Monday, December 26, 2011

A new year = a new chance for successful sandhill crane nests

Roosting cranes prepare to spend the night on a tiny spit of land submerged beneath a thin sheet of water.

Simply Living

December 26, 2011
We haven't had a significant rain in weeks and because of that, the level of water in our lake has gradually decreased. Islands of peat and sand that are normally submerged have begun to appear.

I'm not the only one to notice. A pair of sandhill cranes has returned, flying in every evening to roost on one of the tiny spits of land surrounded by shallow water.

For years, the seasonal islands in our lake have been the preferred nesting spot for a pair of sandhill cranes. Like many birds, sandhill cranes return to the same nesting places annually. In our lake, their chosen spot is always an island, a minuscule land mass a short distance offshore.

It's a precarious choice.

If the weather cooperates and rainfall is limited, the lake level will continue to drop and the islands will stay visible and viable for nest building. However, if sudden downpours happen and precipitation increases, the water level will gradually rise. The islands (including any nests and eggs) will disappear beneath a blanket of waves.

The sandhill cranes don't seem to mind the insecurity of their nesting site. Instinct tells them to return to the spot where they've nested before so that's what they do. Even though previous nests have been lost when water levels rose, an inner voice commands and they dutifully follow.

Earlier this year I watched as the birds — most likely the same two frequenting the lake today — industriously built a tidy nest of sticks and reeds on spit of land a few feet off the northern shoreline. First one then two eggs appeared. The adult birds diligently guarded their nest but no amount of care or avian protection could prevent rain from falling. In April 2011, water levels rose steadily until one day the nest vanished, submerging the eggs in a watery grave.

Two sandhill crane eggs as seen a few days before they disappeared beneath rising water in our lake last April.

It surprises me that the birds don't remember. If they did, I would think they'd try harder to find a different spot to raise their young. As Ralph and I walked around the lake, we passed several large masses of peat and sand that had recently appeared. The two cranes, however, hadn't chosen one of those islands for their nightly roost. The only visible parts of the still-submerged isle they selected were a few reeds poking above the quiet water.

Change happens quickly.

If it doesn't rain for a few more days, more land will appear. If we have a dry winter and if the birds decide to stay and build a nest, the eggs they lay will have a good chance of surviving.

That's a lot of ifs.

Nature is nothing if not full of surprises. I find it surprising that the sandhill cranes have returned to the same place they have nested before and equally surprising that they've timed their arrival exactly when the water level is low enough for submerged islands to appear. But perhaps most surprising of all is the resurgence of hope their arrival triggers.

Despite past disappointments, I'm optimistic that this time around nest building will be successful for the sandhill cranes. I'm hopeful that any eggs they lay will live, and any chicks that are born will survive.

We're on the cusp of a new year. I can't think of a more appropriate time for a flush of irrational optimism.

The sandhill cranes act on instinct, but they're not the only ones listening to an inner voice.

My instinct tells me to be ever hopeful, to see things in a positive light and wish for the best. Like the birds attempting to nest in our lake, I'm not always successful but that doesn't stop me from hatching hopes anew.

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