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.
On my drive back to the Omaha airport, I stop at a field a few exits off of I-80, not far from Kearney. I've received a murmured suggestion, more like a gambling tip, that I look there for a "big white bird," code for a highly endangered whooping crane. Like sandhills, whoopers are an ancient species but proof that nature does not have a first hired, last fired policy--there were only 15 individuals in 1941, and even today, after vigorous conservation and breeding efforts, there are fewer than 400 whooping cranes left in the wild.
Just as sandhills are the most numerous, whoopers are the scarcest of the world's 15 species of cranes, but the two species overlap at various points on their journey, and just a few weeks after I leave Nebraska, 11 are seen in the Platte from the blinds at Rowe. I've long wanted to see whooping cranes, snow-white birds with black wingtips that, at five feet, are the tallest North American bird, as well as one of the rarest. It is because of the whoopers' endangered status that Federal money can be used to maintain the Platte, which in turn benefits sandhills and other species. It is the whooping cranes that carry their far more numerous cousins on their endangered backs.
I fail to find the whooper at the designated exit, though there are plenty of sandhills grazing and flapping. Nothing demotes a magnificent bird faster than redefining it as "not the bird I'm looking for." Still, I know I will pine for these birds as soon as I'm back in New York. And both species should be held together in the mind, the white bird somehow the shadow of the gray one, a reminder of the threat of extinction in the midst of abundance, and of the double vision required by birdwatching.
This story originally ran in the January-February 2013 issue as "Lords of the Dance."