Cranes on the Platte River
Between February and April, more than half a million sandhill cranes gather on the PLatte River in central Nebraska, staging for a journey that ends as far north as eastern Siberia.
No great natural spectacle comes without a political or a philosophical backstory. How many cranes should there be? Several states now either allow a hunting season or are debating one--and without question sandhill cranes have made an extraordinary comeback. Of course some populations do better than others, some migrate, others stay put and are more vulnerable. How permanent is their newfound success--dependent as it is on strenuous conservation efforts and an uneasy alliance with farmers--and how vulnerable is a population of huge birds that produce only one or two young a season, and that must hopscotch over ever-urbanized migratory pathways? These questions are important, for they explore how fully cranes--and all birds, really--live today inside the artificial world. The wide, fast rivers that once sustained the cranes will never be returned to them. Their ability to be wild is a test of our ability to manage the world we have altered, which is to say it is a test of our humanity, and so we are bound together, needing each other in complex ways we're only beginning to understand.
The noise surprises me, as if I'd imagined migration as a silent movie, but the birds call to one another constantly, a cacophony of loud croaks and cries.
"Cup your ears," whispers Taddicken. I go farther and close my eyes.
Each complex, trilling call, strung out of beads of sound, can carry for a mile and seems both high and low. The cumulative effect is like thousands of ancient doors creaking open, as much vibration as voice, echoed not only by the rushing river but your own blood.
Suddenly there's nothing scientific or ornithological about my observations. I'm part of the flock, and I understand an aspect of Great Plains mysticism I often encounter in Nebraska writers as disparate as Willa Cather and the scientist Loren Eiseley, whom I read as a boy, not realizing he was from Nebraska until Matt Harvey from the Spring Creek Prairie Audubon Center gives me a copy of The Loren Eiseley Reader. In that collection there's an essay in which Eiseley strips off his clothes and floats in the Platte River, despite his terror of water after a near-drowning accident as a child. Eiseley lets the broad, shallow river, famous for quicksand, take hold of him, and has "the sensation of sliding down the vast tilted face of the continent," feeling a kind of ancient earth memory more in tune with native American religion than the detachment expected from an anthropology professor.
I emerge from the blind with my senses confused. The wind has kicked up, the clouds have obliterated the supermoon, but the superbirds are still aloft, making a racket. As we file out quietly to crunch across a field and back to our cars in cold darkness, temperature plunging, thousands of cranes are streaming restlessly above us, dark shapes against the deeper darkness of the sky. They should have roosted by now, but there's a kind of anxious tension in the air. I lie on my back and look up, feeling like Eiseley in his river, but it's a river of birds.
The birds settle down eventually; when we return to the blinds next morning before dawn, we find the cranes crowded on sandbars in cocktail party clusters or standing in water up to the knot in their long legs that looks like a knee but that, in one of the quirks of avian physiology, is really an ankle. The cranes seem calm in the pale light. A bird raises its wings in a sort of lazy flap, almost like a yawn, before rising into the air; others seem pulled after it by invisible strings, though there's no hurry. Some land again, and those that don't circle the river several times before flying off. High above them, the brightening air is full of milling birds as if someone had stirred the sky with a stick.
There's more to see as the sun comes up--a log floating past that turns into a beaver; some coots, a muskrat by a clump of reeds--but I miss the thrumming frenzy of the night before. The rest of the world returns to focus. Two power lines stretched across the river take a toll of crane lives every spring but cost too much to bury.
Outside the blind I meet Michael Farrell, who produces documentaries for Nebraska public television. Farrell informs me that the birds were restless the night before because the river, often too low for the cranes, is too high for them now--there was 40 percent more snow pack in the Rockies, which meant an opening of dams to make room for the increased melt, which in turn raised the level of the river, a chain reaction of man and nature that affects the crane's roosting habits.
Farrell has a grizzled moustache, glasses and a mixture of outdoor unpretentiousness, activist outrage, and professorial intensity not uncommon among the environmentally engaged. He pours out a dizzying array of Nebraska history, the sorrows of the Oregon Trail that sowed cholera for Native Americans, the fierce community battles that began in the 1970s over water diversion along the Platte, something about the Salt Creek tiger beetle that I don't entirely catch. Farrell also tells me that for the past 13 years he's come to Rowe Sanctuary on the first day of spring, ever since he and his family scattered his wife's ashes from the blind we've just been in. His wife loved the annual migration and had said to him, as she was dying, "Remember me when the cranes come."
It is, I realize, the first day of spring. And I realize that a blind for bird observation can also be sacred space. It is a humbling recognition that reminds me to look at nature--at everything, really--two ways, attuned to the practical, political, and scientific and, at the same time, the mysterious, the personal, and the beautiful.