The alarm rang at 4 a.m. pulling me from the depths of a dream in which I held a burning heart, over which green flames moved. It was a pleasant dream; the alarm felt like a hook that pulled me from a deep, deep place.
It was time. I gathered my clothing, tried to remember where the motel bathroom was as I navigated around the room; I made it without breaking a toe or bashing a shin.
Forty minutes later, dressed and ready, I got into the car and drove down the still-dark, freezing road. Shadows of deer and something else–a cougar? a bear?–swept across the edge of my vision.
Cold as it was, I rolled down the window. And I heard them. The gentle whirring, water-running sound of Sandhill Cranes. Mixed in with it where the more gravelly sounds of Snow Geese. In this small patch of New Mexico, known as El Bosque de Apache, 40,000 snow geese sweep through from Siberia, many of them staying at the Bosque for weeks. About 10,000 Sandhill Cranes travel through on their migration from the northern shore of Alaska.
The pond was dark. I barely found a place to park, slipping in as one of the last spectators. Photographers, with huge cameras on tripods, were outlines as patches of dark against the darker. It was just after 6 a.m.
As the sun thought about breaking over the horizon, I saw the white geese first. After a few minutes, I could see the light gray cranes, slowly walking through the water, nudging the geese aside as they passed. From the distance, they looked like ostriches moving through clumps of snow.
One of the tricks I learned from photographers is to turn around and look behind you. Often interesting sites are happening right behind you. I turned around and saw hundreds of geese, circling and then landing in the pond.
In another half hour, the pond was full of milling birds. The sun was about to break over the horizon. I thought the geese would leave at dawn, but they allowed the tension to build.
The audience was restive, waiting for “blast off” –the moment when the geese gave themselves a signal and took off–all at once. The cranes travel in smaller groups, but not the geese. A few people left, tired of waiting, tired of being cold. Waiting for nature to be amazing is not a sport for those who love instant gratification. I stayed.
And then, just as I had hoped, without any warning at all, the 10,000 geese sitting on two ponds shot into the air, as one. The world was filled with the sound of beating wings that drowned out the calls of the birds.The sound was that of a thousand pillows being beaten–heavy, solid feathers pushing air to gain altitude.
That none of them ran into each other was a miracle. The noise of a the photographers’ auto drives were drowned out by the beating wings. The mass of white birds, each with black-tipped wings, flew directly over our heads, breaking into Vs as they gained altitude. In two minutes, the pond was silent.
The patient cranes stood in groups, still walking toward a spit of land. They ran a few steps, and flapping their long wings, rose carefully into the sky, calling each other.
What an amazing combination of instinct and survival urge, and what a gift of sound and sight.
––Quinn McDonald is a naturalist and writer who teaches writing. She is a creativity coach to clients around the world.