Norwood’s leading birder and regional Black Canyon Audubon Society honcho George Steele, who sees very well, has confirmed the sighting. The first we knew of the new residents – the Crane family – came perhaps six weeks ago from our neighbors down the road, Julie and Ron McCallen. They’d spotted an adult crane and a baby. But look as we might, we never caught sight of the big birds. Until a few days ago. Then, despite the earlier “heads up,” somehow we were slow to figure out what we were seeing.
Looking out our broad stretch of windows on the north, which, among other things, give a commanding view of the imposing Uncompahgre Plateau, Steve and I puzzled to each other – out loud. What are those three large brown “things” grazing in our hay field, not 50 yards off? With their heads down, it was tough to tell. But – whoa! One of the “things” unfurled a glistening white head that sat at the top of a very long, thin, rather elegant neck. Wow, we said, cranes.
Previous summers, we’d caught glimpses of big blue herons, often at the edge of a nearby pond. Most ranchers on Wright’s Mesa can claim a pond or two and, according to the season, you can spot some very interesting and unusual migrating birds. Year round, we also regularly see large flocks of Canada geese not only around those ponds, but preemptively grazing in our best hay fields. Now and then, we can catch glimpses of Sandhill Cranes, stopping by a pond to refresh themselves, on their way to someplace else. But not grazing like they owned the place.
When I check with Dan Dillon, who’s been our neighbor down the road for something like 50 years, he said, “Oh yes, I’ve seen those big birds.” Dillon is known hereabouts as a legendary Boy Scout leader, now retired, who still teaches the state-required hunter safety courses. “I don’t shoot anything I can’t use,” he said with great conviction. “I just love to watch wildlife. I could do it 24 hours a day. Dan says he often “drives up in the hills, just to look” at the handsome critters, big and small, that inhabit the nearby high country.
Nesting cranes in Norwood, we agree, are something special. Birder George Steele says cranes are often seen in the spring and fall, stopping over on their way to their favorite seasonal hangout. Big flocks winter at New Mexico’s Bosque del Apache, and at Gray’s River in eastern Idaho. And some Sandhills winter over at the Fruitgrowers Reservoir in the Eckert-Hotchkiss area in Delta County. Steele says nesting pairs have summered in both the Nucla and Paradox areas, but that so far this new crane family is the first in San Miguel County.
Identified as the “Greater” variety, at maturity these birds average some 46 inches tall, with a 77-inch wingspan, weighing in at more than 10 pounds. Perhaps you remember news stories a few years ago about “Baby,” an orphaned young Sandhill adopted by a Nucla man. The big bird grew up on cat food and kindness and regularly strolled the streets, hung out in the school yard, and flew back and forth to Naturita – to the delight of everyone.
But when Baby’s adopted father, Roberto Lozano, was no longer able to care for the bird, several agencies and wildlife rehab outfits tried to introduce Baby to other cranes and a normal outdoor life. Colorado Division of Wildlife officials said Baby simply “never learned to be wild.” This big bird now delights visitors at a wildlife public education center, Steele reports.
Here at the Herndon Ranch, it’s been late afternoon when we’ve caught sight of San Miguel County’s first crane family, grazing in our hay fields then disappearing into the tall grass that flanks the Gurley ditch as it heads west through our place. But, a few nights ago, when I’d forgotten all about the new feathered visitors, I started an after-dinner walk down into the fields with Hank, our 6-year-old English Setter, who’s still a running fool. In no time, I heard a strange new sound, kind of a hollow, rhythmic thumping, too loud for a woodpecker.
Then, there was Hank, frozen in his tracks just this side of the narrow wooden plank bridge that crosses the ditch. On the other side was one adult Sandhill, standing its full height, ready for battle as it stared down my dog. Of course, I’m yelling like crazy. “Hank, come. Hank, no, no.” I don’t know what did it, but Hank stood for a few more seconds, and then meekly turned and trotted back to me. Whew!
So, we won’t walk down in the fields until we’re sure our summer visitors have left for the winter. Don’t suppose they’ll write or send word about when, or if, they’ll be coming back next year.