New Mexico is a wintering resort for birds and probably has been for hundreds of years. The Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, one hundred miles south of Albuquerque, has become winter home to snow geese and ducks, Canada geese and herons, and sandhill cranes by the thousands.
Every morning the sandhill cranes assemble, and, when the time is right, they fly northward along the Rio Grande in long impressive strings, to feed in the fields, returning in their countless numbers to the waterfowl refuge at the end of day.
And so it was - wanting to see the sandhill cranes - I determined to go to where they spend their day, up-river from the waterfowl refuge, tiptoeing and pecking in hayfield and cornfield with the quail and the cows. Sandhills are large, gray, stately birds with red faces who walk delicately on stilt legs.
I had watched the cranes leave the Bosque on early winter mornings, had seen them up river during the bright and pastel winter days, and had often been in the neighborhood when they came home, just as the sun was going down. But I didn't know how far north, along the Rio Grande, they went each day. So on this mid-January Sunday I was guessing - and sitting in a cornfield in late late afternoon, many miles north of the Bosque, waiting for the sandhills. I didn't know if they were south of me, so that I would miss them, or up river, just beginning to talk among themselves about the wisdom of returning to their marsh before the coyote dark.
It was something of a bleary afternoon by New Mexico standards. The usual taken-for-granted sun was obscured by a wintry haze. The last of the afternoon's light was hitting the snowy mountains to the east. A silent hawk drifted into the woods from his lookout tree.
Over in a field, a half mile off, stood a lone sandhill crane. As the cloud-streaked sky began to turn sunsety, he was joined by just one other. When I had been to this place before, there had been thousands of sandhills in the neighborhood. But not today.
The glow on the snowy mountains now was gone. I tromped through the gloom, happy to see the fifteen quail take running, flopping flight. But still no cranes.
I looked at the dry, red, presumably crane-eaten corncobs against the dry yellow colors of the corn husks and stalks. Little birds were rustling there. The sky was a confusion of color to the west and the sun was now nearly down. It was almost time to call it a day. I would have to see the sandhills some other time.
Then I thought I heard a honking. Thought I saw some distant strands of fliers above my field of corn. It was dark to the north and at first I wasn't sure. Then they came into view. A long long straggled line of sandhill cranes. Honking louder and louder as they came closer and closer. From a stretching dotted line to tiny flapping, and finally now, large graceful birds flying overhead, trumpeting loudly, necks stretched homeward, long legs straight back, rhythmically flapping their long wings.
I soon realized this was no bunch of stragglers, gone too far north for the day. This was just the beginning of the sandhill legions of the sky. This was the scouting string, now in its broken V against the setting sun, soon to disappear from view as the next strings appeared.
The scattered, honking strings of sandhills came in flying formations a mile long and spaced five miles apart, new strings arriving every few minutes.
I sat down in a clearing in the rustling corn to watch the magnificent big birds, flying and gliding in such precision directly overhead.
One crane would trumpet. Then another. They were now passing overhead not by the hundreds but by the thousands, crane squadron after crane squadron against the suffused sky. Thousands and thousands and thousands.
And finally they were gone. Silence came. There was a slight evening wind as I stood in my sundown cornfield alone, just as the last of the January sunshine blasted the place in a golden glow.