Dances with Cranes

We dance with the cranes at the Ladd S. Gordon Waterfowl Complex
sandhill crane flying overhead
Getting there
From Albuquerque, head south on I-25 to exit 175 just north of Socorro. Turn onto NM SR 116 and drive north until you see the entrance on the right.
Spreading our wings
Before I became a swashbuckling privateer and intrepidly set sail on the Spanish main, I was in fact a gangly ornithology student. Therefore, I wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity to witness thousands of migrating greater sandhill cranes and twisted Lily Flower’s arm until she reluctantly agreed to accompany me on the perilous journey.
It was an unseasonably warm late January afternoon when Lily Flower and I pulled into the Ladd S. Gordon Waterfowl Complex. Unlike most other breeding areas frequented by sandhill cranes, this wildlife management area is readily accessible (just a 5 or 10-minute drive from the interstate). As soon as we climbed the stairs onto the observation tower, we were greeted by the sight of hundreds of sandhill cranes in all their glory.
Seasoned travelers
Each winter, tens of thousands of sandhill cranes make the arduous journey from their frigid homes in Russia’s Kamchatka peninsula, Alaska, and Northern Canada to the warmer climes of the southwestern US and Mexico. The Ladd S. Gordon complex, which is adjacent to a waterway (the Rio Grande) and far from human interference, makes the perfect vacation spot for these seasoned snowbirds. There are 3 subspecies that migrate through the area – the lesser sandhill crane, the Canadian sandhill crane, and the greater sandhill crane (a local resident of the Rocky Mountains).
entrance sign for the Ladd S. Gordon Waterfowl Complex
Ruffle my feathers...
Sandhill cranes are renowned for their elaborate mating displays. Scientists aren’t quite sure why the birds perform such intricately detailed “dances”, but speculate that they serve an important function in assessing the fitness of a potential mate, reinforcing the bond between the pair, and even stimulating hormone production. Since the birds are monogamous (mate for life), it’s obviously important to get it right the first time! While the so-called courtship dances are most often seen in the breeding season, the birds have been known to “dance” throughout the year to reinforce a couple’s bond, warn of predators, or intimidate rivals. Their elaborate dances are an unforgettable sight: the birds circle one another like a pair of Flamenco dancers, leaping as high as 6 feet up in the air, toss sticks at one another, and bob their heads in unison. While the displays appear to be ritualized and academics have made a career out of describing the elaborate movements in detail, without anthropomorphizing, we can only speculate on their true meaning.
sandhill crane in a field
Lily Flower gets in on the action
As, in her past life in the Amazon, Lily Flower was adept at moving silently beneath the verdant canopy and bonding with all the denizens of the rainforest, she felt an immediate chemistry with the cranes and enthusiastically took part in their festivities. Her black-ops training in the art of Shaolin warfare allowed her to imitate the intracate movements of the cranes and they soon responded in kind. Within minutes, she attracted the attention of an amorous male, who landed next to her and began strutting his stuff. You can see the “X-rated” courtship video here:
Homeward bound
As the sun began to set, noticed a herd of almost 20 mule deer cautiously regarding us as they ambled across the field. As we approached to get a picture, the alpha male, a 10-point buck, tossed his head and bounded off toward the safety of the woods with the rest of the group leaping like gazelles after him. Our adventure was at its end, but we vowed to return again next winter to catch this amazing spectacle!
mule deer at the Ladd S. Gordon Waterfowl Complex

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