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for people who care about the West

Moving in, as the snow moves on


KELLY, Wyo. - The robins arrive first, though some years it's mountain bluebirds, with snow still on the ground at the end of March and more to come. Much more. They remind me of how we all announce ourselves as creatures of home. This is true, at least, of the creatures with whom I share my home on the edge of Grand Teton National Park. Are the spring pioneers hardier, more opportunistic, or are they just more willing to gamble?

A week after they begin to shout over the first slivers of snow-free ground, the last rough-legged hawks leave, bound for their Arctic breeding grounds, and almost upon their disappearance the first red-tail hawks come up from the Snake River Valley in Idaho, from Utah, from the Wyoming desert and from Colorado. For a fortnight they own the hills and meadows where the Gros Ventre River empties before the Tetons, circling over the dreary, damp and bare southern grass, and searching for the first emerging ground squirrels.

Their lazy spirals, wings tilted on a bias to the earth, seem to pull the bison from the National Elk Refuge, just about on tax day and just about as regular. Suddenly, they're in front of my windows, stolid, humpbacked before the Tetons, one-ton eaters mowing their way north with the retreating snow.

The elk come along with them in tides. Each morning a new group appears along the river behind the house, having replaced the group that crossed the park road the evening before. At dusk, they speckle the ridges, the hillsides, their coats illuminated in the last sun like motes of dust under the broken spires of Sheep Mountain. It is one of the many things I love about living in mountainous country: What is far away is still visible, giving an accurate rendition about the size of the creatures of the world. Later, when the elk cross the road, their eyes gleam in my headlights, their backs as high as the roof of my car as they pass - 20, 60, 100 at a time.

Then the Canada geese arrive, circling and yakking over the fields along the river, crossing over my roof so close I can see their white cheek pieces. They nest in the meadows behind the cottonwoods and fly up and down the river each morning, reliable as an alarm clock.

The meadowlarks appear next, their piercing song so loud that you can hear them from inside a car going 50 miles per hour. And along with them come the sandhill cranes, usually so far up in the sky that, though I hear their high-pitched warbles, the birds themselves are invisible.

Today, they seemed closer. It was raining and I had just made a cup of tea when I heard a crane trilling outside the kitchen window. Then I saw its huge elongated shape, like a Concorde plane, gliding by the aspens just beyond the deck. I ran outside into the drizzle, and watched it circle around the front of the house where three other cranes were setting their wings. They lit in the field across the road, prancing their mating dance, then walk away over a small knoll toward the river. This was unprecedented, at least in my experience of 10 springs in this corner of the valley: sandhill cranes nesting near the house.

There are no real travelers, I've concluded, not in the avian, cervid, or bovine tribes, nor in the human, only individuals looking for a new or former home. Sometimes the two are one and the same. Now, after being a short-time resident in many places that beckoned, it feels wonderful to have flown and circled and called and settled, right here in the upturned palm of this valley, the Tetons like high fingers, the Gros Ventres like the fat part of the lower thumb, the house snuggled against that rise, embraced as it were by the northwest hand of Wyoming.

Ted Kerasote is a usually peripatetic writer in Kelly, Wyoming. His new book, Heart of Homes, comes out in December.