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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Following Sandhill Cranes

Air Date: Week of June 8, 2012

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Sandhill Cranes return to Arctic.jpg (Photo: © Mark Seth Lender)

Writer Mark Seth Lender watched as sandhill cranes fed and rested in their wintering grounds at the Bosque del Apache wildlife preserve in New Mexico early this year. He was in for a big surprise five months later to find the elegant birds at another spot on their migration path: up north in the Canadian Arctic.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. New Mexico’s Bosque del Apache is the wintering ground for thousands of Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese. In early spring, these birds migrate to the Canadian Arctic to breed. Mark Seth Lender traveled to Bosque del Apache to see them, and was thrilled to encounter them serendipitously months later in the far north.

Slideshow - soundslides

LENDER: At dusk, in silhouette against the pastel chalk of the clouds, the birds come, wave upon wave. Sandhill Cranes in mottled tans, their heads red capped and that citrine yellow eye; Snow Geese in white snow white with black-tipped wings. Like paper kites come sailing angled upright to the stall point; now back-peddling and at last splash down to a shallow pond landing. All night their moans and ululations echo in preparation. Soon they will leave this place nearby the Rio Grande to traverse that terrible line between winter and summer from South toward North. In the clear blue, through cloud cover thick as down, through a crown of hailstone, and lightning, and thunder, across two thousand miles of sky, if wind is fair or against them. And survive who can, anyway they can.

Five months gone…

Here I stand due west of Hudson Bay at the point of destination: North Latitude 62 degrees. Astride granite boulders, stacked like a giant’s grave mound, laid in the frozen barrens of the tundra. From this glacial tomb I watch the morning sky. The sun is a white disk and the clouds like milk and flour churned to the rhythm of a whisk. 30 knots of wind growl like a hungry bear in the hard season that passes for spring.

Last night, ice like buckshot blasting face and hands, I thought I heard Sandhill Cranes touch down. In the morning it had cleared; I climbed the giant’s barrow. It is hours past sunrise now and will be light for more than 20 hours. Perhaps it was only a trick of what the mind sometimes hears.

But look, there, black on the pencil line of horizon: a first lone pair!


Sandhill Cranes calling and crooning and their wings whispering! They pass right overhead and vanish into thin air. Others follow them now. Flight upon flight their great wings hush-shushing and the Snow Geese among them, warbling…

How would I have known if I had not heard with my own ears, seen with my own eyes? Yes! Timing is everything.


CURWOOD: To hear an interview with Mark Seth Lender about the returning Sandhill Cranes and see some of his photographs, swoop over to our website LOE dot org.




BACKSTORY: Listen to a short interview with Mark Lender about seeing sandhill cranes during his trip to the Arctic.

Mark Lender’s website


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