Actually, he feels it more than hears it, he says. Gazing upward, Albert will witness a flock of sandhill cranes, flying northward, calling back and forth to each other their magnificent ga-roo-roo-roos.
Before Albert lost count one year, he had tallied over 100 cranes.
Sandhill cranes stand four to five feet tall, with a gray body and a red forehead. They court with enthusiastic, leaping dances. They mate for life and nest in marshes and other open, treeless places.
Florida naturalist Archie Carr once wrote that only three great animal voices remain in the southeastern United States -- "the jovial lunacy of the barred owl... the roar of the alligator...the ethereal bugling of the sandhill crane.”
The birds never fail to put me in mind of my great friend Milton Hopkins, a passionate observer of wildlife on his Osierfield, Georgia farm until his death last year. Milton always dropped me notes to say that the cranes were passing in their flyway. Sometimes they descended to feed or spend the night. Once Milton was standing in a field when a flock of over 300 cranes landed. Milton always reported the cranes migrating between March 1 and 19.
After Milton died, right in the middle of his funeral a long vee of sandhill cranes passed overhead, sounding their ancient music, their rattling trumpets. Maybe Milton heard the cranes, Albert wrote me, and decided to fly off with them.
I don't live in the crane flyway. When I hear reports of sandhill cranes, I know that spring is on its way. I start looking for purple martins to come flying in from South America, and the dogtooth violets to bloom in the woods. Frogs will be breeding, and soon we’ll see our first swallow-tail kites.
This study of plant and animal life cycles is called phenology, or in other words, a natural calendar.
I too am a phenologist. On March 3, 2015 I first noticed purple martin scouts. On Feb. 2, 2020 I saw the first Carolina jessamine bloom. Right now Carolina jessamine is in full craziness, cascades of yellow in the tops of leafless trees. Red maples are putting out their samaras. Redbuds are starting to bloom. (March 7, by the way, is the birthday of writer and environmental activist Rick Bass.)
The climate crisis has disrupted many evolutionary adaptations of many species. People say the cranes are moving earlier in the spring and later in the fall. Some plants are blooming earlier than ever or later than ever, and some are leafing out at crazy times. Often fruit trees bloom early, only to get their blossoms zapped by late frosts. South Florida birds are moving into Georgia. Some birds are not migrating as they once did.
When things change so often and so chaotically, a person can feel shaky. As a human, we want to be able to depend on patterns and schedules. A psyche can't take too much chaos and crisis and remain healthy, not without a lot of self-care and interventions.
Now, it seems, there is very little on which we can depend. There's too much rain. School gets cancelled and houses get flooded and roads get closed. Then there's too much wind and trees fall. Then there's not enough rain, and we're deep in a sucking drought. Then there's a tornado where tornadoes did not traditionally occur and at a time they did not occur. Then comes another fortnight of torrential downpours.
The migration of sandhill cranes, going and coming, has been something we could depend on. Now it’s almost spring, the time to watch and listen for them. I'm hoping they come when they're supposed to come, not too early and not too late. I'm hoping we get serious about making the adaptations we humans need to initiate, and soon, to mitigate these climate disruptions and more.