Saturday Services in the Big Empty

Beautiful day in the neighborhood. Bear really believes I make the snow. She came inside this morning soaking wet, snow on her back, and leaned against me relentlessly to show her gratitude. Cold, humid, patchy fog, snow showers, occasional graupel, a light breeze.

Bear and I attended holy services at the Big Empty and got to hear a special choir recital of redwing blackbirds, yellow-headed blackbirds, meadowlarks, Canada geese and various ducks. You can see “my” two geese in this little video, the two who make their nest in this very vulnerable location.

We had a little discussion with these two geese who were a lot closer to us than they appear in this video. They really wanted the road. We finally persuaded them to take off. I didn’t see anything that they might have been guarding, but they were very very very vocal. There was nothing, no pond, nesting site or any other geese friendly site around. I don’t think the goslings have been born yet, but who knows. I wasn’t going to discuss it with them. If they didn’t want to leave Bear and I would have turned around. Geese protecting something are not especially friendly (ha ha)

That was the best service we’ve attended in a long time and we’re both very happy.

Dusty Time Travel of the Mind

Bear and I went out to the Refuge yesterday. The wind was blowing in town, but nothing excruciating. The day was clear and fresh and why not? But it was a stealthy, evil, duplicitous wind because out there — at the far edge of the Refuge — the wind was something else entirely.

Where we walked, beside some of the large ponds, the waves came in regular sets that any 4 inch surfer could have had a good time riding. The ducks were bobbing up and down and fishing like always. A few geese had grounded themselves near small ponds and streams. Heading out, no big deal. Bear smelled the side of the road and I thought about what it would be like going back. Once in a while a gust hit — when I got home I learned they were gusting over 40 mph which was no surprise. Thinking we were fighting a losing battle, I turned around and THEN things got weird (but they got weirder later). We went roughly fifteen feet between blasts. I was grateful for being a short sturdy person. Even Bear didn’t like it. I looked across the Refuge and it was covered by a tan cloud of dust. Little by little we got back to the Bella, passed by a couple of cars, late-season crane tourists (good luck with that).

I’d parked so far into the Refuge that there was no turning around and going out the way I’d come in, so I followed the small caravan of undaunted people (two cars) who were determined to get SOMETHING out of the experience by reading the informational signs.

On the far side (ha ha) the dust cloud was so thick I couldn’t see in front of me at all. One of the other cars pulled over thinking, I guess, to wait it out (that would happen a couple hours later). I could see a few feet into the road ahead of me most of the time, but felt a little anxiety about the moment when I’d have to turn onto the main road — state highway– back into town. That road is frequented by hay trucks and semis trailering field sprinklers. All went well and within 100 yards the day was clear again, still windy, but clear.

The San Luis Valley is a wild place, and there are good reasons why some settlements survived and some didn’t. Somewhere out there is a ghost-settlement known as Rock Creek. I haven’t found it. I want to find it. It was settled by a group of “Dunkers.” But if it’s where everything indicates it was, a bleak novel could be written about that.

I also thought about what the man I met this past Sunday said about being out there being in the world before, when the settlers first came. Sunday was a postcard day, balmy, light breeze, beautiful light. Heaven. Yesterday? Yeah, Was that what the settlers encountered, too. But maybe less? With no plowed fields, a lot less dust. I encountered the dust on the end of the Refuge that abuts the recently plowed barely fields. The north end — my usual haunt — is all native chamisa and none of the farms north of there plow anything; they’re cattle ranches. So I thought, “Maybe not the settlers or the Utes and Navajo, but that was what people lived through day after day during the dustbowl.”


“You guys are OK?
“Really, Martha, we know more about being geese than you ever will.”
“You’re right.”
“Thanks for caring, though.”

Bear and I took an early jaunt out to the Refuge before the snow could melt. It was paradisal. So strange on a snowy morning to hear the songs of meadowlarks. I got very close to one as he perched on a somewhat taller than average little tree.

Only a few crane tourists. The cranes have diminished in numbers but are still here. I saw two. The cattle are very busy with birthing and there are small calves everywhere. As I drove by a farm a cow was straining to give birth.

“Thanks, Martha.”

News from the Big Empty

Not translucent, but lucent, the sky and earth swept clean under the broom of March wind. It seems the cranes are departing and the stream of crane tourists has slowed down. The wind blew in hearty March fashion and Bear got to take her favorite little side jaunt (featured photo) where, soon, we won’t go. Snakes.

There was evidence that a raptor, coyote or fox got one of the two geese who insisted on nesting in a very exposed small hill along an irrigation ditch. Dry grass and fallen branches captured down and feathers when the wind slowed down enough to drop them. A few days ago I tried to tell them…

We humans (me) feel for the geese but other animals need to eat, too.

Seeing cranes yesterday wasn’t going to be easy for anyone, and even less so for people driving 25 in a 15 mph zone looking straight out the front window of their cars. In wind like yesterday’s, I knew the cranes wouldn’t be having the most fun of their lives. I saw a couple small groups take flight in front of me, flying low, taking advantage of a lull.

For Bear and me it was nearly perfect.

Crane Tourists

Although I doubt I’ll ever take living here in Heaven for granted, Crane Festival time is a reminder of how lucky I am to live in this obscure little town with the amazing world around it. For other people it’s a major destination where they can finally see the Sandhill Cranes even on a day like today which was blustery, snowy, and not everyone’s idea of a perfect day. It was a perfect day for this man and his wife.

I think sometimes the cranes could restore humanity’s sense of wonder and teach us the good sense the cranes have demonstrated for 2.5 million years.

Out there today with Bear I observed the cranes lifting off in masses, taking off, going over here, then back over there again and again. I looked hard for predators, but with the clouds low and moving, it was hard to see, plus the cranes themselves were moving a lot. Finally, toward the end of our walk, I saw an eagle, high in the sky. For safety the cranes ALL MOVE together making any individual crane (ie. meal) an impossible target. They don’t argue about it, either. They just go to safety. I thought about how people have actually argued about wearing masks and whether the virus is real. No crane would do that. Even a crane in doubt of a predator would stick with the others because there’s safety in numbers and what if?

As Bear and I were walking along, an old guy in a pick-up stopped to say hi and offer Bear a cookie. He was wearing a hat with a whooping crane embroidered on it and a shirt with Sandhill cranes silk-screened. I joked and said, “You really didn’t even need to come all the way out here. You could’ve just looked at your clothes!”

Later on, he pulled off the road to watch the cranes. Not far away from that pull out, I saw a Canada geese couple I “met” last year. They seemed to be about to nest in the same not-very-smart location where they nested last year. I know it wasn’t smart because I saw one of their eggs broken on the road and they left the Refuge long before the other geese — who’d nested in safer locations and hatched young. I wanted to talk to them about this, but I think they know more about being geese than I do.

Bear and I stood a long time and watched the cranes in the distance and the geese closer up. Bear leaned against me and I wrapped my arm around her shoulder. We like to do that.

it was the most beautiful day I’ve had out there in a while.

Watch out for the Dinosaurs!!!

We got a TINY bit of snow, but the “snowpocalypse” that filled the news was never expected to hit the San Luis Valley. Hopefully the day will remain ugly enough that Bear and I can go traipse around without encountering earnest crane tourists with their dogs.

I got a little miffed yesterday (impotently so, as always) seeing a photo on the Monte Vista Crane Festival group on Facebook in which it seemed the photographer had gone “out of bounds.” She had captured a very interesting thing, though, hundreds of cranes lined up like soldiers in preparation for a very orderly flight — in shifts, or waves. She asked what was going on. I had a good idea what might have been happening, and I ventured a response. Later one of the wild life biologists chimed in and said I had been right. I felt like it was a little victory somehow, not just for me, but, strangely, for Goethe who advocated for direct observation vs. laboratory experiments.

The biologist also chided the photographer for having been in a closed area and mentioned the cranes’ behavior could have been caused by the photographer intruding into one of their hangouts.

Last spring as I was walking through the Refuge for nine millionth time, I realized that one of the the yellow-headed blackbirds who was often closest to the trail was no longer flying away when Bear and I approached. I understood, again, that predictability is safety for wild animals. I’ve learned this over and over in my hiking/walking life. At the end of crane season last spring the cranes were no longer avoiding flying over me. Not because they had grown to like me, but because they saw me as part of their place at a certain time of day.

For most of us humans, wild animals are a novelty. I think any wild animal we encounter wants to know what we’re going to do to them. Some of them shoot first and ask questions later. Even cranes. They are large, powerful birds with big feet and sharp pointy things at the ends of their toes. Essentially, they are velociraptors.

Like other animals, humans are acquisitive, and people who come to see the cranes are really here to acquire photos of the cranes. I have been that person, too, and I love seeing the wonder that the cranes inspire. But I think it’s important to realize that 1) these are wild animals who can hurt you (and would), 2) they deserve distance that the wildlife biologists — who KNOW things — have provided for them, and 3) sometimes a camera and what it represents (the future) comes between the human and the object of the photo, keeping the human from really SEEING what they’re taking photos of in this all-to-brief, passing moment.

Anyhoo… along with the cranes are large phalanxes of Canada geese and several kinds of ducks. It’s funny that though these are splendid birds, too, people don’t take their photos.


Small squalls came moving through the San Luis Valley yesterday, and just as one hit Monte Vista, I corralled Bear and loaded her into Bella. Bad weather is best, if you’re ready for it.

We headed the six miles out to the Refuge. South of town, the landscape was bathed in March sunshine and peace. From a distance, I saw that several cars were tooling along the drive-tour and I was sure from a clutch of SUVs in a particular spot that the Sandhill Cranes were being obliging to those undaunted souls with their long lenses. I’d already figured out a walk to take with Bear that wouldn’t — probably — put us in anyone’s way. There’s a small frontage road that runs parallel to the highway. Not my favorite route, obviously, but I’ve seen some lovely things from there, and I was sure we’d be alone.

We took that route. Before we’d gone very far, the squall was close enough that the sun had gone and we were hit by a 40 mph/60 kmph gust. I took Bear a few feet off the road, away from the dead trees, and turned my back to the wind. We had a soft argument about who was going to shield whom from the wind and graupel. For the moment, I won. The wind blasted my back, the graupel shot straight at us, but above? Something had inspired the cranes to take flight from the refuge and head across the highway to the barley field. Whether it was the squall or a predator or something else, I don’t know.

Thousands of cranes (and one duck?) were fighting the wind. Bear and I stood there blasted by bbs of graupel. The cranes flew over us, their voices all but lost in the tumult. As the squall moved on, we turned around, stopping now and again as a gust came up. Then, turning my back to a gust I looked up, and low above a dead cottonwood tree, a V of twenty or so cranes approached. The wind stopped, summoning energy for the next gust, and in the silent moment, I heard the concert of wings brushing the air above me.

I’m always amazed by timing. So often I have arrived somewhere in the wild world just at the perfect moment.

Photo: San Luis Valley National Wildlife Refuge Complex. Not what I saw, but close enough so you can see the number of cranes. ❤ I also thought last night of putting together a little book of crane stories since the cranes and the refuge have been my pals through the tunnel of this past year. We’ll see.

Crane Festival-like

Though Monte Vista will not have a real, live Crane Festival this year, and has gone “virtual” for the event, the crane themselves are nonplussed. They are here in large numbers now, dancing and purring and calling out and just generally craning as only they can. Lots of crane tourists. I met my first nasty entitled white blond lady (grrrr) and she got under my skin for a moment. She waved her skinny, tanned, gold-braceleted hand out the window of her Lexus SUV and said, “Dogs are not allowed back here.” In fact, they are, leashed, as a big sign at the entry informs everyone (who reads signs). I was all, “grrrr, grrr, grrr,” until the cranes reminded me you don’t hang around for millions of years getting upset with know-it-all, ignorant women who tell you, incorrectly, that “dogs are not allowed here.” At least I had the sense not to respond. And when she passed us again, going the wrong way on that one way road (it’s a oneway loop) I just kept my peace, hoping she didn’t find out the hard way.

The rest of the crane tourists were normal. There were a couple groups of dog owners who gave me the chance to give Bear a learning moment. The people were all very friendly and excited to see the cranes.

One group was really nice people from Pagosa Springs who’d brought champagne for the occasion and were nuts about Bear.

I love crane stories. One of the women told me of an experience she’d had a few years ago, saying, ”And then they ALL flew up at once, and flew over me! When does that happen?”

“Sunset or sunrise, or when a predator is over head, an eagle or something.”


“Yeah, eagles prey on cranes.”

What a lovely afternoon.

Aldo Leopold wrote in his exquisite A Sand County Almanac: “Our appreciation for the crane grows with the slow unraveling of earthly history. His tribe, we now know, stems out of the remote Eocene. The other members of the fauna in which he originated are long since entombed within the hills. When we hear his call, we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution. He is the symbol of our untamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men.”

Here’s a phone picture of what I saw today. The crane tourists were VERY lucky to have the birds so close to the road. I’m taking my camera next time.

Hundreds of Sandhill cranes doing what cranes do.

A couple of links:

This one will take you to the Virtual Monte Vista Crane Festival and tell you how to sign up.

This one will take you to a very interesting article about cranes AND blue herons.


Naturally I’ve been following the impeachment trial and naturally I’m not surprised by the outcome. I think we all knew his Dumbshitness would get off without even a hand-slap in spite of the overwhelming evidence that many of us saw in real time on January 6 and again and again and again during the trial.

On top of that, Teddy’s injuries remain problematic and frustrating for him and me. So, I attacked this day by doing a Mother’s Day garden sign and rewrapping and bandaging Teddy’s foot. I called the vet, too, unfortunately after they closed, and was advised to keep it wrapped and keep him relatively quiet and, if things aren’t better Monday, go back to the vet. I love my vet but this is absurd — or not. I don’t know. At least I have first aid kits up the yin-yang at this point.

And then… I decided to take Bear out to the Refuge. I’d had enough of this day, Teddy needed to stay quiet, so what were we hanging around here for?

The storm that’s putting deep cold and snow north of here is moving down tonight. We should get a few inches (2 or 3) and very cold temps. As I headed to the Refuge I saw the storms moving into the mountains, hiding the Sangres and air-brushing the San Juans. It was gorgeous and wild. On the way, I passed two young black and white cows playing in a field, kicking up their heels and looking joyful.

Once at the Refuge I looked for cranes in their usual place, but I didn’t really expect them to be hunkered down in such an exposed location in such a bitter wind. I took Bear on her favorite trail and she smelled everything she could. There was copious deer poop and a few tracks. Then we headed toward the small grove of trees. The wind was blasting me so hard I put up my hood even though it would muffle all the sounds I usually listen for — but the wind might drown them out anyway. Then, I saw them on the far horizon with Mt. Blanca behind them, rising in the distance, hundreds, heading into the soft low clouds calling to each other. Bear and I stood a long time and watched. It was enchanting. They soared rising higher and higher calling out to each other, surrounding me. Meanwhile the storms moved around the mountains, revealing Mt. Blanca with new snow and shrouding the San Juans under a foreboding cloud with the sun above it.

As I pulled into my driveway it was snowing. I got out to open the garage door and a dozen cranes were flying low above me, talking to each other.

February, but…

It’s just February, and not even quite Valentine’s Day yet, but yesterday Bear and I had lovely saunter in spring-like temperatures to see the cranes, those who have arrived already. Northern parts of my state are gripped in very cold weather, but down here it’s barely even chilly, just under freezing (29 F) when I got up this morning. It hit 53f (12c more or less) yesterday. Even though winter wear is now virtually weightless, and I love my Patagucci down sweater, I still felt that feeling I had as a kid when I didn’t have to wear my coat and headed out in a sweatshirt.

In other ways it was a spring-like walk, too. Bear and I had our first visit of the season with Crane Tourists, an older guy and his wife or girlfriend. The old guy explained they wanted to get here “before the crowds.” I took that to mean before the crowds of people, but he and his wife are also here before the crowd of cranes have arrived. Still, as Bear and I approached the pond where the cranes were huddled on the far side, the man had gone off trail (grrrr) to take a photo through some chamisa scrub. OH well. The cranes didn’t mind. The ground is frozen and the plants are sleeping. No way he could do much harm.

Crane Tourists in Monte Vista are an interesting breed of tourist. They are either boomers or young people. The men in both groups often sport beards. The women in both groups wear brightly colored socks. In many respects they seem like trans-generational echoes of each other both in apparent and less visible values. BUT…the older ones are more talkative. They are very sincere, ready to tell you about other times and other places where they’ve seen cranes and what the cranes do. I suppose it’s possible that I might someday get jaded about the Sandhill Crane, but right now I love to hear people rhapsodize. Godnose I’ve done enough of that myself (thank you for your patience).

So I heard from this old guy that he’d been to New Mexico at Bosque del Apache to watch the cranes, and I got a description of their sunset behavior, and a description of the crane’s dance, complete with demonstration. I totally understand crane love and the dance was adorable performed by a grizzled old guy in a baseball cap, a red bandana, heavy sweater, and hiking boots, with a big camera around his neck. Since the dance the guy was doing is a mating behavior, I wondered how his wife was taking it. 🙂

I thought again about what conversation means to people. It really isn’t only about what they say, but a mysterious thing designed to establish status and community.

Anyway, the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) who manages the refuge is opening the gates to flood the Refuge as some of the ponds are already melting and the cranes have been arriving steadily. Not all that early. I was seeing them this time last year, but not in these numbers.

This year you can attend the Monte Vista Crane Festival — even if you’re in far-flung England, Switzerland, Australia, Finland, India, Spain — ANYWHERE.

Here’s how. I’ll post this again closer to the date which is March 12 in this hemisphere, maybe the 13th for you on the future side of the dateline. 🙂 (Featured photo by Lois Maxwell)

Invitation to the Monte Vista Crane Festival 2021