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.
For now there is plenty of corn and there are plenty of cranes. I almost don't want to see them yet--we have a date for early evening, when I'll be in a blind at Audubon's Rowe Sanctuary, waiting for the sun to go down and the cranes to come out. But I fight this artificial impulse to falsify what I'm actually seeing. These are not backstage actors whose show won't start till curtain time and I'm in my box; they're big, gray, semi-graceful birds that live alongside the industrialized world and whose leaps and jabs are--admit it!--the dancing I've been dreaming about. They're not the ballet ostriches of Fantasia, they're wild animals that, despite deep social instincts, are perfectly capable of pecking their siblings to death when small, and that often do--a trait shared with other crane species, not to mention eagles and egrets.
For all the cranes' seemingly human attributes--their voices change as they age, they paint themselves with mud for camouflage, they even go bald as they get older--it's the wild otherness of the birds, as with all wildlife, I try to honor. At the same time, it isn't only wild otherness that sustains them. There are 10 times more sandhill cranes along the Platte now than there were in the 1940s (an astounding 500,000 birds); sanctuaries, river management, and vast fields of corn help explain the population explosion, though the flipside of the agricultural bonanza is the diversion of water that, in the Platte, used to flow far wider and far faster, scouring its islands clear of bushes and trees, which was essential for keeping the river a suitable roosting spot for skittish birds ever on the lookout for coyotes and other predators.
Today heavy machinery clears islands in the Platte once scoured by spring floods, work that Audubon's Rowe Sanctuary undertakes at vast cost, along with its education and conservation efforts. Nebraska, its highway signs inform me, is "Home of Arbor Day," but sometimes removing trees is as environmentally important as planting them.
This is something Bill Taddicken, Rowe Sanctuary's genial, mustached director, understands well. I meet Taddicken at the Best Western Mid-Nebraska Inn and Suites in Kearney, where I'm staying with other crane enthusiasts. He's briefing us for an evening in the blinds. One of the things I admire endlessly about men like Taddicken is that--along with running an education center, recruiting volunteers to help shepherd 15,000 birder-tourists who come each spring, fighting water diversion projects without alienating farmers, raising money for farmland that might be added to the sanctuary's patchwork plots, and a host of unglamorous bureaucratic tasks that go unsung into conservation--he still breaks into a broad grin when describing crane migration. He all but bursts into poetry as he evokes that first glimpse of birds descending--"little specs out of the ether" that grow more distinct and more numerous until they come down as if "poured out of a bucket." Their landing, however, is delicate: "like a dandelion seed coming down."
Soon we are in a blind--a little wooden hut the size of a one-room schoolhouse, with small, square, head-high openings chopped out for viewing. The blind is perched right above the Platte, and we can see and hear the river rushing. The sun is still going down--it's important to be in the blinds early so we do not spook the birds; we will creep out after dark, when the cranes have settled in the river, where they roost midstream. Camera lights are taped over and I haven't even bothered to bring mine--who wants to be the guy with the accidental flash who sets off a chain reaction that incites 20,000 birds? It is, besides, a gloriously documented spectacle.
The birds are already filling up the fields beside the river, where many thousands are gathering; they'll transfer en masse to the river once it gets dark. And suddenly it is dark enough and the cranes begin to come. These are not the roadside birds I saw on my drive, 200 yards off the highway. Their wings are as wide as I am tall; their bodies are as long as my eight-year-old daughter. Their stick legs, stretched behind them as they fly, drop under them like landing gear as they come down. I am a guest in their world now. It's their highway I'm parked beside.
There are so many of them, circling, landing, shaking their bustles, taking off again, flying into and out of and through the restless merging flocks, that it is hard to focus on any one individual. I feel like a dog chasing too many rabbits. Looking left and right there are perhaps five miles of river in view, which according to Taddicken can hold about 100,000 birds.
Strangely, this gives the stretch of river something in common with Central Park in Manhattan. It was the superabundance of migrating songbirds that knocked me over when I first began birding there; only later did I learn that, because birds flying over modern cities have so few green options, it was an artificial profusion, creating a false impression about the global health of birds. In Nebraska there used to be about 200 miles of river suitable for cranes whereas now they're crowded into a 50-mile stretch between Grand Island and Kearney. Thanks to numerous dams, only about 30 percent of the Platte's water makes it as far as the Rowe Sanctuary, limiting the cranes' habitat even more.