Searching for Aldo Leopold and his glorious cranes

On a glorious autumn day, we went searching for Aldo Leopold, which initially alarmed the person who introduced him to our family.

“Wait,” Molly texted, when I alerted her to our plans.”Are you looking for his grave?”

It was a gross but seasonally reasonable question, with Halloween just days away and poor Mr. Leopold gone since 1947.

Actually, we were searching for the pioneering professor’s spirit, which we found all over the Navarino Nature Preserve, and his beloved Sandhill Cranes, which, that day, we did not.

Leopold, an author and environmentalist, once wrote, “When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

I can’t say we felt like we belonged to the land as we hiked through sunlit paths, but we did feel like honored guests. Freed of my heavy camera bag, which I pawned off about a half-mile into our little excursion, I practically pranced.

I wanted to see the flocks of Sandhill Cranes that roost near in Pike’s Peak Flowage. Shortly after arriving though, I chatted with a man at the nature center, who told me the cranes leave for the day to feed in the area soybean fields and don’t return until twilight.

I believed him, but I counted on at least a few lazy cranes lounging around the marsh, and I kept my camera poised to shoot them.

Alas, cranes are an industrious bunch and, though we hiked all the way to the marsh and back, we did not spot a single one lounging in the preserve. Of course, as Leopold wrote,“Wilderness is the one kind of playground which mankind cannot build to order.”

Still, we had a wonderful time at Navarino that day, walking on the glacier’s gift of soft sand paths, breathing in clean air, and listening to the crane-less call of the wild.

Then, yesterday, we headed back to Navarino and arrived at dusk, just in time for a spectacular show. First we heard the horn section warming up — a honk here, a honk there and then the cool cacophony of a thousand elegant cranes returning to a marsh they’ve claimed as their summer home for longer than anyone can remember.

I snapped pictures for a while, and then I sat on an Aldo Leopold bench and watched the cranes roll in from every direction. It sounded exactly as Professor Leopold described in “A Sand County Almanac” (Molly’s Christmas gift to her dad).

“High horns, low horns, silence and finally a pandemonium of trumpets, rattles, croaks and cries that almost shakes the bog with nearness…”

If you’re lucky enough to live near a crane commune, I highly suggest a dawn or dusk visit. It’s pretty life-affirming to know they leave their nests every morning, and to watch them all fly home.

If you’re searching for the spirit of Aldo Leopold, the Navarino Nature Preserve is not a bad place to start.
I don’t blame the Sandhill Cranes for roosting here. It’s just beautiful.
Glaciers left soft paths of sand through the area and volunteers groomed them into easy walking paths. (Side note: One of us ran an 7(k) 5(k) here last spring when he made a wrong turn on the course and added an extra loop. I mean, if you’re going to add two extra kilometers to your run, this is not a bad place to do it, am I right? He’s still a little mad about the extra k’s though.
An Aldo Leopold bench. The story is that he invented the six-board design for these benches and set them up on his property. He liked to take coffee, a notebook and sketchpad out in the early dawn to sit quietly and observe. That does not sound like a bad way to spend a morning to me.
We’re past peak color season, but the sun lit these leaves for us anyway.
I did not see any real ferocious animals, but I did think this broken branch of a tree looked like a wolverine. Thoughts?
Like I said, we were honored guests and the place rolled out a golden carpet for us.
Packer pre-season and Farm 026
This bird practically walked up to our cabin window last summer and introduced itself. Had I stuck my hand, rather than my camera, out to say hello, I might have realized it was a Sandhill Crane.
We went back to Navarino last night and arrived just in time for the show. Cranes flew in from every direction. They greeted each other enthusiastically as they gathered at the marsh after a long day of feeding in the surrounding fields.
They roost in the marsh water, protected by the surrounding trees
I sat on an Aldo Leopold bench and watch them roll in.
They seemed to be a very sociable bunch.
I took pictures for a while, and then I sat back and enjoyed the show.

Here’s a taste of what it sounds like when a thousand cranes come home.

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