Friends had seen the cranes. The SANDHILL cranes. In nearby Franklin Township.
Friends had seen them two days in a row!
Jeanette Hooban (One of The Intrepids) and I have never seen a crane.
Now, admittedly, in the pictures sent by friends from cell phones, those birds didn’t look all that impressive. Rather dowdy, even dingy, lumpen, although on tall legs — they were not what Michelin (Guides to gastronomic shrines in France) calls “Worthy of the Journey.”
But then, we’d never seen a crane.
Well, except in (the film) Winged Migration, but sandhills are not the ones who starred in that epic.
So we devoted an overcast Sunday to going on a cranequest.
Odd back roads tumbled us out in one of the most nightmarish developments I had ever seen. It was like those prophetic films, such as 2001, in which man irrevocably pays ultimate prices for progress.
Scraped earth, denuded of trees and even of crops, McMansion “TownHomes” everywhere, without a shrub, without even being alternated for privacy. A moonscape, but I wouldn’t insult the moon.
Somewhere near what I mockingly called “an enclave”, and then it turns out that’s the name of that place, coupled with my treasured (nearby but by means visible) Delaware and Raritan Canal.
The road of the cranes was only slightly removed from destruction in the name of construction.
Cranes need slightly cropped ex-cornfields.
There was one.
As we drove along, Jeanette and I began to wonder if we’d even recognize a crane, if we came upon them.
She decided they MIGHT look something like great blue herons, and we well know those stately birds.
GREAT BLUE HERON BY BRENDA JONES
So Jeanette drove with infinite patience, the patience of a brain surgeon, slowly down, then up, then down and up again, the road of the cranes.
There may be nothing emptier than cornrows where there ought to be birds.
DARK-EYED JUNCO BY BRENDA JONES
Finally, we rejoiced to come upon, not in the corn, but in the natural weeds and scrub that bordered the croplands, some sparrows, a few juncoes, two mouning doves, all busily gleaning seeds flung down, not by a farmer on his tractor, but by the wind in the plants that belong on that field.
SONG SPARROW BY BRENDA JONES
So we drove away.
We thought we could find a back road along the backside of the cornfield. Ha! Everything up there belongs to those enclave developers. And their hideosities are for sale “in the high $300,000s”, according to their industrial-strength sign, stuck in the bare earth. A Mercedes turned into the Sales Office ahead of us, as we made our disbelieving way into this panorama of the future.
But Jeanette had stopped that car! No, not to buy a condo. To study a handsome, stately, piercingly gazing red-tailed hawk in a tree the developers had somehow overlooked.
With our magical optics, we could see the abruptly changed expression in that red-tail’s lemon-yellow eyes. With a whoosh!, he was up and over, and o my! there was some forgotten grass on some lumpen ground. The hawk ‘stooped’, (birder-language for zeroing on for the kill) and vanished behind a hummock.
RED-TAILED HAWK BY BRENDA JONES
Jeanette said, impishly, “Shall we very slowly drive over there and watch it tear the prey from limb to limb?”
Listen, I’ll take any bird experience.
But before I could even nod, let alone verbalize, that hawk was back in the tree.
Raptorial fast food.
Because were there in the presence of his majesty, and there was no way we were leaving before he did, we then treated to a cloud of juncoes, flaring white petticoats. And then, lo, bluebirds beyond counting! They were so brightly blue and that almost-robin red, for they are cousins, and even the females so vivid, we decided they were halfway to indigo buntings.
BLUEBIRD IN WINTER BY BRENDA JONES
The aforesaid developers had put in a scraggly array of rather meagre trees. I hope they did it in early fall, not in November. But these trees did not look grounded.
And across the road, near the raptor feast site, an array of handsome, tall trees lay scattered, dirt balls facing the road and the $300,000+ mchouses. They looked like toys abandoned by a petulant toddler. They did not look like they are going to survive January blasts and worse, without having been put in the ground in plenty of time to establish strong roots. Even so, the few scraggly trees were fine for the bluebirds, who merrily filled them, like bright Christmas ornaments, then float-coasted down to the ground for seeds or whatever. There surely aren’t any insects or worms about in this vile weather we’ve been enduring.
Not only that, a merry mockingbird crowned the tree like an angel, then flew to the top of one of the mcroofs.
MOCKINGBIRD PUFFED BY WINTER COLD BY BRENDA JONES
Just then, ‘our’ red-tail took off in a zoom, rising effortlessly toward something we hadn’t noticed. God forbid a field or a habitat should be left to the mice and the voles and the butterflies and the bees and foxes and maybe even a coyote or two, and some skunks, some raccoons. Trails, even, so the people can get out of those “little houses made of Ticky Tack” which Pete Seeger so scorned, Seeger-the-prophet.
FOX OF ISLAND BEACH, IN DAYLIGHT, BY RAY YEAGER
(what SHOULD be happening in the fields of Franklin Park)
No, there isn’t a field. Well, yes there IS, actually.
A playing field.
With towering bleachers and blinding shiny metal poles taller then anything in the enclave, each one studded with equally blinding shiny metal hooded lights, that will ruin the nights of the people who attempt to sleep in the enclave. Who have no idea how blinding such lights can be in the dark, nor how loudly players and fans will carry on under those lights…
Well, the hawk was nothing if not an opportunist. No tree in New Jersey that I’ve ever seen is as tall as those lightning-blinding metal poles. Straight to the top he flew, master of all he surveyed. No prey would be missed by this master.
Jeanette and I went on over to the Colonial Park Rose Garden, to see what it’s like for roses in winter.
ROY ANDRES DE GOOT MEMORIAL ROSE GARDEN
THIS ONE’S FOR FOOD WRITERS PAT TANNER AND FAITH BAHADURIAN AND POET BETTY LIES —
THE LONG VIEW
But for this preservationist, who spends the majority of her time trying to convince people to appreciate and save natural New Jersey, it was winter in my heart.
SURE-FOOTED MAMMAL IN HERB GARDEN – PROBABLY SKUNK
When I beg you to do whatever you can to save wild New Jersey, on land and on water and in the air, I am NOT KIDDING! Even though D&R Greenway has managed to save around 19,000 acres, folks, it is not enough.
We didn’t find cranes.
Our fear is that, next year at the time when their inner navigational systems compel them to that cornfield, it will have more $300,000+ dwellings and poor pitiful trees, and no nutrients for cranes!