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les evjen

Les Evjen

It was the first day for the annual sandhill crane winter southward migration. What a magnificent event it is to hear and witness.

It is like being on some high promontory in the Serengeti/Masai Mara areas of Tanzania and Kenya looking down on the hundreds of thousands of wildebeest and zebra move from one end of the vast grassy plain to the other right below you. Except that with cranes, they are up high in the sky moving from north to south, and you are down low looking up and listening.

On they come, in crooked V's, flapping their wings and gliding, wandering out of position, arguing all the time, with what sounds like the gargling of salt water from thousands of sore throats. A high- pitched warble of shrill confusion and cries for help. Constantly twisting, coming apart, spreading out and drifting back into a mob of graceful movements like a ripple moving down a sandy beach at sunset.

Onward and onward, more and more and more. Dozens, then tens of dozens, then hundreds and thousands and tens of thousand unceasing. In slow, beautiful motion, like the World War II films of endless formations of bombers leaving England crossing the channel and heading for Germany. All the same dull gray/brown color. All the same shape. All the same direction. All the same elevation. Very high today, just under a heavy cloud layer left over from a 2/10 of an inch rainfall from the night before.

Then, right above me, the largest crooked V turns back on itself in a gentle loop that turns into confusion and that leads to swarming with no leaders, no V's. Around and around, slowly mixing everything up, confused with no direction home or just resting on the currents while they catch their breath and continue the long journey. Drifting more west than south until order is restored and formations are formed once again and pointed south. Away from the cold, damp wind, dried-up water holes, gray skies and broken grass gone far to dry from drought.

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Another sound, different this time but familiar. Look up, search the masses of birds. There. There they are in a perfect V with 15 to a side. Honkers! Canada geese. Great, strong flyers moving straight south, right through the crowded crane filled sky. Faster than the cranes. No gliding. Just the continuous rhythmic up/down movement of massive wings propelling them forward with more definite purpose.

Then another goose V with flankers this time, plus two on point and a rear guard of four. Military all the way. No time to waste. No resting on the thermals gliding around in circles. Let's get there. Then we can rest.

Winter is coming. The warning came today. The great birds are on the move away from this place and places farther north, where winter is already arriving and food is running out. Fly high away from the guns. Away from danger. Onward and onward, hour after hour. The season is changing. The daylight grows shorter. The air is crisp, with hidden frost, killing the leftover bugs, leaves and grass.

Drain the hose. Hang the sprinklers. Bring in the tomatoes. Store the mower. Stack the hay. Bring in the paint. Fill the feed tubs. Sharpen the ax. Cut and split the wood. Get ready for the long nights, frozen ground, heavy coats, warm caps and good boots. Popcorn and root beer. Good books. Old movies. Hockey. Warm wood fires. Mozart. Naps. Soup.

Winter is coming.

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Les Evjen wrote this piece about the first sign of sandhill cranes after he saw them Oct. 9 while cutting firewood on his property near Fairburn.

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