The Bugling Sky

The Bugling SkyThe steppe spilled away into the distance, marsh-green and silvered with pooled rain. The morning air was cold and misted, and our breath turned to fog when we spoke. As clouds sealed the plain with grey light, the land seemed eerily still until a hare sprang to its feet. From its concealing flat crouch against the ground, the animal suddenly loomed large on the unbroken plain, its ears spoked like a tuning fork above its head. Seen against the strictly horizontal, anything vertical in a level landscape is lent greater prominence than usual, magnified by the lack of competing features and the desire of the human eye to connect with something solid in all that space. There is less to dilute its presence in the emptiness, its seemingly lone tenancy is magnetic. The hare snapped out of stillness again, sprinting across the wet plain, flinging a necklace of bright water into the air with each step. When it jerked to a sudden stop, a second hare appeared where the first one had been, kicking up water into the distance, parting a path of scattered light through the grasses. I followed its run as it splashed west, shrinking into the distance until I saw a set of ghostly figures in the mist, a family of cranes against the horizon.

Wet puszta

The Hortobágy National Park is the second largest unbroken steppe west of the Ural Mountains and home to such rare creatures as the imperial eagle, saker and steppe polecat, as well as the improbable pageantry of the great bustard, a bird species whose males weigh up to 21 kilos, making them the world’s heaviest flying animal. But, like the remnant prairies of the American plains, these vast Hungarian grasslands are as significant for their cultural history as for the rich wildlife they sustain. Called the puszta by Hungarians, the steppe was once a world of semi-nomadic horsemen and pastoralist herders steering their animals beneath big skies across the sweeping sway of the grasslands, and it remains to this day an important site for the continued husbanding of the nation’s emblematic and ancient breeds of livestock such as the corkscrew-horned Racka sheep and the long-horned Hungarian grey cattle. Utilising the far-reaching visibility of an open landscape for communication, shepherds developed a unique grassland language, operating the evocative and isolated water wells that are dotted about the plain as a messaging system. As told by Dirk Hilbers in the excellent Crossbill Guide to The Hortobágy, the shepherds would position the bucket and the wooden dipping pole, called the sweep, in specific configurations to convey to others on the plain anything from news of a death or the arrival of the police to the time for driving animals to a watering place or that a meal was ready. It was a language made possible by geography, the braided tongue of people and place.

Hortobagy water wells

Long-horned Hungarian grey cattle

The space between earth and sky is where much of the larger life of the steppe takes sudden shape. Despite its seemingly obliging openness, the level land in autumn can be unexpectedly deceptive, sealing its creaturely secrets inside shifting mists and bouts of muddy, deflecting light. Squalls of northern winds and lancing rain often keep birds pinned to the deep grasses in wait for more beneficent days. Even the faintest of furrows can be as concealing as a canyon until an approaching eagle raises geese into the air like wreaths of smoke from a wildfire. But in whatever temper of weather or unforgiving light you find the place, the elegant cranes of the plain are its unmistakeable graces. They claim the puszta with regal authority, the adults reaching well over a metre in height and wearing a scarlet crown on each of their smooth, rounded heads. Magnificence is their kingdom: the long, sinuous neck and plume of lavish feathers about the tail, the stately and stilted legs. Even when just standing they soar.


European tree frog

Each October up to 135,000 common cranes gather around the Hortobágy during migration, assembling from points as far north as Scandinavia and the northwest of Russia. They spend their autumn days in flocks and family groups dispersed across the vast plain, feeding on left-over agricultural spoils such as maize and potatoes until hard frosts in November spark their journey further south. Throughout the day we encounter these small parishes of cranes, roaming the dark earth as slowly as shadows lengthening steadily throughout the afternoon. Their movements could be meditations as they glean the fields, precise, measured and spare. But for all the beauty of seeing them in the fullness of light, it’s the enclosing end of day that we await.

Sunset cranes

As the sun begins to slide towards the horizon, the evening reverie begins. In all directions, cranes unfurl and fan their wings, lifting themselves from countless fields across the plain until the sky fills with long ribbons of magnificent creatures. Seeking refuge from nocturnal predators, they cross the steppe to reach a series of fish ponds to roost in shallow water, following the same aerial paths each night during their stay. As though watching the sea roll in along a shore, wave after wave of them pass overhead, a seemingly endless swell of movement against the dimming sky, carried along by the deep breathings of their wings. As the glow of the slipping sun hits the cold autumn plain, tens of thousands of cranes bugle in beautiful unison as their young whistle beside them in flight. There is no space for silence between waves, no room for thought or wishes or worries amidst such abundance, just the trembling beauty of their passing: all the gathered light and geometry of dark lines etching the horizon, the burnished sky and its evening riders. Even in darkness, long after the last sliver of sun has dropped away, you can still hear those trumpeting calls of longing that keep their family groups intact. The cranes push on above the plain into night, a river of song as bright as stars across the sky.

Evening cranes



28 thoughts on “The Bugling Sky

    1. Many thanks, Laurence. I like the serendipity of our crane experiences and hope they become a more common sight in the UK. Their presence, wherever found, is startlingly beautiful.

      1. Totally agree, Julian. I still have a hankering to see cranes in large numbers sometime. So perhaps southern Sweden or Hortobagy in the future? Meanwhile I will try and see our Norfolk cranes more often.

        1. I don’t know about Sweden for seeing cranes in large numbers, but I can certainly recommend the Hortobagy in October as pure and moving spectacle. Do let me know if you ever consider a trip as I’d be happy to share suggestions. Until then, wonderful that you have cranes local to you – enjoy!

    1. Many thanks for your kind comment. I’ve heard a great deal about the Platte River assemblies of sandhill cranes and would love to see them there someday. Do you know the wonderful book by Peter Matthiessen about cranes called Birds of Heaven? It tells the story of the world’s crane species in beautiful prose.

      1. Yes, I’ve read the Birds of Heaven – a wonderful book -it’s what sent me to China for the winter congregations, ultimately. The Platte River cranes are one of the world’s great migrations – definitely worth the trip (there are also thousands and thousands of snow/blue geese too, and standing at the river at dusk, seeing/hearing both species come to the river in huge skeins and V’s, all calling, in the sharp cold air …an experience that will stay with me forever.

        1. It is a wonderful book, and great to hear it sparked your journey to China to see cranes! I’ll be visiting the American prairies in April and won’t be so far from the Platte River so will look into the possibilities of getting there, though I’ve heard that crane passage is in March. You describe the congregations beautifully – thank you.

  1. This is a truly stunning piece, Julian.
    I remember driving across that plain in a thunderstorm but having left our passports in the previous hotel (in the days when they had to be handed in!) we had to retrace our route and ended up with no time to stop there. I have always regretted it.

    1. Thanks ever so much, Diana – so pleased you enjoyed it! Though I’m very sorry to hear you had to speed past the Hortobagy plain in order to retrieve your passports. If you ever have the chance to return, I highly recommend the autumn spectacle of cranes. Simply unmissable. Hope you’re well!

  2. Fascinated by the depth of your perception and knowledge of this place, once again, my friend! Could you send some more information my way about the way the way the wells were used to communicate? Is it all from the Crossbill Guides? Any traces of these wells still used this way today? ….. Love, M

  3. Many thanks, dear Miki! Delighted you enjoyed the piece. Such a remarkable and evocative landscape and place. There are certainly many wells still used for water, but I don’t know if they’re still used for communication anymore. All my information about the use of the wells came from the splendid Crossbill Guide to the Hortobagy and I’ve been in touch recently with its author, a Dutchman called Dirk Hilbers. He believes that the information in the book is the first time anything in English outside of academic journals has been published about it. He’s can be contacted at the Crossbill site and has been extremely helpful. Have you ever been to the Hortobagy?

  4. An aviary of calligraphy – a script traveling across the sky. Where boyfriend lives he’ll sometimes see Canadian geese traveling in ever-altering formations: the symmetry of flocks of birds is hypnotic.

    1. I’m so sorry for this late reply, aubrey! For some reason I’ve only just seen it, but that doesn’t lessen my thanks for your lovely and evocative words. The image of calligraphy is so apt, so true to the delicacy of evening script against the vaulted sky. Thanks ever so much for taking the time to read and comment, and hope you’re well.

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