February 15, we returned to nearby Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. Some three weeks had passed since our last trip. From mid-December through late January, visits rewarded us with thousands of sandhill cranes — feeding, dancing, cavorting, rattling, and bugling across the flats near the observation center. The center’s external microphones captured their cacophonous joy; speakers brought their celebrations indoors. What better place for the cranes to vacation than along a Tennessee River Valley refuge at 34.7 degrees North Latitude, while winter blasted their far northern breeding grounds!
We particularly enjoyed their comings and goings, streaming in continuously during the morning in ragged flights ranging from the occasional single to crowds of fifty-plus. Always approaching at 100-300 feet, swinging around to face the wind, and sailing with wings spread, sometimes with strong breezes, seeming stationary to the ground, slowly descending, with landing gears at the ready. An amazing display as they adjusted wing flaps and landed flawlessly upright. Discussion among those arriving and their cohorts on the ground rising to crescendo with each incoming group.
Because night predators would have easy access to cranes standing on upland fields, an hour or so before winter sunset brought high-level activity to the feeding grounds. Over the course of an incredible half-hour, first one and then many groups lifted with great ceremony, wheeling hither and yon, gathering, forming once again into loose formation, yakking incessantly, and generally heading east not far above tree top level. Many groups circled; some headed immediately east; and others flew east, returned, and then eventually flew east to the shallow, flooded flats where they found overnight safety. A daily social activity that expressed joy and love of life.
Were the sandhills the only Wheeler peak season feature, that would have been reward enough. Add in five to a high of 13 whooping cranes that we spotted, and explode the thrill and pleasure. Thank God we have tracked progress in saving this magnificent animal from the brink. Twice this season we marveled at a pair and their single immature offspring, still staying close to mom and dad.
Again, peak season covered the open water with many thousands of ducks of various species. One day in January, excitement spread among the loyal birders when we identified a pair of Asian widgeons, right there off the observation center, my first. Another day, the ducks lifted almost in unison, filling the sky, just as someone pointed out a red-tailed hawk cruising past. Last year we watched a red-tail feeding on fresh duck, ripping it apart from a perch on a strategically placed utility pole with platform.
Every time I experienced Wheeler during peak season, my heart raced; my soul and spirit lifted and soared. We knew the peak season would begin to ebb as spring neared. As we drove to Wheeler this week, red maple showed nearly full flower. A violet nodded at us along the trail. We also heard several weak peeper trills. As we neared the observation center, no sandhill rattles greeted us. We saw no birds through the winter-bare hardwoods. Entering the center, we noticed water and fields generally absent birds. Along the northern shore we counted a dozen or so sandhiils. A few mallards on the water, and scores of Canada geese feeding on fresh grass sprouts. Still mid-morning, we watched a few flights of sandhills wheel in from the east, swing south and land to the north, joining the cranes already gathered there. A local birder with strong spotting scope counted 231 cranes assembled by the time we departed.
Still enough to inspire awe and wonder, yet far short of the ten thousand that would be within sight during peak. I wondered, where are they? Winter is not yet in rapid retreat north of us. A red maple in flower here may suggest that the sugar maple sap is beginning to flow in southern Michigan, but reliable spring warmth trails far behind the first sap boiling. Perhaps the cranes are still nearby and were elsewhere on the refuge. I don’t think so; I’m told by those who have marked the ebbs and flows over decades that the fields are often thinly stocked by mid-February. I am delighted that we are now located permanently (no, nothing is permanent; yet we will be here until our days end), within 25 miles of this magical place, and we can chronicle the annual bird-doings ourselves.
All things in life and in the seasons of our enterprises experience patterns, cycles, and shifts. Most of those we can anticipate, predict, and monitor. We can modify our behavior and responses accordingly. I truly feel sorry for those fellow citizens of the Huntsville area who do not know the magic of Wheeler. Last evening, returning home from my wife’s doctor’s appointment, approaching my turn-off, I saw a young woman driver racing past me. I glanced over to see her holding a cigarette in her left hand and focusing on the hand-held device in her right. I am certain she does not know Nature. She can’t even see the life on the road she is dangerously traversing. She is blind to the life-dimension that restores and renews me. I pray that she kills no one, including herself.
I see such ignorance and ambivalence to what truly matters, and I want to do even more to awaken us — as individuals and as a society. Metaphorically, we are blind, deaf, and dumb (forgive me if I dare to say, recklessly stupid!). So many are simply not looking. So few are actually seeing. Almost none are feeling. And rare is the person who is seeing and feeling enough to act on behalf of our future.
As I repeat and pound in my essays, blogs, books, speaking, and consulting, my ultimate intent through Great Blue Heron is to enhance lives and enterprise success, even as I sow the seeds for responsible Earth stewardship. Every trip I make to Wheeler, whether during peak or off-season, fuels my mission and strengthens my resolve. Still my heart races and my soul soars.