An Unexpected Quest

While seeing my first Whooping Crane was eventful, it didn’t come close to such date stamps as the Kennedy Assassination or 9/11. So, no, the exact time, date and even the year escapes me. It was while visiting friends in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, Greg and Suzanne Gosar. Suzanne and I were having sandwiches in the add-on greenhouse of their remote farmhouse a step or two down from their kitchen when Greg burst through the door and excitedly said, “Get your camera! There are sandhills in the barley stubble!”

A bit of local geography … the San Luis Valley is a high, flatland in the south-central part of the state and nestled between the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range on both the south and east sides and the La Garita and Conejos-Brazos mountain range on the north and west. The Sand Dunes National Monument hugs the base of the Sangre de Cristos. The valley is approximately 125 miles long and over 65 miles wide, and Greg’s organic grain farm is smack dab in the middle of the valley as a tip of an imaginary triangle between Monte Vista and Alamosa. You reached the homestead via gravel roads from either the east or west, crossing cattle guards and easing through gates. The Sandhill Cranes were making a springtime stop in one of his fields in the southwestern corner of his farm.

“We can sneak up on them by going up the dry gulch,” he said as we drove toward the gulch in his pickup. “We can’t talk. Hand signals only for they’re easily spooked. When we get close we can edge up against the bank of the gulch and peak through the trees.”

From the boat launch into the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge …

Greg’s plan worked wonderfully, and we had no problems finding the birds as the noise was nearly deafening. The gulch was of soft sand and stealthy quiet. Trees lined either side creating a tunneled path separating fields on either side. He held up his hand for us to stop, and we eased toward the west bank to peer through the dense foliage. Directly in front of us were countless, magnificent grayish birds with the reddish heads. Many were hopping around in their unique mating dance. Then something caught my eye that was different. Something tall and white right in the midst of all the hundreds of sandhills. Yes, my very first Whooping Crane! Although these were my first sandhills, seeing an actual Whooping Crane was an amazing experience back then when the count was somewhere below 100 in the entire world. The whoopers were on the verge of extinction.

Since that special moment in the mid-1970s I’ve been on a quest for cranes ever since, and especially Whooping Cranes. A few years ago my friend, Mary Gafkjen, and I ventured to Nebraska for the annual Sandhill Crane migration, and in the afternoon before we were to meet at the Nebraska Crane Trust outside of Wood River we stopped along a highway along with dozens of others to watch the birds come and go from a stubble field about a quarter mile distant. My friend zeroed in on a white “blob” in the midst of the sandhills, and through our binoculars and from the buzz among the others alongside the road, the consensus was that it was indeed a Whooping Crane. She was glued to the spot and kept her binoculars zeroed in on the whiteness. I understood completely although my strongest zoom lens was inadequate for the challenge.

Close enough to catch water droplets dripping from its beak, at the International Crane Center.

That started a Whooping Crane “tour” that would take us to Rockport, TX, and a boat tour of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, then to the Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge in South Dakota where rumors said three whoopers were in a stopover. Most recently was a visit to the International Crane Center in Baraboo, WI. We missed them at Sand Lake despite directions given by a friendly Refuge ranger. 

At Aransas, though, we boated into a completely different experience. After leaving port and motoring through the brackish bays, where we saw everything from Roseate Spoonbills to Oystercatchers, and almost every wading bird in a guide book, we reached the remote islands. Off in the distance, perhaps a few hundred meters away, we could see the white from a pair of Whooping Cranes. While this created a buzz among us on the launch, the best was yet to come. Further along the way a pair was traipsing through the marsh grasses just a few hundred feet away. The boat captain pushed the bow into the bank and cut the engine. Even he was surprised. “We never get this close,” he said, in amazement.

It seemed they had suddenly sensed us on the boat, and started communicating, and I eased the the focal length just in time …

And they continued to walk closer toward the island shore, from one pothole to the next. He moved the boat further along to keep pace with the pair, and again pushed in to anchor the boat against the bank. The birds seemed oblivious to us, although I’m positive they weren’t. I was working the camera with a 150-600 zoom bringing my eye so close I could almost feel them breathe. Suddenly the whoopers stopped and appeared to be communicating. Using this as a clue I eased back the focal length of the zoom, and then, as if on cue, they lifted into the air to circle in front of us before flying away. 

We were all in complete awe, including the birder captain. Meanwhile I was glancing through my images and was beyond pleased. We would recall the trip numerous times over the years since, especially during the long months of the pandemic. We even considered heading back with the camper for a month of escape from the winter and the isolation from Covid, a trip that never happened.

And, off they go!

Then this summer while on vacation with an old friend from Dubuque, Michael Muir, we were in Baraboo to primarily pay homage to Aldo Leopold, and decided to visit the International Crane Foundation, which Michael jokingly referred to as a “crane zoo.” A single pair of all 15 international species of cranes are kept there, each in a spacious pen with overhead netting. Their eggs are gathered and transported to a nearby research facility where they’re incubated and hatched, all part of an ongoing in depth research program.

The loop begins with Sandhill Cranes, and leads you along various shaded and comfortable seating areas where maps of each species’ wintering and summering areas exist around the globe along with other pertinent information that included their migration routes. At the very end of the loop was the pair of Whooping Cranes and my day was made. I was able to get a couple of interesting images, so it all worked out beautifully.

It’s hard to know where my next sighting may be, yet all the moments before have been magical, even spiritual ..

So my intermittent chase continues, although I have no clue where my next Whooping Crane adventure may be or lead. I have doubts that I will ever be so close as we were either in Texas or Wisconsin, and am so ever grateful to have been so fortunate. This quest that began nearly 50 years ago on an organic grain farm in the middle of Colorado’s San Luis Valley on the farm of a long ago friend and remains ever so magical. Perhaps even spiritual.

Since Greg’s and my jaunt through his sandy, woodlined gulch the Whooping Crane numbers have increased significantly, although as they told us in Texas that morning on the launch, “One badly placed hurricane could end it all.” The boat captain along with the 15 or so of us aboard silently watched in awe as the pair went airborne to circle around in front of us and fly off into the distance. “A bad hurricane coming through here could mean extinction, so consider yourselves lucky, for this was a special moment we’ve just shared.”

Indeed. 

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About John G. White

Somewhat retired after a long award-winning career in newspapers (Wisconsin State Journal, Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, Denver Post and a country weekly, the Clara City Herald). Free lance photographer and writer with credits in more than 70 magazines. Editor with various Webb Publishing magazines in St. Paul, and a five year stint as editorial director at Miller Meester Advertising.

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