As we sat in the plywood blind, mere feet from the slow swirl of the shallow North Platte River, my dear friend and travel mate, Mary Gafkjen, quietly marveled at the crowded and loud “gurgle” of the thousands of Sandhill Cranes a hundred yards distant from us and whispered, “This is simply amazing. We’re witnessing a ritual that dates back for thousands of years.”
Yes, a migration that Aldo Leopold described in his essay, “Marshland Elegy,” as “the ticking of the geologic clock.” Since the Eocene, he surmised, an evolutionary time dating from 56 to 34 million years ago.
Leopold wasn’t the only notable scientist and essayist lured by the Sandhill Cranes. British primatologist, anthropologist and chimpanzee protectionist, Jane Goodall, who apparently returns to Central Nebraska annually for the spring ritual, says, “The cranes restore my soul.”
One can only guess at how long the cranes have descended on this stretch of the North Platte. Maps at Crane Trust indicate an hourglass effect that funnels an estimated half million Sandhill Cranes — an estimated 80 percent of the world’s population — and yes, a few of the quite rare Whooping Cranes, from wide stretches of Mexico and Texas to the south through these several miles of flat Nebraska riverine terrain for rest and recharging before spreading out once again from Minnesota to Manitoba and points beyond.
This ritualistic migration has long been of personal interest. For years in my little basement workshop, hours passed with carving knives, a fly tying vise, a scroll saw and other assorted tools for the idle mind, taped on the wall was a yellowed full page article from some newspaper rallying the mind around a trip to the North Platte for the spring Sandhill migration.
So, yes, this has long been a dream of mine … a dream enhanced by an encounter years ago back in the San Luis Valley of Colorado when a farmer friend and I crouched quietly along a sandy bottom of a drainage ditch to his organic barley field where we spied on a huge flock of Sandhills gathered for a mid-day meal. They are vocal birds, and my bird book calls it a ‘rolling, guttural bugling.” I’d suggest it as an “alto gurgling of river riffles.”
Leopold’s take: “When we hear his call we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution.”
It is a call like no other, and was heard through the night as a softened accompaniment. Around dawn the intensity rose once again in a crescendo as the sun edged closer to the horizon. Groups of birds suddenly burst from the river, coursing overhead in poetic and vocal flight. I’ll remember this sound in the same way I still recall a visit some 30 years ago to the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge in western Louisiana, sounds that are both unique and deeply imprinted in the mind.
Yet, it was their picturesque flight I yearned for in our drive into the Platte River Valley along the old Lincoln Highway the day before. My hopes had begun to dwindle as we neared Grand Island late in the afternoon for I had expectations of the skies being clouded with birds. Later as we shared dinner with friends, I kept sneaking looks out the windows of the club in hopes of seeing the telltale V’s of poetic flight. Our hopes improved significantly the next morning as we drove south toward I-80 and came upon a huge flock in a prairie field. Mary got a little nervous as I pulled off on the shoulder and grabbed my camera.
Later in the morning we touched base with the headquarters of the Crane Trust (9325 S Alda Road, Exit #305, Wood River, Nebraska 68883) and our education began. We watched a short film and viewed a nice artistic display along the walls of an adjacent hallway. A volunteer named Catfish held court in the lounge where we learned that the cranes really don’t travel far from the river to forge, that this is a holding area between their wintering areas in the south and their upper continent summer range. Also interesting is that they basically gather and fly in family units.
After lunch we drove a bit south along the river where we joined birders from around the nation along the highway, photographing several thousand Sandhills gathered in a prairie field. We made it back to Crane Trust for a final packing of our gear and a ride to one of three overnight photographic blinds. Bruce, our driver, cautioned us that the birds had started holding up around the bend and downriver from the blinds. “Maybe,” he said, “you’ll be lucky.”
Once we made camp we settled into a couple of comfortable counter-top styled chairs to await the birds. We didn’t have to wait long, for in the distance … yes, around the bend and downriver … thousands of Sandhills flew in from over the canopy of cottonwoods in a steady fly-in from the adjoining farm fields. After a couple of hours of watching and taking distant shots we surmised that we weren’t going to be lucky. To fill time I posted a picture of Mary on a social network site and mused about our seeming misfortune. That prompted my author friend, Tom Watson, back in Minnesota, to suggest that we simply relax and be patient, to enjoy the unique sounds and the experience.
Patience took us almost through the sunset as more and more cranes continued to land just around the bend. “None of them seem to be coming from the east,” Mary whispered hopefully. Hardly had the words been spoken when the first flock of perhaps a hundred birds suddenly eased over the cottonwoods directly across the river from us to touch down right in front of the blind. And they continued to come. By the hundreds. Way too many to count. Suddenly the sound was deafening. We were quickly enveloped in a magical cocoon of evolutionary time and experience. Yes, a restoration for the soul.
Once again I must turn to Leopold: “Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins as in art with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language. The quality of cranes lies, I think, in this higher gamut, as yet beyond the reach of words.”