Alexander Medel

Shortly after returning to the San Francisco Bay Area for winter break, I received a curious invitation from an old friend of mine at Stanford. An ornithologist, he was organizing a birding trip to the Sacramento Valley to show our high school biology teacher and her fiancé the birds of the Pacific Flyway, most notably its geese, herons and cranes. With wanderlust — that burgeoning restlessness born out of youth, curiosity and an addiction for adventure — and an excuse to explore more of my home state, I decided to join. Accompanied by a mutual friend from Princeton, the three of us set off. Our primary objective was to hit a series of birding spots on the road to Colusa, a town in the Sacramento Valley roughly 120 miles north of San Francisco, where we were going to meet the rest of our party.

Beginning the journey, we spent the car ride sharing the latest from our lives. Then, we immersed ourselves into adventures of our own in search of birds. We waded through the rushing, waist-deep torrents of Putah Creek, splintering our hands on the thorny bushes that lined its banks. We climbed a short and steep mountain near Monticello Dam on a whim, using slippery deer trails as paths, where we inadvertently sighted a record-worthy rare bird: a blue-gray gnatcatcher of an eastern subspecies. By late morning, we were driving through the rainy farmlands of Yolo County in search of more birds before reaching Colusa. 

By the time we made it to the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge, the sky began to clear up. Gaps appeared between the clouds, letting rays of sunshine pierce through and encapsulate the wetlands around us in brilliant streaks of silver and gold. After getting recent sighting updates from some aged bird-watchers on the side of a pond, our group was joined by our teacher and her fiancé. After briefly catching up, we packed into a car and drove the refuge’s auto trail with windows rolled down and binoculars at hand. 

The horizon was flat, save for momentary interruptions from an occasional grove of trees. Wetlands extended far into the distance on both sides of the car. Herons glided on the surface of the ponds, surrounding us while ducks drew ripples in the water like masterful artists painting on a blank canvas. Meadowlarks crooned charming melodies from the side of the road, performing for any fortunate listener able to catch their sweet song. Swallows flew through the trees on the trail, gliding like dancers using the air as their ballroom. The wildlife reserve at Colusa was at once both a refuge for migratory birds and a refuge for someone like me — someone seeking an escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and a place of serenity born out of the gracefulness of nature.

Adding on to the humble charm of the landscape around us, we heard a faint sound in the distance. A symphony ever-increasing in volume. A cloud ever-changing in form. A frenetic shape miles away, what was once a cloud evolved suddenly into an approaching formation of thousands of snow geese. Dotting the sky, passing above us and landing in the ponds before us, they floated in the sky like snowflakes waltzing in the air on a wintry New Haven day. This scene, one of great magnitude, was a masterstroke of Mother Nature’s majesty. I was left awe-struck, as was our entire group. 

We proceeded to finish the auto trail and walked a short hiking trail in the refuge. By now, the sun was setting. The final streaks of day shone through the trees and glistened off the ponds, silhouetting the birds in flight and at rest. To the west, the Coastal Ranges rested drowsily, blanketed with snow like beignets topped with powdered sugar. To the east, the Sierra Nevadas loomed over the Sacramento Valley with the Sutter Buttes standing as chocolate-colored promontories cast against a velvet and vermilion sky. A picture-perfect ending to a wonderful day, we all drove to our hotel in the small town of Willows where we ate dinner, shared stories, played board games and settled into the night.

At daybreak the next morning, we set out for the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge in hopes of sighting cranes as well as bald eagles. Driving on another auto trail, the cold valley air wrestled through our car as we gazed patiently and squinted our eyes across the wetlands in our midst. Vultures soared through the air while hawks were perched on the trees we passed. After a few good hours, we sighted multiple bald eagles to our great delight, yet cranes remained elusive. Intent on finding them, we drove east to the Gray Lodge Wildlife Area, a place where they were often sighted. Driving through a series of country roads meandering through vast apricot and almond orchards, we came across a group of cranes resting on a farm pasture. Stopping the car immediately, we signaled the discovery to the rest of the group. Satisfied with the sighting, we continued east and spent the rest of the afternoon at the Gray Lodge reserve, staring at more birds and finding a charming group of river otters. By the early afternoon, after much birding, we began the long drive back home.

Content and weary from much fun, I let my eyes wander out the car window and stared out, taking a mental picture of Colusa County. Just then, in front of us on the open road, there was a flock of cranes hovering in the air. Having just seen thousands of birds in hundreds of formations, this handful of flying cranes would have stirred no excitement. However, this flock was different: the cranes were suspended in the air, beating their wings against a headwind. They progressed neither forward nor backward. They maintained their same altitude in the sky despite the tireless flaps of their tired wings. Their feathers were free to let them fly, yet they were moored by the unyielding wind.

Through the sunroof of the car, I saw the cranes keep up their fight, persisting in the pursuit of gaining an inch if lucky, a foot if fortunate or a yard if blessed. Fighting to move forward and to stay airborne, their wings continued beating ceaselessly and passionately. The cranes responded to the strength of the headwind with the strength of their resolve, believing that the direction of the wind would change in their favor soon. And, sure enough, as they receded into the car’s rear view mirror, I caught them freed from the headwind and moving forward, vanishing into the skies over Colusa County. 

Imparting wisdom, the cranes demonstrated the importance of flying against our own headwinds — our own challenges. The obstacles we all face in life, by nature, will etch away at our tenacity with the aim of tiring us relentlessly. We could easily decide to turn away in retreat from the problems we are facing. Yet, like the cranes, we must press on despite great demands and difficulty. The cranes maintained their course, and, in doing so, illustrated that keeping an unbreakable and unshakeable spirit is not a sign of foolishness or symptom of stubbornness, but simply one’s determination and courage at work. This same spirit can empower us to carry on and find hope in the promise that we will overcome what problems we set out to face. So, we must persist and beat our wings always, so that when the wind changes, when a window of opportunity presents itself, we will find that in the same way cranes can progress forward in their journey, we too can move forward beyond our own troubles and simply soar.