Sandhill Season

By Jennifer Bové
Web Exclusive December 25, 2006

sandhill crane flyingOh God, not again.

I shoved the door of the truck open, leaned out far enough to miss my boots, and threw up. It wasn’t a surprise, but it wasn’t getting any easier either.

Such bouts of nausea had become a regular part of my schedule in the four months I’d been pregnant, as if my body was hell bent on starvation. I’d never been one to skimp on food during long days in the field, and now, when I surely needed a little extra fuel, a plum and a couple of Saltines were purged from my system like poison.

Swiping my hand across my chin, I stepped over my breakfast soaking into the dirt. Hungry or not, there was work to be done. I hauled my chest waders from the bed of the F-150 and leaned against the wheel well to tug them on. Under the cover of the waders, I unbuttoned my jeans to allow a bit of comfort room. I hadn’t yet conceded to wear the stretch-bellied maternity pants my sister had given me. I wasn’t quite that far along, mentally speaking anyway.

With a backpack full of data sheets and my field notebook, handheld GPS unit, measuring tape, binoculars, radio, water bottle, and granola bars that I wouldn’t even attempt to eat, I began to plod down the hardened bank of Bird Creek through Conboy Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

It was June, and I was looking for a nest that had been built, and presumably abandoned, by a pair of Greater Sandhill Cranes. Conboy’s small population of cranes is the only group known to be actively breeding, in all of Washington State. I’d been observing these birds from a distance—on valley overlooks, through a spotting scope—since February. I had identified 25 individual cranes, many by the brightly colored identification bands fitted on the birds’ legs by refuge staff in years past, and I’d mapped nesting territories of nine breeding pairs. With my eye pressed to the scope for hours at a time, I had monitored the cranes’ behavior, documenting their territorial scuffles, mating dances, and nesting activities.

A telltale sign that eggs are present in a nest is the “nest exchange,” which is basically a changing of the guard between Sandhill parents. One crane leaves the nest to forage for a few hours while the other tends the eggs, and then they switch. The pair whose nest I was seeking, known around the refuge as the “C&H” pair, had engaged in regular nest exchanges for the past few weeks. Then, I’d observed an abrupt change in activity, when both cranes had left the nest to forage in an adjacent landowner’s pasture with no hatchling colts in tow. It appeared as if something had gone wrong at the nest, and it was my job to try and figure out what had caused the cranes to evacuate.

I liked being on the ground inside the refuge. So often the distant observer who spied on the furtive rituals of coyote, elk, and crane, I was excited to move along the very paths the animals tread. As I approached the C&H wetland, though, I could see that finding the nest was going to be a little tougher than I’d expected. Pinpointing a nest on aerial photographs did not present near the challenge of finding one on foot in a soggy, matted, and life-sized wetland. Without the advantage of the bird’s eye perspective I was used to, I was going to have to find my way over land (and through water) on equal parts inference and luck.

A downed tree spanning the deep trench of the creek was the only bridge by which I’d be able to reach the C&H wetland, and standing beside it I didn’t feel too confident about hopping across it the way I might have done four months ago. So I got down on my hands and knees and sort of schlumped across with a lack of grace unique to a pregnant woman in waders. Once I’d made it to the other side, I could see the wetland glistening through lush clumps of juncus, as still and silent as a secret waiting to be told. The cranes’ nest was out there, somewhere.

Since I didn’t have any idea how deep the water in the marsh might be, I grabbed a stout willow and felt my way cautiously down through soft mud until the sole of my boot met firm footing about two feet below the water’s surface. Not so bad. The water grew deeper, though, as I slogged away from the bank. I couldn’t help feeling a little nervous when the water crept toward the top of my waders, sealing the cool neoprene tight against my body. And the ground was becoming more difficult to traverse as well. There were mounds of decaying vegetation and deeply pocked elk trails everywhere I stepped, and I just prayed that I wouldn’t stumble onto some large drowned beast in the murky water.

But I made it into the middle of the wetland without incident, holding my backpack up around my neck to keep thousands of dollars worth of federal contents dry, and I easily spotted what looked like an unbound bale of hay lying amid the rushes: the nest. My heartbeat quickened as I inched toward it.

The nest was a perfectly dry mat, nearly five feet in diameter, built of reeds and grass in about three feet of water–a floating island in the apparent safety of the heart of the marsh. No coyote or dog would bother swimming so far to prey on a crane’s nest, risking the blow of a sharp and lightening quick bill to the skull. If a predator had indeed disturbed this nest, it would more likely have been semi-aquatic or avian, and the clues I needed would lie in any egg fragments that remained in the nest. At first the nest looked empty and untouched, but when I stretched to peer around the side of it, I discovered pieces of brown speckled eggshell wedged among the nest fibers at the edge of the water. I gently plucked them free and laid them out on the nest in front of me. Most were small chips that would offer no hint of the marauder’s identity. One, however, was nearly intact, still smeared with blood and bearing the distinct marks of two canine teeth. Just what I’d hoped to find.

I slipped my backpack from my shoulders and placed it on top of the nest so that I could pull out my measuring tape and field notebook. The size of the canine punctures and the distance between them revealed the identity of the predator as river otter, a rarely seen inhabitant of Conboy Lake, but one that could potentially wreak havoc on the crane population. Methodically, I made my notes, marking down a GPS point that would allow precise mapping of the nest for future reference. I also measured the nest and the water depth below it. These characteristics would further our knowledge of the cranes’ nesting behavior and help shape habitat management guidelines for the refuge. My morning’s efforts had reaped successful data.

Satisfied, I placed the eggshell in a plastic bag to take back to Headquarters, and then I heard the cranes.

Tinny, resonant voices rose in plaintive rounds from beyond the willows, so near that I bet they could see me even though I couldn’t see them. No doubt it was the C&H pair, wondering why a human had come to pick through the ruins of their nest. I imagined them roaming the lakebed dispossessed, and I felt guilty for quantifying their losses on the pages of my notebook. When I thought about it, those broken eggs meant a whole lot more than good data. There had been babies inside them, warm and waiting, not unlike the one I carried in me. Tears stung my eyes, and at the same time, I wanted to boot myself in the ass for being such a sap. Get a grip, Bové, nature’s rough. But the hormones of pregnancy are potent mojo, capable of exploding even the smallest concerns out of proportion, and I had a hard time keeping it together there for a minute or two. Maybe I wasn’t ready to be a parent. How was I supposed to explain to a child the ecological beauty of a world where an otter had to rip a living chick from its egg in order to eat? Of course, that was just the way of things; the system worked perfectly. But it wasn’t kind. It wasn’t easy. And for all of the cruelty that occurred in nature, there were worse things that dwelled in the hearts of human beings. I wasn’t prepared to teach a kid these realities. I was still trying to figure them out for myself.

I took a deep breath and shook my head to clear it. Enough. The cranes weren’t wasting precious energy crying over life’s injustices, and I sure as hell wasn’t doing anybody any good by moping around out in the middle of the marsh. Whatever the future held, one thing was certain: if I had any sense, I’d get back to the truck before I screwed up and swamped my waders. The rest would work itself out.

I patted the small bulge of my belly. “Let’s go, little one.”

There was a growl within, and another bubble of queasiness rose toward my throat. “Yeah, I know,” I groaned. “It’s time to find some lunch.”

Jennifer Bové is a mother, writer and editor living in Melbourne, Arkansas. Her books include The Back Road to Crazy and A Mile in Her Boots. She’s currently working on a new book of family wilderness adventures called Wild with Child. Visit her online at

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