Yellowstone National Park: April 19, 2011
There are five sandhill cranes at Blacktail Ponds when we pull into the pullout for lunch. One walks across a frozen expanse of ice and four in the sage on the far side. Three fly off. We chew on our veggies and ham sandwiches. It is cozy in the car, away from the few errant snowflakes which whiz down through the grey sky.
Two cranes fly in, bugling as they spread their long wings and float down and join the two others. The four group together on the rise of a low ridge on the far side of the pond. We’re snuggled in the warm car when I see that two cranes are bugling. Dale kills the radio and rolls down the window. The bugles resonate throughout the valley. For me crane voices are a song of wilderness and far away places. When I hear them I always pause to savor the moment.
One is Peg Leg! We never saw her last year, but here she is, fifteen years after we first saw her. I first commented on the female crane with the missing foot in my journal on May 11, 1997. Her right foot is missing, but not her right leg. Her gait is very distinctive. She touches the ground with her peg leg and takes short steps with it. She always brings that leg up much higher than the other when she steps with her good leg. It is quite a limp, but she seems to manage well in spite of it.
Peg Leg used to nest in the bulrushes beneath this pullout. All went well until one morning we drove past and noticed a golden eagle was standing on the nest site and eating her mate! The next year she had a new mate.
Peg Leg and her new mate nested on the far side of Blacktail Ponds, far enough away that we had to scope carefully to verify it was Peg Leg over there. All seemed to go well for a few years and then our sightings became spotty. 2009 she flew over the ponds alone and calling, calling as if to locate a missing mate. We didn’t see her in 2010. We assumed we’d seen the last of her.
Today’s cranes interrupt my thoughts. Two are bugling. Their ‘unison bugle’ tells us we are watching a mated pair. He points his bill to the sky and bugles forth with a slower deep call that fills this open valley. Her bugle is higher, more rapid and she doesn’t point so high with her bill. We look carefully. It’s not Peg Leg.
Dare I hope that Peg Leg has a mate? We watch the foursome continue along the ridgeline. The two cranes on the right pause and stretch their necks to the sky. Once again the larger crane bugles straight up, the smaller joins in with her rapid rattle. This time the female has only one foot. My heart sings with Peg Leg and her mate.