Last month, Meghan Cassidy, Paul Mendoza and I visited the Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge for two days, a brief trip in search of open skies, prairie, and Sandhill Cranes. It was part of a project in which I am writing about mindfully spending time in nature and Meghan is photographing the places we visit and the wildlife that we see.
Muleshoe is northwest of Lubbock, and one way to get there is to go through Levelland, a community that is proud of the high school girls basketball team, the Loboettes. You can be sure that James McMurtry’s unforgettable song about sitting outside with his mom, watching the stars and dreaming of being gone from Levelland, was playing as we drove past.
We arrived at the refuge, getting out of the car into an open expanse of grass, a broad flat prairie set between two ridges. Above us, the sky was bigger than I had ever seen it before. Clouds passed in an infinite field of blue. It was hard to judge where the horizon was, but it felt like we could see all the way to Montana. Above us the clouds were big masses of puffy white with gray underneath, but nearer the horizon they overlapped and formed a fantasy landscape of floating islands and castles. Standing there and absorbing all this felt wonderful, resetting my frame of reference from the human scale of houses and yards to the High Plains scale in which we can take our place with a little awe and humility.
Dry, winter-dormant grasses covered the gently rolling fields and ridges that stretched into the distance to meet the sky. Here and there a spindly cholla cactus or a sage plant grew, but the only visible trees were in the distance where rainfall drained toward White Lake. The land was ruled by grasses. We could make out several species, one of which sent up tall, slender stalks about waist-high, with leaves nearer the ground that were like curled ribbons.
Once again I thought about how much I am attracted to grasslands. I love walking through fields of grass and taking in the amazing but subtle variety of colors and textures. Here on the High Plains, the sense of openness and space was bigger than anywhere I have been except in the Trans-Pecos. Here was more prairie than I could walk through in a day, grass as far as my eye could see.
It turned out that much of the refuge property was off-limits to protect the winter population of Sandhill Cranes. A refuge staff member told us that people had been approaching much too closely, so they had taken action to protect the birds. We were able to see some of them, from a distance, in the northern part of the refuge around Paul’s Lake. Across the lake, the shore was dotted with well over a hundred big pale Sandhill Cranes. We watched and listened, though the birds were too far away for a good photo. Their calls and conversations came across the lake’s surface clearly when the wind was not blowing. The cranes were calling in a sort of low, stuttering whistle, repeated over and over again. Occasionally a squawk of protest came through, but mostly it was that short rattling call at a low pitch but with a higher whistling overtone. I found a spot of bare ground among the burned clumps of grass and settled in to watch and listen. The streaks of clouds were mirrored in the motionless surface of the lake, with some pastel blue and rose among the white and gray. Everything was still, and I could imagine that time was not moving forward or was only moving in slow motion.
The next morning started with a cold rain, but by the time we headed back to the refuge, the rain was moving out of the area. Arriving before 8:00am, we saw a sky with clouds gathered in dark blue-gray masses and in some places stretched thin enough to be cottony white or even admit a patch of blue sky. In some places around us there were dark curtains of rain. Once again I was struck by the giant scale of this place. From horizon to horizon there was nothing to obstruct the sky, no trees and no buildings. All those clouds, all those mountains of water vapor, dark blue and dense or brightly illuminated where the sun struck them, slid across the sky on currents of wind. I meandered across the grassland, thinking of nothing as the clouds passed, trying to be empty of internal mental chatter so that I could absorb this experience in as raw and direct a way as possible. Standing here might have felt vulnerable, alone and uncovered to the sky, because in everyday life we rely on buildings, roads, signs, or even trees as cues for what is normal and safe. Instead I felt completely open and connected with the land and sky, without distraction.
We saw a number of grassland birds, including meadowlarks. The Western Meadowlark prefers open grasslands and prairies, feeding as well as nesting on the ground. The Cornell Lab website indicates that they are still numerous but have declined about 1% per year over a period of nearly 50 years. It had been a while since I had seen one, but here they really were numerous, though quick to fly off when we approached. Our best observations happened when we used the car as an improvised bird blind. From the open window we watched and listened as a male sang his heart out while perched high on a thorny shrub, his musical whistling notes rising and falling. The call has been described as flute-like, with high notes dropping, coming back up and falling into a low warble. If we did not love this grassland already, we would have after listening to the meadowlarks singing spring into existence here at the end of winter.
Our meadowlark dropped to the ground when a Northern Harrier cruised through the area, flying low and looking for prey. These raptors have a very distinctive white patch on the rump that helped us to identify them on the refuge and in nearby areas. They hunt near the ground, listening as well as watching for food such as rats, mice, birds, and the occasional small snake or lizard. As our meadowlark hunkered down under the grasses, the harrier sailed by and circled the area, at one point fixing us with a withering stare. He reminded us of why so many animals are cryptically colored, alert and fast, or take shelter in burrows in the ground. Harriers, owls, coyotes and other predators are a constant presence, weeding out the slow, the sick, and the unlucky. This constant dance between predator and prey added another dimension to what we took away from Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge. It is a beautiful, wild place that seems larger than life, with a complex community of living things on the ground as well as above and below it.
It was a great trip and my notes, and especially Meghan’s photos, will be a memorable part of this project, which will take us to places all around the state.