I have a confession. I lied. It was unintentional, but still, I lied.
I am a storyteller. I observe, gather information, and translate. Sometimes when I do not have all the facts, I make up “stuff” to fill in the blanks. Is that lying? Or, is it just an attempt to make sense out of an unknown thing. Perhaps it is just an exercise to entertain my busy brain. No matter, as time passes, the stories I tell myself become more intricate, and fact and fiction begin to blur. Soon, I am confident that my story is infallible and entirely correct. That is until one of the square building blocks turns into a circle, and the whole tale crumbles.
The Sandhill Cranes of the Lakehouse have taught me more than I could possibly share. Humility is a common theme, and so it is in this case. It has become apparent that I misreported a few of the facts. I contemplated never sharing the truth out of pride or embarrassment. But, honesty and integrity won.
It all began with Lydia. Lydia was one of my best friends. I am solid in what I know about her. She loved me. She was a fierce protector of her colts, and the lake, and a faithful mate to Roger, and then, Bud. When Lydia was injured in the spring of 2019, she lost her status as the matriarch of the lake, could no longer produce offspring, rear her brood of colts, or be a mate to Bud. She had lost everything that had defined her as a crane, except for me. Her gift to me was to allow me to see her frailty. Her vulnerability deepened our relationship. I lost her at the end of the season, but she lives on in my heart.
Lydia’s last surviving colt was not a typical crane. Crystal was born without fear. Baby cranes should be afraid of humans, but she would wonder about my feet so much at times that I feared I might step on her. She possessed a level of athleticism and grace that I had never seen in another crane, and I often thought of Crystal as a ballerina. She loved to ham it up for the camera and me. Crystal warmed my heart. Lydia and I were both so very proud of her.
When the cranes returned in 2019, I was shocked that Crystal was allowed to linger in the nesting area. In the past, I observed Bud and Lydia turn their backs toward the colts born the previous year. The message was clear; You are no longer welcome here. Bud and Lydia mated, as usual, eggs were laid, and everything seemed normal, except that Crystal was always around. When Lydia was injured and then disappeared, Crystal stepped in as mate to Bud and shared the responsibility of lying on eggs and even attempted to raise colts that were not hers. I was very proud.
This year I was delighted to welcome back Bud and Crystal. But, Bud seemed smaller, and I was concerned about his health. As time went on, I began to wonder if the bird was, indeed, Bud. Mostly, the bird seemed like Bud. But, one day, as I peered out the window, I noticed the cranes doing their special spring mating dance. Oh my. Oh, dear. Nope. No, indeed! My mind refused to process what it was seeing. My square building block became a circle, and the story I had told myself of Crystal fell apart. Crystal and Bud were not mates last summer, but companions. The new bird is not Bud, and the old bird is the same, but not Crystal.
Thus, I humbly introduce you to the Sandhill Cranes of the Lakehouse; Patriarch Billy Crystal and his mate Rosebud.
Song of The Post: I Heard it Through the Grapevine By Marvin Gay https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hajBdDM2qdg
Photography Website: https://www.lakehousephoto.com/
The Gratitude Project: http://gratitudebylakehouse.com/
2020© Gail Howarth, Living At The Lakehouse, and The Gratitude Project By Lakehouse Photo. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Gail Howarth, Living At The Lakehouse, and The Gratitude Project By Lakehouse Photo, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
The Sandhill Cranes of the Lakehouse have had a tough year. The matriarch of the lake, Lydia, was injured early in the season. She was no longer able to defend her territory, be a suitable mate for Bud, or to care for her unhatched colts. In a strange twist, Crystal, Lydia’s colt from the previous summer stepped in as a replacement mother and mate to Bud. Lydia’s fate is currently unknown. She may be living on the fringe of the lake with the other unmated birds, or she may have died. Either way, her departure from the Lakehouse has been a devastating loss.
Crystal cared for the eggs as though they were her own, taking turns with Bud to keep them safe and warm. She has been a good and doting mother to this year’s colts, Hans and Solo. But as any mother knows, it only takes a moment for a child to step into danger. Hans did just that on Wednesday, May 29.
I could hear the horn of the passing car clearly from inside the Lakehouse. This happens from time to time. The cranes are, after all, birds and have very little sense about the dangers of the roadway. Most often, the cranes come away uninjured and unfazed by their close calls with passing vehicles. But in this instance, I felt quite certain that one or more of the birds were injured or killed. Bud & Crystal’s distress calls clearly communicated that a colt was seriously injured or dead. I searched for Hans along the roadside but found nothing. Perhaps I was wrong.
As the day passed, I watched the cranes closely. I saw Bud and Solo together in the bog, but not Crystal. I worried that Crystal, as a new mom, might have been unsettled enough by the event to abandon her new family. Or, maybe Hans was not gone and for some odd reason, Crystal was spending time alone with him. That, however, would be highly unusual. There is safety in numbers, and crane families stay together.
Around 8 pm, I heard Crystal knocking on the basement door. She normally does this to let me know that there is no bird seed on the ground. However, there was plenty, and there was no need for her to knock. She met me at the door and just stood there looking up at me intensely. I don’t know for sure what she wanted or what she was trying to tell me, but I believe she was sharing her loss. I said from my heart in my out loud voice, “I love you, Crystal, I know that Hans is likely gone, I am so very very sorry, I will miss him too. And, Crystal, I am so very proud of you. You did your best. You are a great mom.” She held my eyes with hers for some time. Tears fell as I focused on sending love from my heart to hers.
Thursday morning arrived, and no cranes came to the yard. I could still see Bud and Solo in the bog, but not Crystal. The afternoon passed, and then, the evening came. I could no longer accept Crystal’s absence. I had to find her. Perhaps I could see her more easily from the kayak. It did not take long to locate them. While I was saddened to see that Hans was indeed missing, I was relieved to see Bud, Crystal, & Solo together.
I was disheartened, but at peace. The remaining family was safe and together as a unit. For this, I was grateful. I paddled around the lake for a bit longer feeling my feelings, talking to God, and taking in the sights, and sounds of the lake. As the sun began to set, I recorded and posted a video on Facebook sharing the sad news of Hans passing.
On my return to the dock, I noticed the cranes settling on their nest for the night. I called out to them, “Come back to the yard tomorrow, ok!” At that moment, I saw something that was not right. It was a patch of orange where it should not have been. My heart sank, and tears began to fall. Hans lifeless body lay below Crystal’s feet. She must have carried him from the roadway back to the nest. The mystery of her absence from the others was now solved. Crystal looked down at Hans and then at me with an expression that was not unfamiliar. It was, in fact, an expression I hoped never to see again as long as I lived.
Grief has its own timeline. It comes and goes without warning. Sometimes it lasts for minutes but often lingers for days or even months. Grief feels like a lonely Godless place. No one, absolutely no one can feel your pain. No one can bare it for you. And, God, where is God when every cell of your being aches for someone or something that is no longer here? With just one glance from a distraught bird, vivid images from my mother’s final days played out in my mind’s eye, and I plunged into the depths of grief. Grief makes no apologies. It is an opportunist that shamelessly marches in, sets up camp, and stays until the heart heals enough to send it packing.
Three days before my mother passed, she was standing in our kitchen getting ready to take her night time meds. Instead of opening one section of her pill minder, the entire lid came off and one week’s worth of pills scattered across the floor. She quickly got down on hands and knees and began picking them up. As suddenly as she started, she stopped and stood up. She was confused. She looked up at me and like small child opened her upturned fists to show me what she held. She said, “I don’t know what to do.” At that moment, my mother realized that the cancer in her brain was winning. Her eyes pleaded in the same way as Crystal’s. Both were saying, Help me, can you fix this, won’t you please fix this. I took the pills from my mother’s hands and then held her in my arms and rocked her gently as she wept. I said It’s ok, it’s my turn to take care of you now. When she stopped crying, I put her to bed.
What is a person to do when pleading eyes ask the impossible? What is a person to do when there is nothing to be done? I could not fix my mother’s failing brain or make the cancer go away. I could not bring Hans back to life. I could not give my mother or Crystal what they wanted. In that helpless, hopeless place, all one can do is show up. To bear witness to the other’s suffering and in some small way, help to carry the burden. I sat quietly in the kayak and held Crystal’s gaze until she looked away.
Grief is a Godless place, but it is often where we find the Divine. It is frequently in our darkest moments that we call on God to lead us out of suffering and into the light. It is the journey back from the despair experienced during grief that strengthens our relationship with God and heals our hearts. As for me, I am shaken, and my heart is badly bruised. But, I know that the grief will pass and that the sorrow will be replaced with gratitude.
This piece is dedicated to the memory of Harold and Lynnie Howarth, Lydia, and Hans.
My connection to nature is a direct gift from my parents. It is where I connect most often with them and is where I see God. Without my mother and father’s demonstration of love and reverence for nature, I would likely have never befriended a nesting pair of sandhill cranes. I am grateful beyond words for my folks. They were good people. I am grateful beyond words for the odd connection I have with these splendid birds.
Song of the Post: How Can I Help You Say Goodbye By Patty Loveless https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z4F_cXGQN9k
If you enjoyed this post, please consider viewing my photography at https://www.lakehousephoto.com/
2019© Gail Howarth and Living At The Lakehouse. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Gail Howarth and Living At The Lakehouse with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
The day the baby Sandhill Cranes are born is one of my most highly anticipated days of the year. On May 1st, I was awakened by Bud and Lydia trumpeting the arrival of this year’s brood. Neighboring cranes replied, either to share in their joy, or to announce the hatching of their own families. With heart racing, I jumped out of bed, and rushed to the backyard with camera in hand. Sure enough, Bud and Lydia stood upon the nest with two little ones under foot. I was beside myself with excitement and could barely hold the camera still. Not only was I overjoyed by the birth of the new cranes, but also, that they had for the first time ever placed the nest in a location I could easily see and photograph.
As with all babies I have hopes and dreams for their future. The first hope is that they live one day, then one week, and finally through the fall so that I might wish the whole family farewell as they fly south for the winter months. If they make it through the week, they receive names. Names are chosen based on behavior, birth date, or some other theme that is appropriate that year. Here is a chronology from the time the time I lived at the Lakehouse.
2006 Roger & Lydia (Named after some friend’s of my father)
2007 Roger, Lydia, and son David (David, after the real Roger and Lydia’s son)
2008 Roger, Lydia, & son Bud, and daughter Diane (Bud for a relative that loved nature and had passed away that day, and Diane after a relative born on that day)
2009 Sadly Roger did not return in the spring of 2009. Lydia chose to mate with Bud, her son from the previous year.
2009 Bud, Lydia, & daughter Dori, and son Nemo (Born during a high water year, and survived for only a few days)
2009 Bud, Lydia, & sons Chance, and Rerun (The second brood of the year, thus named for the second go around. Chance injured a wing late in the summer, and though I took him to the Wildlife Rescue Center in Grand Rapids. he did not survive)
2010 Bud, Lydia, & sons Trip and Mayday (Born on May 1st, the logical name for one would be Mayday, and the other. Well he tripped on everything)
2011 Bud, Lydia, & daughters Corky and Cedar (Named after the parent company of Michigan’s Adventures where Tammy Sue worked , Cedar Point and the Corkscrew Rollercoaster). Neither chick survived the summer.
2012 Bud, Lydia, & sons Sherwood and Forest (Named after Sherwood Forest from Robinhood)
2013 Bud, Lydia, & daughter Red, and son Rusty (After the color of their baby down)
2014 Bud, Lydia, & daughter Jut (Born on Mother’s day, she was given my mother’s childhood nickname)
Though many folks do not like Sandhill Cranes, I cannot help but be fascinated by them. It is true that they destroy crops, landscapes, and lawns with their long sharp beaks, as they search for bugs and seeds to eat. But I have no crops, and the little damage they do to my yard is not of consequence. How can one not love a bird that stands nearly four feet tall, eats at the feeder, brings precious babies each year, and allows one to stand just inches away? What a precious and unexpected gift I received when I moved to the Lakehouse!
Each year I am delighted by new and old observations. Just this year I learned that the babies swim across open water. Something I have known for some time is that each chick develops its own distinct personality though some themes remain the same year after year. The boys tend to lean back on their knees when resting. The girls sit down. There is always the flapper. This chick propels itself forward as it walks by constantly flapping its tiny wings. Without a doubt, the flapper is the first one to successfully fly as fall grows near. Then there is always one that is a bit lazy or sleepy. This chick will take every opportunity to lag behind, sit down, or take a nap. This chick’s first flight is never pretty.
Bud was a lazy/sleepy chick. Still on occasion he reverts to old behavior and forgets that he is a dad and has responsibilities to the babies. Bud’s first flight was the absolute worst I have ever observed. His sister Diane had a picture perfect flight. Roger and Lydia cheered her on as she glided from the nest to my lawn. Bud followed up with a wobbly take off gaining a bit of altitude, then abruptly took a nose dive into the muck. Though Roger and Lydia started off with the same enthusiastic cheer they had with Diane, they quickly fell silent during Bud’s ill timed decent. Soon all four cranes were in my garden. Diane, Roger, and Lydia, were obviously pleased, and ate happily at the feeder. Bud, however, wet and mud covered, hung his head in shame, and would not come near to eat.
Sandhill Cranes mate for life and can live 20 years. The first year of a crane’s life is the most difficult. On the day the chicks hatch the adults compel them to leave the nest to forage for food. The terrain they nest in is not easy to navigate, and I find it unimaginable to me, as to how the little ones manage. The nests are often surrounded by water that they must swim across. Then there are reeds and cattails, sharp, bent and broken from the previous years, new sprouts of the same plants, muck, sticks, and fallen trees. During the first year there are many predators the colts are ill prepared to defend themselves against including; hawks, eagles, fox, coyote, raccoon, snapping turtles and even cars.
The cranes have provided me with laughter, wonder, joy, and some sorrow. In return there is so very little I can do for them. I feed them, love them, cherish them, and adore them. I hope that I can provide a safe haven that they will come home to year after year. I am painfully aware that despite my best efforts, I cannot guarantee that Rusty and Red will make it one more day, week, month, or until we say goodbye at the end of summer. Each day I count, 1 baby, 2 babies, 1 adult, 2 adults, and am grateful and relieved that all are still here. I cannot guarantee that Bud and Lydia will safely return each spring. But I hope and I pray, and I wait each year for them to do so. These are after all wild creatures. They are not bound to me or to this place, but to their natural instincts. I can only hope that these instincts will lead them home for many countless years to come.
For more photos of the Sandhill Cranes go to: www.lakehousephoto.com
© Gail Howarth and Living At The Lakehouse, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Gail Howarth and Living At The Lakehouse with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.