Monday, April 29, 2013

Captivated by cranes

A family of sandhill cranes

April 29, 2013

I’ve become captivated by a family of sandhill cranes. 

First thing in the morning, I reach for the binoculars to see if I can locate their whereabouts.  Are they still on their island nest or have they already begun their daily trek along the shoreline?  Once spotted, I eat breakfast contentedly.  If I can’t find them, I still eat breakfast but I do so with a certain amount of anxiety… 

So many things could go wrong.  Yesterday, I saw the first alligator of the season.  It was a relatively small one, maybe four-and-a-half-feet long.  Still, a gator of any size poses a serious threat to a week-old bundle of fluff.

Even a young alligator can pose a threat to baby cranes

I shouldn’t worry.  Sandhill crane parents are excellent protectors.  From hours of observation, I know how aware they are of their surroundings.  During the past week, I’ve watched them scare away water birds and bellow warning cries to other cranes flying overhead.  They’ve cocked their heads skyward to track the flight path of an osprey, jumped and spread their wings wide when startled by large, grass-grazing carp swishing through the shallow water.  In 2009, the last time a pair of cranes raised a hatchling on our lake, I watched as the adult birds scared away both an otter and an alligator!

In 2009, a nesting pair of cranes managed to keep an otter away from their eggs 

Still, the attachment I’ve formed with this latest grey-feathered family has superseded reason.  Something about watching the adult cranes raise their baby has triggered my own maternal instincts.  Ever since the egg hatched, I’ve felt protective and somewhat responsible for its health and wellbeing.  I know it’s not my job to tend to its needs.  The best I can do is to be an observer accurately documenting events that transpire.  But that doesn’t preclude me from hoping for a positive outcome.  Especially because I know positive outcomes don’t always happen.

When I was growing up in Yardley, Pa., our house fronted on a small lake occupied by several families of ducks.  Every year when duck eggs hatched, I’d watch in awe and fascination as the baby birds followed their mother, swimming in a straight line from one end of the lake to the other.  As the days went by, however, I noticed fewer and fewer chicks.  Snapping turtles were the culprits, capturing those sweet little ducklings by their webbed feet and pulling them underwater.  I tried not to let it bother me and mostly succeeded.  At a young age, I learned to accept the inevitabilities of nature.  I realized one animal’s loss was another’s gain.  The concept of survival of the fittest became a real life lesson.  After all, every creature needs to eat, including the snapping turtles in Pennsylvania and the alligators in Florida.

Knowledge, however, doesn’t prevent emotions from flowing.  Consider how Ralph and I felt when we realized the cranes in our lake had abandoned the second egg in their nest after their first egg hatched.  
Initially, we felt doubt.

Deserted egg

“They’re probably going back to the nest at night to sit on it,” I suggested after watching the birds wander away from the remaining egg that first day. 

Two days later, I felt differently. 

“They’re not coming back,” I reported to Ralph after surveying the situation from my rowboat.  “They’ve abandoned it.  They’ve even built a new nest on another spit of land.”

Upon hearing this news, my daughter Jenny – herself a new mother of twins – was distraught. 

“How could they do that?” she bemoaned by phone.  “Can’t you do anything?”

Her questions pulled me back into a pragmatic mode. 

“There’s nothing we can do,” I tried to explain.  “If the cranes decided to abandon the egg, there must be a reason.  Maybe it wasn’t viable or they knew they couldn’t raise both.  I don’t know why they did it but that’s just how it is.”

Sometimes, “just how it is” is the only explanation. 

For now, the crane family in our lake is doing well.  Every day the youngest member grows bigger, stronger and more capable of taking care of itself.  Hopefully, the baby bird will continue on the path to adulthood without encountering any life-threatening incident. 

For me, regardless of the outcome, the entire experience is a gift from nature.  I grew up watching ducklings follow their mother in Silver Lake.  As an adult, I’m doing the same with sandhill cranes.  

Although I worry about them and fret when I don’t see them with my binoculars, most of the time I find myself smiling.  I could do worse than be a watcher of birds.

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