Sign of the Season: Sandhill Crane Migration

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Sandhill crane at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico.

A sandhill crane at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. Doug Fine for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Doug Fine for NPR

An obscure spot in New Mexico called Bosque Del Apache is where the world's largest concentration of sandhill cranes migrate every fall. The majestic and ancient birds form seas of blue along the Rio Grande. Writer Doug Fine watched some of this year's migration.


Let's take a moment this morning to note a sign of the changing seasons. When the cottonwoods begin to turn a mustard yellow along the Rio Grande River in central New Mexico, it's time for a massive migration. Doug Fine was on hand for this year's winter migration of sandhill cranes.

(Soundbite of sandhill cranes)

DOUG FINE reporting:

At sunset every night in autumn and winter here at the Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, tens of thousands of four-foot-tall primeval creatures land like fleets of small airplanes. These sandhill cranes enchant the few non-scientists who have come here on this November evening. Bird Gibbons(ph) of Albuquerque is rapt.

Ms. BIRD GIBBONS: I don't have words. It's something that is inside me and inside the cranes.

(Soundbite of cranes)

FINE: The cranes alight in boggy meadows all along this protected area 150 miles south of Albuquerque. To pass the time, they shout at each other in territorial disputes and bob in nuptial dances as they settle into a nighttime equilibrium. It's all part of the complex vocabulary of the sandhill cranes, intelligible only to those who study them, like naturalist Robert Kruidenier.

Mr. ROBERT KRUIDENIER (Naturalist): The sound that we heard just a second ago is called a unison call. It's done only by mated pairs.

FINE: The scene is so primeval amidst these pterodactyl look-alikes, it's hard to believe that Interstate 25 is only eight miles away, but like busy commuters set in their ways, the cranes are dedicated to their flyway, according to refuge senior wildlife biologist John Brandenburg.

Mr. JOHN BRANDENBURG (Biologist): Bosque Del Apache sort of has it all. We have the water. We have the food resources that they need, and we're right on the natural funnel of the Rio Grande River.

FINE: The cranes themselves have six-foot wingspans, mate for life and can live as long as 35 years or more. Thus, it's easy to see why they've long been symbols of romance and fertility.

(Soundbite of cranes)

FINE: The cranes will stay here until February, when they return to summer breeding grounds across the northern Rocky Mountains. As the last light paints a magenta palette across the vast Western sky, fleets of late-arriving cranes continue to swoop down into the roost. Earlier arrivals already have their scarlet crowns tucked into chest feathers in an attempt to get some sleep at a very noisy hotel.

(Soundbite of cranes)

FINE: Upwards of 20,000 cranes can be expected here this winter, the sixth year that naturalist Kruidenier has been watching the sandhills of Bosque Del Apache. The cranes are a source of optimism.

Mr. KRUIDENIER: There's nowhere else in the world where you're going to get this many cranes in one location with mountains in the background and deserts and the trees are turning. It's all part of the geography of hope.

(Soundbite of cranes)

FINE: For NPR News, I'm Doug Fine.

(Soundbite of cranes)


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