Is it time?

Dare I even ask?

The birds have already made their predictions, and have made the journeys that accompany them, and I hope for their sakes that it is indeed.

For almost a month we’ve had strangers at the feeders. Dozens of redwing blackbirds blackening the trees outside my window, trying their hands at sunflower seeds. European starlings. Robins abandoning the blanketed yard for the loft of the feeders, rolling giant seeds around in their worm-fashioned beaks.

All this snow has ushered in some desperate measures in the neighborhood.

But once again, the snow is on the melt, and hope is on the horizon. Nothing but warmer temperatures for as far as the automated weatherman’s eyes can see. Maybe it is time.

This morning I took my walk still bundled in all the accoutrements of winter. I strode confidently right through the muddy earth outside my door, no fear of the mush making ut up above the rubber of my soles. Everything was solid, and my ears were chilled. But through them I heard the hope in the air. The coming-to-life that has been ebbing and flowing for weeks, false starts, dejected resignation, determined mating calls come hell or high snow.

The woodpeckers drummed out their cadence, back and forth, back and forth. The wild turkeys behind the neighbor’s place gobbled frantically. The jays and all the rest of the locals cackled and cawed, welcoming the sun over the horizon. And a little quieter, a little farther off, the sandhills cooed their warbly song and the meadowlark sang from his topmost branch. Waiting. Is it time?

Last week I drove across the country, accompanying the oldest on the next leg of her journey, out to Oregon. I flew home to yet another snowstorm. But before the snowy return, we trundled across Nebraska and encountered darkened fields such as we had never seen.

A not-great picture of the hoards

We get a pretty intense migration of geese and tundra swans near our home, and they fill up the fields-gone-ponds each spring, but never as densely as this.

Also, it should be noted, Nebraska’s fields are a bit more expansive than the homegrown back forties where our waterfowl rest.

As we got closer to the masses, we realized that these weren’t geese, but sandhills. Shocking numbers of cranes. Back in NW Wisconsin, we’ve always got a pair here or there, making their homes in the lowlands below our house. And occasionally we catch the migration, and find a field of a hundred or two. But these numbers shot into the 5th digit right out of the gate. In that one field alone.

And then there was another. And another. For twenty miles the fields were chock-full of grounded sandhill cranes. We were flabbergasted at each and every mile marker.

Once the novelty began to wear off (???), and we had more pictures than one could ever appreciate of the flocks, we settled back into our seats and ahead of us saw one of those swarms of birds you only see in the movies. Hitchcock specifically. The poster child of the invasive species movement, a writhing mass of starlings, or something clearly sharing one central brain, ribboning over the freeway.

It was a ways off yet, this fungus of the skies, and we were getting excited for our first taste of what starlings can really do. By us they are just birds, not nuisances in their sheer numbers. But we knew that in other parts of the country, they are downright scary.

These weren’t starlings. As we approached at 80 mph, it became clear that they were a lot larger than we thought.

They were cranes.

There was a two-mile argument about this point, but in the end someone very intelligent emerged victorious in the dispute, and we rolled under their living bridge. Someone else, in charge of the camera, may or may not have had some technical difficulties in their efforts to capture said bridge.

It was spectacular.

And apparently an annual rite of passage, literally. After the second airborne horde, we passed the Kearney city limits sign.

Kearney, Nebraska: Sandhill Crane Capital of the World.

Well no kidding.

On April 9th, the day that we traveled through, Crane Trust counted over 238,000 cranes along that section of the Platte River. Sounds about right.

The cranes I heard this morning numbered more like 6. Or 8. But they are expectant of spring nonetheless. As am I.

Is it time?

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