At the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico, the sandhill cranes are not yet awake. It's early February, barely dawn, and a brightening sky throws pewter light over the shallow pond in front of me, its surface rough with ice. Backed by cottonwoods and distant hills, the far side of the pond is still deep in twilight, but I can hear the snow geese there, conversing among themselves with a nasal chatter. In the middle of the pond, the pale sheen of the ice helps to illuminate some dark silhouettes: the silent rounded humps that are sleeping cranes.
The stark form of a cottonwood juts out of the pond near them. The angular lines of its upper branches are sketched in deepest black against the opalescent sky; a dark oval on one branch will resolve into a bald eagle as the illumination increases.
The frost on the boards of the observation deck presses its chill up through the bottom of my boots, and I think of the birds on the pond, standing bare-legged in the icy water. The cranes winter here, in the Rio Grande Valley of south-central New Mexico, as they have for generations. In a few weeks, they will begin to fly north, toward the Canadian plains to breed and nest. They will fly through my home state of Colorado, stopping in fields and wetlands to rest along the way.
A few years ago, my husband and I went to see the migrating cranes at a refuge near Colorado's southern border. At the edge of a field where grain had been cut and left as forage, we watched the large, smoke-colored sandhills fly in for the night. Gliding down with hollow cries, they'd alight with a few bouncing steps, and then straighten. Long-necked and long-legged, they arranged the distinctive flounce of feathers at their rear with a few shakes and stalked the ground with deliberate steps, an endearing mix of gawkiness and grace.
The field where my husband and I stood watching was just a few miles from a major highway that I had traveled uncountable times growing up. Going to visit my grandparents or riding along with my father on business trips, that road had been, I thought, drained of all novelty. Yet here I was, in my 30s, watching a spectacle I'd never seen before. I don't know why my parents never stopped, but I suspect it was mostly for lack of time: To be on the road with my father at the wheel was to be caught up in his singular goal of getting where he was going as fast as possible.
Today, at the urging of a friend, I've made time for the cranes. She is standing nearby when something startles the geese. There is a whir that grows into the roar of thousands of wings in motion. The birds' cries are layered over the thunderous wing beats, a shrieking, honking cacophony. The flock ascends, a blur of white flowing toward us out of the gloom. The noise is terrific, a blast of feathers and voices. The geese circle over our heads and then settle again.
In front of us, the sandhills' heads are still tucked beneath their wings; they seem oblivious to the ruckus. The sun is not yet up, but I can now see them through my binoculars: White frost has settled on their gray backs. They stand in small pools of open water, the skim of ice held at bay by the heat of their bodies or their slight movements in the night.
They will take their time waking. When the sun is fully up, they will straighten their lanky necks to reveal the red crowns on their heads. They will preen and call to one another in their comic voices. The geese will burst off the pond all at once, departing for the grain fields in a flurry of noise, their white and black wings creating a scintillating cloud.
The cranes will leave gradually, taking off singly or in pairs or in family groups of four or five or eight. The birds, slipping on the ice as they take off, will be awkward for a moment but then will settle into the easy rhythm of their slow and majestic flight. Necks extended, long legs trailing neatly behind, wings flung wide, the feathers at their wingtips will spread like fingers caressing the air.
My friend and I will look and listen, luxuriating in the gift we have given ourselves: the gift of a day in which there is no place more important than this, no goal more pressing than watching the cranes as they take to the sky.