Nearly 20 years ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service chose my husband Terry’s stunning photograph of a Greater Sandhill Crane as their brochure’s cover image for Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Southeast Oregon. That it continues to be an iconic image for the refuge today is not surprising, because Malheur NWR is a summer breeding ground for a population of these large dancing birds with the hauntingly beautiful, bugling calls. In May of 2015, refuge employees, volunteers and visitors to Marshall Pond at Malheur Headquarters were treated to a refuge first – a water’s edge view of nesting cranes.
Just as the chicks (colts) were due to hatch, a sudden storm system caused local flash-flooding and the eggs were in danger of being inundated by rapidly rising water. While those of us who had invested in a month-long observation of parenting sandhill cranes tried to maintain an attitude of acceptance of this natural event, we admitted to feelings of defeat and resignation that the nest would fail in the eleventh hour. “So close to hatching, how tragic!” However, these young parent birds, probably first time nesters, drew upon their innate, hard-wired knowledge of the ages and immediately built up the nest with hollow dry reeds as they maneuvered the eggs to a safe position. The nest floated!
The euphoria among us was shameless, especially for seasoned scientific observers! But nothing I have ever experienced prepared me for the surprise behavior of the parents as they led their two hatched colts to and from their nest site just a few days later.
Here begins a pictorial story showing the mother crane on the nest just before dusk. The father is standing guard above the pond with two newly hatched colts. As she calls to him, he plows a trail for the young colts with his body through the thick reeds, leading them to the safety of the nest for the night. The wonder of instinct that led the parents to rescue the nest, and then to pave the path to safety for the colts’ was simply extraordinary. It was an elegant ballet of very gentle, careful, protective behaviors – parenting that will be counted as one of the grandest nature events ever witnessed.