Counting cranes

Marlena Hartz: Freedom Newspapers

MULESHOE — From the cab of his white pickup truck, Harold Beierman scans the quiet lakes. He is checking up on some seasonal guests. Peering through a pair of binoculars, he counts the leggy birds, one by one.

Beierman will do this every dawn until winter ends.

He estimates 16,000 sandhill cranes have chosen the Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge as a roosting site — or a place of temporary rest — this autumn.

The birds sleep at the edges of three saline lakes on the refuge. And Beierman, the wildlife refuge manager, has about 10 minutes to complete his morning head count. As soon as the sun comes up, the cranes fly away, to return only at sunset.

Their daily departure and return transforms the skies: Once aloft, the birds appear tiny, like ant colonies in a brilliant pink and blue sky. It is not the sight of the cranes Beierman finds most impressive, however. It is their sounds.

“The sound of them taking off in the morning is almost like the roar of a jet engine — all those wings,” Beierman said.
Even with wings at rest, sandhill cranes are vocal. Though the call of a solitary crane is similar to a dove-like coo, together, the calls — commonly elicited upon return to roost — generate an almost deafening buzz.

Beierman said the cranes, native to Alaska and Canada, are drawn to the refuge for its lakes and its proximity to agricultural crops. The birds gorge primarily on nearby milo crops, Beierman said.

“The farmers around here are pretty used to it. This has been going on for years,” Beierman said.

A few farmers, however, use timed propane gas explosions to discourage the cranes from feasting in their fields, Beierman said.

The migratory patterns of the sandhill cranes have slowly shifted over the past few years, Beierman said. Western parts of the country and refuges south of Muleshoe have been attracting greater numbers of cranes, he said.

The Grulla National Wildlife Refuge, located near Arch, is now harboring an estimated 125,000 sandhill cranes, according to a Fish and Wildlife Service press release. The Muleshoe refuge hosted a peak number of cranes — 250,000 — in February of 1981.