The only sounds I heard were crunching twigs under feet and an occasional grunt as someone tripped over a rock. I was hiking with a diverse group of individuals, all of us hoping to complete our Open Lands Naturalist Volunteer training. Secretly, I thought the “moonlit hike” would be the easiest hike to fulfill one of my requirements. I had envisioned a full moon, a billion stars and sharp reflections across Carter Lake. Out of breath, out of water, I trudged up yet another steep incline, wondering how much longer until I was back at the parking lot. I started having doubts, serious doubts, as to whether the volunteer job was the best avenue for my spare time. I had signed up to volunteer, hoping to combat the symptoms of empty nest. The moonlit hike that evening changed the direction of my life.

About 40 minutes into the hike, I started to hear a rapid clicking noise in the sky. As the sound grew and seemed to be flying overhead, my group stopped abruptly. The moon had still not appeared so I couldn’t see what was overhead, but the sound stayed with me. In the dark sky, I heard muffled repeated sessions similar to an automatic hammer shooting nails. I knew this sound to be unique and in large mass.  I listened to the excited conversations surrounding me. The mysterious flock overhead was the highlight of my evening.

About two weeks later, I was driving up to visit a gallery in Jackson Hole. Once I was deep into Wyoming, the landscape was quite scenic with plenty of antelope, nice subtle creeks and ponds. I was searching for wildlife signs, wanting to test out my new naturalist training skills. I passed a small pond, noticing what I considered to be the ugliest bird I had ever seen. My first glance was very quick in passing, but processed this as a really skinny wild turkey. Over the next mile, I continued to wonder about the skinny turkey.  I finally gave in to curiosity and turned my car around. After locating the bird in the brush, I started snapping pictures of this lone bird. Upon returning to Colorado, I started studying my pictures. My skinny turkey was a sandhill crane!

One of my final steps to complete the Open Lands Volunteer Program was to present a short lecture. While watching this lone sandhill crane in the Wyoming grasses, I realized I had just scored my subject matter for the lecture! My presentation began with just a sound recording. I was delighted when the group sat us a little straighter, pulled their heads up slightly and started to laugh. Everyone instantly identified the sound to be identical to what we heard during that midnight hike. My mysterious overhead flock was sandhill cranes, searching for a place to settle for the evening, while on their annual migration to milder climates. The sandhill crane has a distinct, unique chatter.

That evening, I felt the rush of the darkness and the thrill of hearing wildlife without being able to use my eyes. My sense of adventure came out of the deep sleep.

The moonlit hike evening unraveled a series of events which tied sandhill cranes to my path. That evening, I felt the rush of the darkness and the thrill of hearing wildlife without being able to use my eyes. My sense of adventure came out of the deep sleep. I continued to run into sanhill cranes unexpectedly over the next several years. I watched the sky fill with black dots in Nebraska, where an estimated 500,000 pass through annually. I watched the cranes in marsh fields near Lubbock, TX, as they prepare for a dust storm. I watched the cranes take off effortlessly in the higher elevation of Salida, Colorado. I changed from an unsettled empty nester, to having an overflowing schedule. After my newfound love of birds, I filled 500 hours of volunteer work over the subsequent two summers. I was given the wonderful opportunity to meet other birders and hikers who shared the same love and appreciation for the outdoors.

These birds continue to stimulate me. Now years later, I still listen to the sound of the cranes and smile at the memories and how my life has changed since that eventful moonlit evening. I continue to be appreciative of how this lone bird pushed me to begin new outdoor activities.The moonlit hike has enriched me by exploring firsthand that most wildlife has quirks, sound, and odd behaviors.

My life has been greatly enriched and influenced by one lonely, homely-looking sandhill crane.

 

Bio: Newly discovered love for nature during midlife crisis. Am once again attending college as a older returning student and am loving the strength of the brain waves to learn. Certainly appreciate our professors much more now.