A Wish Granted


“Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty.  It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language.  The quality of cranes lies, I think, in this higher gamut, as yet beyond the reach of words.”
 from the chapter “Marshland Elegy” in A Sand County Almanac ~ Aldo Leopold


For several years, I’ve experienced sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) only at a distance: as shadowy forms feeding in far fields or as harsh, mysterious calls echoing across the landscape. At each encounter, I’d say — to myself, if to no one else — “I wish I could get a good look at some.”

When I sighted a small group of cranes on the west end of Galveston Island last Sunday, they weren’t precisely close, but they were close enough for a few photographs. I was surprised by the brightness of their red crown and the varied colors in their feathers; their willingness to parade back and forth across the prairie while I admired them was both unexpected and delightful.


Comments always are welcome.
Photos can be enlarged by clicking on the image.

58 thoughts on “A Wish Granted

    1. Two photos were a little sharper, but in those, the bill of the bird farthest away was partially hidden, so I decided to go with the photo that showed separation between its bill and the back of its companion. The symmetry in their pose is nice, especially since each has a different leg in the air.

      The first thing I had to do when I began reading the linked article was look up ‘grallatorial.’ I may have come across that before, but I didn’t remember it. Then, I got to cran, and of course I wondered if ‘cranberry’ was related. Sure enough: “The reason for the name is not known; perhaps they were so called from fancied resemblance between the plants’ stamens and the beaks of cranes.”

      1. Yeah, grallatorial sent me dictionary-hopping, too. I found that grallae in Latin were ‘stilts’ and that a grallator was a ‘stilt walker.’ Speaking of which, our use of stilted to mean ‘awkward, unnatural’ derived from the precariousness of a person walking on stilts.

    2. I just read that these used to be in the genus Grus. According to the American Birding Association 2016 supplement, “The genus Antigone has been split from Grus. Scientific names for Whooping and Common cranes remain unchanged, but Sandhill Crane has changed from Grus canadensis to Antigone canadensis. The other members of Antigone are White-naped Crane, Brolga, and Sarus Crane. Antigone is the name of Oedipus’s daughter/half-sister in Greek mythology.”

      That still doesn’t answer the question of why ‘Antigone’ was chosen as the genus name. Now I’m wondering if kids in school still study the plays of Sophocles, Euripedes, and Aeschylus. When we produced Antigone in our 9th grade Western Civ class, I wanted in the worst way to be Antigone or Ismene, but I ended up as Eurydice and part of the chorus. Sigh.

      1. Forget kids in school (if by that you mean primary and secondary schools), even college students today are highly unlikely to hear about the famous playwrights of ancient Greece. There are colleges where English majors don’t have to take a single course about Shakespeare and history majors at many of the top school don’t have to take a single course on U.S. history.

        There are genus and species names that show that at least some biologists have a sense of whimsy. I came across the species name themistocles the other day. It seems to have been chosen for reasons as inscrutable as your Antigone.

  1. Also from Aldo Leopold on cranes: Our appreciation of the crane grows with the slow unravelling of earthly history. His tribe, we now know, stems out of the remote Eocene. The other members of the fauna in which he originated are long since entombed within the hills…..And so they live and have their being – these cranes – not in the constricted present but in the wider reaches of evolutionary time. Their annual return is the clicking of the geologic clock. The sadness discernible in some crane marshes arises, perhaps, from their once having harboured cranes. Now they stand humbled, adrift in history

    1. I do enjoy Leopold’s writing, and this is a particularly fine passage. His works often remind me of Loren Eiseley, another naturalist whose view of the universe stretches in both directions, and whose understanding of its processes is especially sensitive.

  2. We lived in Silver City, NM, for some years, and would make an annual trip to the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge near there. It is on a major flyway, and thousands of sandhill cranes winter there, arriving in early November. It is quite a sight to see flight after flight of these majestic birds set their wings and circle in formation on final approach for landing. Your image of these two really does show off that red crown, common to both the sandhills and their cousin the whooper. Beautiful.

    1. The photos and videos I’ve seen from Bosque del Apache are fabulous, as are those from the Nebraska sandhills. We have large groups of them around from time to time — perhaps even very large, from the sound of their calls — but they can be difficult to find; the sound of them seems to be everywhere and nowhere at once.

      You might enjoy my only other photos of the cranes. There’s a bit of a Chinese watercolor feel, actually.

    1. They do mate for life, and this pair did seem to be hanging out together, so they might have been a ‘couple.’ On the other hand, I might only have caught these two in the same frame. There were about a dozen of them moving around, so it’s hard to say.

      The female and male sandhill are almost identical in appearance, so it’s not easy to use that as a clue. It seems that there are differences in their mating calls, but none of these had anything to say, so even sound wasn’t a good way to distinguish them.

    1. I was especially taken with their feathers. As you know, they seem rather gray and bland from a distance, so I was surprised to see such variation in feather color. I’ve laughed at the description of those feathers at the rear as a ‘bustle,’ too. It seems quite appropriate!

  3. Come to Michigan in September and we’ll take you to the Sandhill Crane Festival where the cranes seem to come in looking like WWI warplanes, coming in swarms at dusk to rest before going wherever it is they go next (eventually, perhaps, to you!). I’m so happy you got to see these splendid birds. Your photos are really lovely — good zoom!

    1. This surprised me, Jeanie. I know about some of the more famous spots to see sandhill cranes, but I didn’t realize they were part of Michigan birding. And when I went to the map to see where the Baker Sanctuary might be, I laughed to see another familiar spot nearby: Southern Exposure! You go right past the sanctuary on your way to events at that beloved spot. Wouldn’t a September visit be fun? You’d be just about ready to close up at the lake, and it would be too early for the snow to be flying — at least, I hope so!

      1. Think about it. I wouldn’t “make” you take a SE workshop but the gardens are free and like you said, not at all far away from the festival! And yes, it IS too early for the snow! I’ve seen it as late as Mother’s Day but never in September!

  4. What a wonderful sight. Their bodies remind me of our emu. I’ve never seen a Crane, but Mr Google tells me Australia has 2.

    I’d be going back to Galveston Island regularly in the hope of seeing some more. The large birds I see are a favourite photography subject because they usually stand still for a portrait, not like those tiny birds I photograph which flit back and forth and are constantly on the move.

    1. They do have an emu-like appearance. These were tall birds, and bigger than I expected. Their tails actually are fairly short, and covered by those long feathers at their rumps; that arrangement makes them look even larger. The Cornell site describes the long feathers at their nether end as ‘bustles,’ and I think that’s perfect.

      In truth, I was lucky to get this photo before they leave us for the year. They’re migrants here, coming down the central flyway and arriving in Texas at the end of October or beginning of November. They’re about ready to leave now, heading back to their nesting grounds until next year. I just read an article that said about 500-1,000 can be found around the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge, mostly in flooded rice fields. That explains why I so often hear them without being able to see them. Their calls can be heard for 2-3 miles, and when they’re on the ground, that makes sighting them really difficult.

  5. Peggy and I were camping out in Florida once when they walked right into our camp like they owned it, and totally ignored us. We sat enthralled. And then we had the experience this fall of watching a few thousand of them in New Mexico. Aldo Leopld’s “Sand Country Almanac” is a favorite of mine. I’ve read it several times over the years when I’ve carried it backpacking. It’s light (always a good qualification for backpacking) and it goes so well with the experience of being out in the wilderness. Leopold was responsible for creating the Gila Wilderness, the first designated wilderness in the US and I believe the world. Your cranes look like they are on patrol, which they probably are for an errant mouse or frog! –Curt

    1. Maybe you were in their spot, Curt. I read some of the history of their movements, and learned that they often will return to the same spot year after year — sometimes within 150′ of where they were the previous year. That’s pretty amazing. On the other hand, there’s a hawk who’s come back four years running to the wires across from the chandlery where I buy work supplies. He shows up about 7 or 8 in the morning, and is there until about 3 or so. There’s a wide utility easement that runs for some distance, and the hunting must be good.

      The two species in Florida differ from ours, but their diet’s much the same. I suspect the ones I saw might have been enjoying crawfish as well as the occasional frog or insect. That’s one reason they enjoy rice fields; the crawfish like to set up housekeeping there, too.

      1. Most migrating birds from my experience, Linda, like to return to the same area. Maybe it’s because they know where to find breakfast, lunch and dinner, not to mention a mate.
        Question, have you ever eaten crawfish? –Curt

        1. Sure, I have. I don’t even mind that some people call them mudbugs; they’re just as tasty. There’s a place down at the Texas City dike where you can get good Louisiana crawfish by the pound or by the sack, and if you’re not inclined to boil up a pot at home, there are plenty of places, like their Cajun grill, where you can order them cooked, as a meal. I’ve been to the Crawfish festival over in Breaux Bridge, and adore a good etoufée. In truth, I prefer them in gumbo or crawfish pie, but there’s nothing more fun than a crawfish boil.

          See what you’ve done? All I can do at 6 in the morning is listen to this!

          1. Always loved the tune, Linda. At 6 in the morning. Hmmm. My brother and I used to catch them in the local creek and bring them home for my mother to cook up. Tasty little buggers. There is a big crawfish festival every year in the Sacramento River Delta. –Curt

            1. That’s interesting. I had no idea there were crawfish out there, but of course I didn’t know there are something like 32 or 36 crawfish species in Texas, either. The birds sure love them, and probably other things, too.

            2. A one bite meal for us. A bit more for a bird. They were hard to catch, shooting backwards at great speed and hiding under rocks. Of course that made catching them all the more fun. Plus it was one more excuse to get in the water. –Curt

  6. You captured a wonderful portrait of these inspiring birds, Linda. I also love the attached Aldo Leopold quote. It makes me want to re-read “A Sand County Almanac.” It has been too long since I last picked it up.

    1. It’s a wonderful book. I was introduced to it by a woman in Michigan long before I became interested in prairies or native plants. I suppose it’s part of what sensitized me to the importance of both. I love this quotation:

      “The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant: “What good is it?” If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”

  7. Majestic comes to mind when I see photos of the sandhill crane. Beginning in my childhood and into my now old age, I equate fall with the call of the sandhill crane. I look forward to hearing the distinctive call as they pass overhead. I have not actually seen this beautiful bird other than in photographs but to me, hearing the call is about as satisfying as the real thing.

    I must say that this was a fortunate find and the photos here are very complimentary of these two birds in synch.

    1. There’s no mistaking that call, is there? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stared into the sky, trying to find them after hearing them. Around my area, they’re quite hard to see; they’ve either left their feeding grounds, or just are arriving, and I suppose they don’t sit down until they’re farther south. I have read several articles about Galveston Island and the refuges that say “look here” or “look there,” but of course there’s no telling when they’ll actually be around.

      I’m glad to have seen these, and I’m quite fond of the photo, but like you, there’s nothing quite like hearing them — unless it would be hearing and seeing them at the same time.

    1. This was one time that opening the car door and stepping out didn’t bother the birds at all. I took several shots from the car, and then decided there was nothing to lose, so I got out. They continued to browse: aware, but apparently experienced enough to know I’d not be crossing the barbed wire fence.

  8. I love their scarlet crowns, too, Linda. This pair didn’t seem too wary of you and your camera. Perhaps they realized somehow that photographing them would mean as much to you as it did!

    1. I don’t know about that, but I’m pretty sure they realized I wasn’t going to eat them, and I wasn’t worried about them attacking me, so we got along just fine for nearly a half-hour or more. I was surprised by how bright their crowns were. Since they’re heading north to breed, it may be that their colors are brightening up just as they do with our more familiar birds. They were gorgeous, that’s for sure!

    1. Your eyes are right. Only our whooping cranes are larger, and the largest of these was nearly as tall as I am. They’re not only statuesque, they’re quite dignified in their behavior — until mating season arrives, at least. I can’t go to Nebraska this year for spring migration, but this video will give you a taste of what people see there. My pair of cranes have a lot of friends.

    1. I was thrilled, Ellen. The closest I’ve ever seen them to you was in a field south of El Campo. They were pretty far away, and they weren’t very distinct, but there’s no mistaking the birds when you see them.

  9. In a just and equitable universe, the clumsy and fumble-footed are reincarnated as cranes, for it is by special dispensation bestowed from on High on these most fortunate of birds that they cannot not be graceful.

    1. Watching their mating rituals is wonderful. Their dancing reminds me of our first attempts to mimic the popular dances in junior high. Fumble-footed is exactly the right word!

  10. It’s nice when a wished for opportunity is granted and you have evidence of it. This is a nice mid-prance capture. They are beautiful birds and a success story for bringing an animal back from the brink of extinction. Wish they visited here.
    You can’t go wrong with a quote from Aldo Leopold.

    1. The unexpectedness of the encounter always is a plus. While I appreciate zoos for the work they do in educating people and nurturing animals, it’s quite a different experience to go to a zoo to see particular creatures. No matter how well done the exhibit, it’s still an exhibit. It’s quite another thing to come around a corner and be face-to-beak with such a wonderful bird.

    1. We’re a wintering ground for the endangered whooping crane, too, but they hang out farther down the coast, and it’s not a day trip from here. The sandhills are much more common, despite my own difficulty finding them. Like you, I generally have herons and egrets to enjoy, and there’s nothing wrong with that!

  11. Fantastic photos. I have never seen these cranes up close. For several years I worked from one end of Nebraska to the other. Their sand hills are known for migrating cranes, but I never was there at the right time.

    1. Thanks, Jason. It was a thrill to find these, believe me. I follow Chris Helzer, who’s with The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska, and have learned a good bit about Nebraska — including those sandhills — through his blog, The Prairie Ecologist. Timing can be so hard — even with such things as autumn color, a sudden temperature change or whatever can lay waste to vacation plans!

    1. I suppose the good news is that they’re so big we at least can know they’re around, even if we can’t get an up-close-and-personal view of them. There were about a dozen in this group, and I have a couple of other photos that are decent, but I really liked the way this pair seemed synchronized in their walking.

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