Spring has arrived.
Forget the calendar date. Forget the six inches of new snow that fell this past week and the dirty piles of old snow from early December that still haven’t melted. The sandhill cranes are back.
Sandhill Crane Natural Area near East Bethel, Minnesota, is one of the first places we visit as winter wanes. Three out of the last four years we’ve seen sandhill cranes there and heard their rattling calls. If we visit too early, the cranes haven’t returned yet; too late, and the ice has melted so much that we can’t walk across the marsh and lakes. Today we timed it just right.
In places the ice had already melted and refrozen, leaving molten clumps that shone in the sun. Snow hung from trees in loops and ribbons, caught between melting and refreezing. The almost continual clacking of the cranes told us they were back long before we spied the first pair out on the ice. As we made our way along the edge of the lake we spotted several other pairs, walking on the ice or winging through the air.
We walked through the snow, past pussy willows budding out, until we spotted the eagle’s nest we look for every year. Last year we looked and looked for the enormous nest, only to discover what was left of it on the ground, its weight having pulled over the tree in which it was built. A new, smaller nest perched in a different tree. This year that new nest was much larger, and an eagle, white head gleaming, kept an eye on us over the edge of the nest’s sticks and branches while her mate flew nearby.
The cranes, like the eagles, kept their distance, but their lacy, five-inch footprints left trails across the snow. Other footprints puzzled us—paw prints separated by eight or ten feet with long swooping troughs in between—until we realized they must be otter trails.
The ice was thawing under us as we made our way back to the car, having seen for ourselves that the cranes are back, the eagles are nesting, and spring has arrived.