We were stopped, the car turned off, listening to the silence of the refuge while crisp autumn air, softened slightly by the distant sun, wafted through open windows. Occasional trilling warbles of incoming Sand Hill Cranes reminded us where we were.
This was our first visit of the season to the wildlife refuge that is our refuge from the world's noise and demands. We've been coming here for years, and have grown accustomed to the rhythms of this place. The four mile loop offers different possibilities, different ecosystems at different places. Every single time we've been here, every time, we witness some new miracle of nature.
I trust this with such certainty that the near empty ponds and dearth of avian life didn't bother me. A few coots, an occasional heron, ordinary raptors here and there. I watched, and enjoyed, and waited. For my gift.
We were in a stretch where in the winter swans can be seen swimming on great shallow lakes. On this day, however, fields of dried grasses stretched empty before us - until I spotted a row of gray egg-shaped lumps in the distance that looked out of place. They were too big to be Canada geese, and besides we hadn't seen one goose (despite the fact there were hunters on the perimeter of the refuge). They were too round to be herons, and herons don't hang together like that. Before I got the glasses, my mind tried to make them emus or guinea fowl, both ridiculous choices for a refuge in the Pacific Northwest.
And then I knew. The glasses gave just enough additional detail for me to know without doubt I was seeing Sand Hill Cranes. They are among the first migrators to find their way to this place, and we'd seen a few in past seasons, but never as many as this, and never grazing in a goofy conga line along a dike. While we watched, several more flew in to join their friends on the ground, unmistakable for their wobbly, leggy landings and the dashing red streak on their heads.
I was satisfied as we drove on, sure I'd had my gift for the day.
So when we stopped near the end of the loop to soak up the silence and listen to even more cranes flocking in flight behind us, I was happy-to-overflowing with a successful visit. Walt and I were arguing mildly about whether a gray-white duck in the midst of a flock of brown-gray ducks might be albino. While he had the glasses and was trying to confirm one way or the other, I scanned the sky ahead of us, hoping for a Bald Eagle.
What I got instead was thousands of Canada geese writing their migration across the sky in ever-shifting hieroglyphics. Wave after wave, charcoal letters on blue silk, at first so faint as to be imagined. Then overhead and around us, some continuing past, one group of hundreds circling in front of us, filling the air with urgent honks and cackles. They spiraled in a vortex to the ground until they filled completely a small pond.
I'm not sure when I became aware that I was witnessing the arrival of these magnificent birds from their summer grounds. Canada Geese are a common bird in my life, much like robins. I enjoy them, appreciate them, but am not moved by them like I am many other birds. But to be in that place, at that moment in time, to see the end of a migration - I felt like I was in the presence of an enormous miracle.
I've been thinking since about what makes a miracle a miracle. I had no doubt I would receive one. It seems that maybe I got two. I wonder if it isn't a bit of a miracle that I know for certain of a place I can go when I'm in need of a miracle. Some people might consider my miracles nothing but a bunch of birds doing what birds do. I guess they might be right. But I know that only a miracle could fill my whole being with such crystal pure joy.
Photos from Flickr. The bottom picture was actually taken at "our" refuge.