Estimated Departure Time - Columbia Land Trust
Cranes fly across corn fields in the Columbia River lowlands
Columbia Land Trust Executive Director Glenn Lamb shares the awe-inspiring experience of observing sandhill cranes in the midst of their annual migration.
Photo courtesy of Eric Vogt Photography

Photo courtesy of Eric Vogt Photography

Most of us privileged Americans have been part of a migration.

The alarm startles us at 4:30 a.m. We stumble out the door to Uber or MAX or a deeply committed friend. We converge on the airport, crazy numbers of cars and people lining up well before 6:00 a.m. After clearing security we disperse into groups of about 150, guided and served by flight stewards, served drinks and snacks. We travel assigned migration corridors, clearing the entire continent in a matter of hours.

Last Saturday morning (April 16th), I drove to the Columbia River lowlands with my friend Paul to see sandhill cranes before their migration. In recent years our local flock of about 2,000 cranes heads north around April 20th to their British Columbia breeding grounds. Thanks to the work of biologist Rob Dillinger, we know that cranes have several regular roosting places and a few dozen places where they feed and preen and flirt throughout the day. Cranes can be nervous about human presence; staying in the car seems to be less threatening to them. We peer through binoculars out the car windows. Rob has named each stop after the local feature. We see dozens of cranes at the green transformer, nearly a hundred at the yellow barn, more than a hundred at the white post.

Often we hear them before we see them, that prehistoric slow trill growing into a beautiful cacophony that carries nearly two miles. We see them standing along edges of ponds, beyond a far field, amidst the last remaining stalks of last year’s corn. These days, they are busy eating. Cranes will gain as much as fifteen percent of their body weight in the days prior to their flight north. For us humans it would be as if we gained 15-to-25 pounds in the days prior to a marathon!

After about four hours of cruising, we are driving out to one last site. Paul stops the car in the middle of the road, cocking his head and smiling. We hear cranes. But try as we might, we can’t find them out either side of the car, near or far. Finally, Paul tilts his head out the window and looks up. There they are! Directly above our car there are dozens and later hundreds of cranes. They come flying in from every direction, circling in random flight patterns. Soon we realize that they are circling up, higher and higher, becoming smaller and smaller from our perspective.

More cranes come in at low elevation, in turn circling up. Then we see the birds highest up distinctly fly in a somewhat broken v formation, to the north. Is this it? Are they all on the way? We watch as dozen more cranes fly into the spot above our car and repeat the pattern.

With no discernible gate agents, no GPS technology, no snacks or drinks offered, and fully under their own power, we watch these descendants of one of the earth’s most ancient birds begin their flight. They will fly until they reach their breeding grounds, burn through their Columbia River lowlands fuel, and orient themselves through space to arrive at their specific breeding grounds, used last year, the year before, the decade and century and millennia before.