Recently, a reader sent me a note saying that the 2014 March–April issue "has apparently become my 2-year-old's favorite. When I went to wake her up this morning, I found it tucked in next to her in bed, with its very own pillow and blanket! I asked her why she liked this one so much, and she said, 'I just love it. And it makes me happy!'"
What brings you joy now?
"Spring in the northern latitudes is an auspicious time to be alive—a time above all to watch birds," says Paul A. Johnsgard in his book Sandhill and Whooping Cranes. "The word auspicious is of pre-Christian origin (from the Latin), meaning to divine the future by watching the movement of birds."
In this issue Carrol Henderson tells the story of sandhill cranes returning to Minnesota—more of them show up every year. Like living history, the gangly yet elegant cranes follow ancient flyways. As the species has done for millennia, sandhill cranes navigate north in early spring. A half-million stop for a layover in the Platte River valley in Nebraska. After nearly a month of loafing and feeding, they resume their journey to breeding grounds. Minnesota's wetlands provide the nearest nesting places for greater sandhill cranes.
Not long ago, birders had only a slim chance of spotting sandhill cranes in our state. In the July–August 1945 issue, Walter Breckenridge declared the sighting of a crane "a red letter day to the bird student."
Sights and sounds of this prehistoric species are exhilarating and timeless. In March 2010 my husband, Lou, and I drove to Nebraska to witness the migration spectacle. Before dawn, we arrived at a viewing bridge over the Platte. The river channel was too dark to discern even the shape of a bird. Trusting that cranes were roosting below on a sandbar, we stood still and quiet. The sky began to lighten. Then came scattered wake-up calls. Calls quickened and echoed as the sun rose. Here and there, dark gray mounds stirred, stretching wings, popping up. A pair of crane silhouettes lifted into the air. Bugling back and forth, the two circled until a third bird, peeping, joined them. Then the trio headed south. And so the early morning flew by, as flocks of cranes took off toward farm fields to breakfast on leftover corn.
The scene on March 29, 2010, looked much the same as the one Breckenridge described in his field notebook on March 28, 1945, when he visited the Platte River. He wrote: "Now about midmorning, after feeding in the fields, great skeins of cranes are beginning to rise and circle in the warming skies where many white puffy clouds are contrasting with the deep blue. Up and up, farther and farther, groups of thousands congregate, continually circling. Now like great river currents or like smoke columns sweeping about, the flocks wheel. … Now they are all high, and I must listen intently to hear their calls at all."
An hour before sunset, Lou and I tucked ourselves into a tiny wooden blind across from a sandbar. We focused our binoculars and waited for cranes to arrive. Shortly after the sun dipped down, we began to hear distant calling from the east. The chorus grew louder and louder. By the time cranes came into view, the sound was overwhelming—uncanny, wild, tumultuous, thrilling.
"The drama was so intense," Lou recalls today. "It's a sound unlike anything you've ever heard—from millions of years ago. It's an experience everyone should have."
We watched wave after wave of cranes land. The birds cupped their wings, dangled long legs, and drifted down to the sand like so many parachutists. Just when all the space seemed to have been taken, another crane would alight in an opening in the crowd.
After dark, we crept away.
Satisfied, we drove back to Minnesota to join friends in their maple sugar bush. That's another story, and you can get a taste of it in "The Season of Mud" in this issue. Trudging through mud to collect sap can be joyful.
Learn about another springtime marvel in "Dancing With Grebes." Explore disappearing streams and bubbling springs in "Mapping Subterranean Waters." Almost certainly, you'll find some sign of spring to make you happy.
Kathleen Weflen, editor