Earlier this week, John Vukmirovich favored me with one of his accounts, this about watching cranes come over Chicago.
I find his writings from the Southeast Side of Chicago good enough to call him the ``Wordsmith of the 10th Ward.''
Last Saturday started brisk and cold. Dressed in fleece-lined sweatpants, a heavy wool shirt, and a watch cap, I spent about an hour and a half in Eggers Grove, just after sunrise until just before eight o'clock. I had gone there hoping for a repeat of the morning before, when the slough on the east side of the woods was filled with several dozen mallards, a handful of lesser Canada geese, and a slew of their goslings, the latter looking like plump balls of chocolate-colored down. The boggy area that has been forming in the heart of Eggers Grove over the past four or five years was also filled with noisy, fractious mallards.
The biggest treat on Friday turned out to be the herd of eleven whitetail deer, including a six-point buck, that I almost walked into in the wide expanse of dried baby bluestem between Eggers Grove and the old Nike missile site. On Saturday morning, nearly everything was as it had been on Friday, except for the deer. After a long walk to Wolf Lake and back, I kept looking up, wondering if the sandhills would come over. When I was a few blocks from home, just before eight, a skein of about seventy-five cranes haikued their way above me, heading west by northwest. The sky was perfectly clear, a fine, clean, robin's egg blue, as if the Artist had laid down an imprimatura over the canvas, and then decided, in a moment of inspiration, to paint only cranes in dun, copper, and red.
I hurried home, made a cup of tea, and with my binoculars in hand, and with a small notebook and pencil just inside the kitchen door, I waited in the backyard. From eight until eleven sharp, they came over in skeins of seventy or so, on the average, but starting at ten, they came over in waves, with some skeins numbering three hundred. By eleven o'clock, with the sun as bright as a mirror, I decided I had my fill, as I was fairly numb from the stiff, cold wind and I had some errands to run. When I went inside to get warm, I tallied the count from my notebook: approximately 4,200 sandhills had come over my house.
And perhaps two whooping cranes.
Between ten and a quarter after the hour, two large skeins of nearly three hundred came over minutes apart. In each skein, I could hear a call distinctly different from a sandhill's kroo, sounding more like a kroobleat out of a tin horn. Make that a very large tin horn! In the first instance, I was able to quickly spot a bird noticeably larger than a sandhill, but as I was directly below it, I didn't notice any immediate difference in coloration. Perhaps a juvenile whooper? In the second instance, however, the skein wheeled about to wait for a smaller one to catch-up and merge with it. As the cranes turned, I spotted another over-sized bird and ... it was white.
As a crane addict, my favorite moments come when several skeins merge to form a new one, more like a colony. The birds reel about in wide arcs, always moving counter-clockwise, until a new leader emerges and they continue on. During this process-- which often sees them making a number of rotations, like a sandhill crane cyclone--they are extremely vocal, as if they are sounding out the rest of the colony as to who should be their leader. But they always find the right one.
We should be so lucky.
Cold, clear blue skies, the sun like a mirror, and thousands of cranes: And through it all, I never had to leave my backyard.