Valley this winter, we’re on the road again!
Actually, Michael is on the road. Renee has some doctor’s appointments to catch up on before she leaves. We usually travel together, so something had to be out there to get me to leave my better half behind. That something was a trio of Common Cranes.
Last winter at least three, and maybe as many as five, Common Cranes were found near Muleshoe NWR, in west Texas, and later in the season, near Bitter Lakes NWR, in eastern New Mexico. They may have been two distinct sets of birds or the same birds moving between the two refuges, a distance of a couple of hundred miles. In any case, we did not chase those birds because we were too busy getting ready for our Alaska adventure during the summer.
This year is different. We were already planning to visit our place in New Mexico for the spring season and a detour up to crane country was doable. In fact, the birds (if they are the same birds) moved a little closer this year. They are hanging out south of Lubbock, and though that is still about 700 miles from the RGV, it is only about an additional 350 miles to visit the cranes and then continue on to New Mexico. The only real changes to our plans are that “small” detour and the fact that I left early to chase the cranes while Renee kept her appointments.
Crane spotting is a lot of fun, but it is an exercise in patience and persistence to find the needle in a haystack. There are three Common Cranes among several flocks of Sandhill Cranes that must number from 20,000 to 40,000 birds. Those odds are far better than the PowerBall lottery, but it is still a daunting task to find one of the rarities among the spectacle.
The task is made much easier by the reports from other birders and especially from the reports made by a researcher who is studying Sandhill Cranes. In fact, the researcher, Justin Bosler, was the first to find the Common Cranes last year and again this year. That makes sense, since he spends every day banding, tracking and studying the Sandhill Cranes and is most likely to spot the odd birds in the flocks.
Armed with these prior reports, and even getting useful information from the negative reports, it was not too difficult to find the foraging flocks of cranes after my drive up from the RGV. Making sense of the chaotic situation of 20,000 to 40,000 cranes over a fairly large area was more difficult. Fortunately, other crane spotters (seven, including me; in four vehicles) were present and we all exchanged cell phone numbers and headed off in various directions to search the various flocks.
The weather was cold, clear, and somewhat windy. The birds tended to feed in shallow depressions to stay out of the cold wind. That made it difficult to see many of the birds. Plus, it always seemed that any large flock of cranes was situated so that the sun was in my eyes and viewing was practically impossible. Finally, the birds tended to be a long distance away and heat shimmer was obvious. Still, we all spent the entire morning searching through every flock that presented itself, waiting for the phone call that never came. By around noon the flocks of cranes started to head off to rest on nearby shallow lakes. Those lakes are on private property so we all took the afternoon off.
Later in the day I and one other couple searched other nearby areas and managed to find about 7,000 or 8,000 birds in several flocks. The lighting and viewing conditions were much better. The wind had died down and the birds were closer than those during the morning. Unfortunately, the results were the same.
The next day I was out even earlier than the birds. While driving around the fields waiting for the birds to show, it didn’t take long to reconnect with some of the people from the day before and to add one more number to our phone list. Soon, we could see long lines and wedges of birds lifting off from the lakes and heading toward the farm fields. Many birds continued on past us but some started to settle in various places. The hunt was on again as we all headed out to try to find vantage points to scope different flocks.
It was quite a spectacle. Many of the Sandhill Cranes were starting to hop and dance. Some were even mating. There were both greater and lesser races of Sandhills in the flocks and a variety of plumages, including some nearly completely cinnamon juvenile birds and a nearly totally white leucistic bird. I spent hours looking at every single head sticking up to find the distinctive dark neck and pale cheek of the Common Crane. After seeing dozens of dark necks that turned out to be shadows; after watching 5,000, 10,000, or 20,000 cranes in a dozen different flocks; after driving the same bad farm roads over and over … finally, I received a phone call. “We met a guy who says he just saw the bird and we’re trying to re-find it. Come over to the next road south of where we last saw you!”
I must have kicked up quite a rooster tail of sand as I raced over to the next road and saw two cars parked up ahead. I set up my scope and camera next to the others and we all kept looking at every head poking up above the feeding flock of about 5,000 cranes (a flock I had been looking at from the opposite direction earlier, but into the sun). “I think I see it.” said one birder. “It’s just to the left of the water tank in the distance; near the power pole that has the transformer.” With those kinds of detailed instructions even I could find the bird! Finally, I found the dark neck I had been looking for. I saw the black crown and the white cheek despite the heat shimmer and haze. I saw the yellow on the bill despite the fact that the viewing distance was 800 yards or so. I even got some poor photos.