OUT: Sandhill cranes and their fans gather for N.M. festival

Crane watchers peer through the holes in the viewing blind at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. The blind allows photographers and viewers a closer peek at cranes and ducks.

A flight of sandhill cranes joins the early morning fly-out to feeding fields in the Rio Grande Valley of central New Mexico. By midwinter, upward of 10,000 sandhill cranes might be in the area.

SOCORRO, N.M. — A green and yellow wool scarf pulled tight around his neck, Ivan Sorensen leaned into the brisk wind and smiled with the easy grace of someone accustomed to the cold.

“At home, this is normal,” he said, his rich Norwegian accent muffled by the scarf and the wind. “The wind and cold are normal.”

The cold might be normal to the native of Oslo, Norway, but what isn’t normal are the sight and the sounds of hundreds of sandhill cranes a hammer toss away.

Daybreak last Friday found Sorensen and three other “craniacs” on a weathered wooden deck taking part in the annual Festival of the Cranes at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge 18 miles south of Socorro, N.M.

The volunteer-run, weeklong festival is held each mid-November and, in those years when the weather up North turns nasty early, may see 10,000 or more sandhill cranes.

This year, however, with mild temperatures lingering across the United States and Canada, early visitors reported fewer birds but still enough to be impressive.

Volunteers and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees estimated approximately 2,200 or so sandhill cranes were at Bosque last week, a number that has more than doubled as of this writing. While not all of the cranes were strutting and foraging in the wet meadow fronting the deck, there were enough to create a voice-drowning racket.

Combine the collective voices of the cranes and the even more-boisterous gabbles and quacks of several hundred mallards and there was plenty to hear and talk about.

Sorensen grinned at the hubbub and pushed his mild voice over the wind and the never-ceasing racket.

“They certainly are noisy,” he said, smiling at the sight of a gray carpet of cranes. “I was in Dallas and heard about this. I caught a plane to El Paso and drove up last night. I’m glad I came.”

Even long-time crane festival-goers never tire of the sight of a New Mexico dawn filled with thousands of lesser and greater sandhill cranes, tens of thousands of snow geese and other waterfowl and the occasional Great Blue heron or two.

The sight is repeated each evening when it seems every large bird in central New Mexico is winging to a night roost in the 55,000-acre refuge.

And as all crane lovers know, the distinctive ka-roo, ka-roo bugling song of the cranes presages their passage everywhere they go. That continuous song fills every waking minute (and some dreams, too) during the Festival of the Cranes, which this year celebrated its 22nd year.

“Sandhills never do anything quietly,” mused Paul Tebbel of Sacramento, Calif., leading an early morning tour to watch fly-out, the hour or so right around dawn when the cranes and geese filter out of the refuge for their day of feeding. “You’d think it’s complete mayhem out there but watch if a juvenile crane gets separated from its parents. They can recognize it by its call.”

Tebbel has spent more than 30 years studying cranes and for 11 of those years he was director of the Audubon Society’s Rowe Sanctuary on the South Platte River near Kearney, Neb. Each spring, the site is a bottleneck of migrating cranes, attracting up to 600,000 cranes heading for summer breeding grounds way to the north.

“Don’t be confused about the different sizes of the birds,” Tebbel cautioned his well-bundled listeners, whom he earlier termed “budding craniacs. “The bigger cranes are greater sandhill cranes and will summer in Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming and Montana.

“The smaller cranes are lesser sandhills and they actually fly farther, some as far as eastern Siberia, to breed and raise their young.”

Nearly two decades ago, researchers from the Colorado Division of Wildlife put identifying leg bands on sandhill cranes nesting near Steamboat Lake. Last year, a crane wearing one of those leg bands was reported at Bosque, but the sighting was never confirmed.

Still, the news that one of those birds had survived for almost 20 years was heartening to Robert Kruidenier, a long-time volunteer naturalist at Bosque and for years the refuge’s unofficial keeper of the cranes.

“Cranes can live 20 to 40 years in captivity but it’s much less in the wild, for obvious reasons,” Kruidenier said. “It’s very rare to hear about a crane banded 20 years ago.”

One of those reasons is predators, and on that deck with Sorensen was wildlife videographer Mike Bennett of Crestone, busy gathering footage for a crane documentary for PBS.

“I watched two coyotes work that flock of mallards yesterday,” Bennett said, nodding at the mass of greenheads feeding right along with the cranes in the marshy meadow. “It was strictly luck, although I’ve seen coyotes here before. I don’t think they could take down a crane, though.”

Young cranes are full grown by the time they make the long flight to winter grounds at Bosque, big enough to make even bold coyotes shy away.

They are big, brash and loud, often dancing for no apparent reason other than it seems like a good idea, especially when you’ve reached a rich sanctuary and are surrounded by several thousand of your closest friends.


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