In a ritual as old as time, dawn and dusk slip across the horizon and in the first and last rays of sunlight comes a thundering, primeval sound — deafening, glorious and almost terrifying as islands made up of thousands of sandhill cranes, geese and ducks dissolve in a flutter of wings and haunting calls.
During daylight hours, if not moving further north, they rise and fly to the fields surrounding Quivira Wildlife Refuge and Cheyenne Bottoms.
Each year, theirs is a 7,000-mile journey that takes them from their wintering grounds in New Mexico, Texas and northern Mexico to Canada, Alaska and Siberia for the summer.
But in some ways, the clock may be running faster.
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Earlier this month, six adult whooping cranes may have been sighted four miles northwest of the Big Salt Marsh in Quivira.
“We say probable because we were unable to confirm the sighting ourselves,” said Barry Jones, visitor services specialist at the refuge.
And, last week at least 10,000 sandhill cranes were confirmed at Quivira.
The typical arrival dates for both species are mid-March.
“In my opinion, it seems like things are almost a month early,” said Curtis Wolf, site manager of the Kansas Wetlands Education Center at Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area.
“I wish I knew,” Wolf said. “The weather has something to do with it I think that is a good chance and a big part of why they are pushed.”
A mild winter combined with drought conditions stretching from Texas through the Midwest is affecting the migration. Within the past week, Northern Shovelers, American Coots, Killdeer, Belted Kingfisher, and more than 45,000 geese and 25,000 ducks – pintails, mallards, buffleheads and common goldeneyes have arrived.
Cheyenne Bottoms has no standing water.
Water is slowly trickling back Quivira in both the Little and Big Salt Marsh. Rattlesnake Creek is running again but there is no other water in any of the countless ponds throughout the rest of the refuge, Jones said.
On Sunday, when temperatures were in the low 70s, hundreds of sandhill cranes could be heard passing over Quivira and Cheyenne Bottoms.
Monday’s near 50 mph winds kicked up dust throughout the region.
Even the geese have moved on, Wolf said.
“We have no water,” he said.
By Thursday three to six inches of snow are expected in the area.
What birds are in the area, Wolf said, “They will hunker down. So many factors play into bird migration. It’s often the length of day as opposed to how cold it is or the temperatures. The migration is an instinctual thing.”
For now, the birds may be pushing on to the Platte River Valley in Nebraska for what becomes one of the largest concentrations of sandhill cranes in the world.
The cranes are one of the oldest known bird species alive and have been stopping along a 40- to 80-mile stretch of the Platte for at least 9 million years.
There, the 3 1/2- to 4-foot-tall birds dance, choose lifelong mates, rest and eat before moving on.