Cranes On High

Our better angels.

By Kevin Van Tighem

Calm September days can feel almost surreal in central Alberta. A sleepy stillness lies over the aspen groves and prairies. Time seems suspended. That breathless autumn beauty surrounded me the first time I saw a crane. I was on the 600 km2 Canadian Forces training base south of Wainwright. I had gone there to hunt grouse.

CFB Wainwright opened to strictly controlled hunting for deer in the winter of 1966/67. Just turned 14, I accompanied by dad, uncle and older brother on that initial hunt and, on opening day, shot my first deer there. Several years later, the military opened the reserve to an early-autumn season for ruffed and sharp-tailed grouse. Footloose and free after graduating from university, I decided to make a solo trip to what had become a sort of central Alberta mecca for my family.

That day, standing at the edge of an aspen grove, I heard a guttural, eerie croak somewhere above me in the endless blue of a perfect sky: almost certainly a bird, but one I didn’t know in spite of years of bird study. There was a wild and unknowable quality to that sound. It seemed to speak of everything I yearned to know of far places and untamed nature.

Fishing out my binoculars, I eventually spotted them. Pale grey, wings outstretched, a column of thirty or so sandhill cranes was circling slowly in a thermal, soaring ever higher like hawks. Only they weren’t hawks—they were a graceful-necked, muskeg-dwelling bird I’d long dreamed of seeing. They spiralled higher and higher; then they were gone. Later I learned that cranes soar on thermals to conserve energy while migrating to their winter homes in the southern US and northern Mexico.

Those were lesser sandhill cranes. They had nested in the taiga and tundra of northern Canada. Years later I finally met the greater sandhill that, ironically, nests in the Alberta foothills near where, as a young birder, my interest in cranes first awakened.
Recently I found my nature scrapbooks from the late 1960s. I suspect most birders are a bit obsessive-compulsive; those scrapbooks certainly offer convincing evidence. Among the newspaper clippings carefully glued into them was one stating that the world’s population of whooping cranes—the much larger relative of the sandhill—had increased to 18.

Farmers’ stewardship ethic, as much as any breeding programs or other conservation efforts, has kept the whooping crane from oblivion.

Eighteen! I despaired of ever seeing one. Those whooping cranes all nested in Alberta, but only in remote Wood Buffalo National Park. Like the sandhills, their migration route lay far from my home, mostly in Saskatchewan. And I knew all 18 would be gone before I grew up.

More than 10 times that many whooping cranes will migrate south from Wood Buffalo this fall. Breeding and reserve programs maintain other small flocks; the world population is well above 300. They are almost out of danger; what a success!

I was wrong—both about their inevitable fate and about ever seeing one. For a couple years I worked in Saskatchewan’s Prince Albert National Park. My wife and I took advantage of our exile from Alberta to look for whooping cranes. A bit of internet sleuthing revealed that fall migration sightings are commonest northwest of Saskatoon in mid-October.

One drizzly day we headed south through what felt like endless fields and forests. It was like searching for a needle in a haystack. But then, south of Blaine Lake, I found myself veering onto the shoulder and staring in disbelief at two white spots a kilometre away at the edge of a stubble field. Could it be?

Down a side road we found a vantage point only a couple of hundred metres away. Two tall, elegant adult whooping cranes were foraging along the edge of a field, accompanied by a reddish fledgling, itself larger than a sandhill crane.

Shortly later a pickup truck pulled up with two stocky young men in it. They were keeping an eye on the cranes and making sure we didn’t disturb them. The farmers watched from a distance until we left. I waved, a lump in my throat. It was their kind of stewardship ethic, as much as any breeding programs or other conservation efforts, that has kept the whooping crane from oblivion. Each spring and fall those beautiful, vulnerable creatures cross the continent, exposed to the choices of many thousands of people. And, like the farmers who hurried out to check us, those people choose to leave them in peace and protect them from those who wouldn’t.

Lately I’ve heard rumours that some whooping cranes have started summering in central Alberta. Imagine: someday, they may nest among us again. Like sandhills, whooping cranes ride thermals too. Spiralling ever higher, glistening white against the blue, they must look like angels ascending toward heaven. Reminders, perhaps, of our better angels.

Kevin Van Tighem’s latest book, Our Place: Changing the Nature of Alberta, was released in spring 2017 by RMB.

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