Cranes and Cottonwoods

From the photography blind on the North Platte River last week while awaiting poet William Stafford’s “far wanderers,” my view was of a nearby horizon of cottonwoods extending across the wide, shallow and flat waters. Huge limbs reaching skyward from the tall trees, strong and stately, were silhouetted black against the dull gray rain-drenched sky. Cottonwoods, like the sandhill cranes, have a way with me, and on that afternoon in central Nebraska was no different as I sat and awaited the magical arrival of the birds.

Staring at the trees, awaiting, briefly took me back to my childhood home in Missouri where we had a beautiful and stately cottonwood near a farm pond, one I could see while laying on my bed in the upstairs sleeping porch. Much like when he was a young boy growing up about 30 miles west of my Missouri home, Walt Disney spent hours laying beneath the canopy of a huge cottonwood he called his “dreaming tree.” So here we were seeing dozens of them.

Sedges continued to fly in and land on the other side of the cottonwoods despite the shallow waters and sand islands right in front of my blind.

These “dreaming trees” across the shallow river would be stage-front of my next 16 hours of sandhill crane viewing and photography. Later, as that unmistakable melodic chorus of the sandhill music filled the prairie air across the North Platte in the chilly, rainy wind, I was eagerly prompted to open the side window of the blind and peer through the hazy moistness at the cottonwoods hoping the cranes would begin landing on my side of the trees. My section of the river was shallow, too, with sandy islands just like on the opposite branch of the river. A half dozen bald eagles attested to that.

A satellite view of my photo blind at the Rowe Audubon Center … the small brown square in the lower righthand corner!

Hope and patience are typically virtues you need when entering a photography blind, especially with sandhill cranes as your subject. Both would be necessary virtues claimed the volunteer driver who escorted me through the scrubby browned prairie grasses toward the photography blind at the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary earlier in the afternoon. We were drenched by a rain that wouldn’t abate until the following morning, with winds rocking the front of the blind at speeds alternating between 20 and 30 mph. The temperatures were in the high 40s. 

This was my second sandhill crane migration within this funneled stretch of the North Platte where ancestral birds have passed through on migrations northward for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Eons. After arriving around 4 p.m. and setting up the cot and organizing the layout, I eased into the camping chair with little to do but wait for when the birds might appear. “Might” is the key word, for once again the warning was issued that the birds had thoughts of their own on where they might overnight. Meaning, that they might decide to eloquently drop from the sky right in front of the blind, or somewhere different. Like across the river and behind the curtain of dreaming trees.

The dance of courtship was prevalent as we passed the many stalk fields filled with cranes.

“We have no way of knowing,” offered the volunteer. “We can’t make promises other than that you will see birds. At last count we had more than 645,000 in the valley.”

Our driving around the area earlier gave his comment credence. Thousands of them filled the stalk fields, wading in puddles and performing their dancing preludes of courtship. That wasn’t a promise of having them overnight right in front of the blind, though. Three years earlier we learned the importance of patience. We were in a Crane Trust blind downriver some 40 miles near Wood Lake, NE, and had received a similar forecast and warning before watching helplessly as sedge after sedge drifted down from the heavens around a bend a half mile to the west. Mary preached patience, and on that night her calming reassurance was that the birds would come. Then, with the sun truly sinking below the western horizon, a huge sedge suddenly drifted down directly in front of our blind not 30 meters away. This sedge was followed by seemingly thousands of other sandhills. Would I be so rewarded this time?

In the morning the sun peeked through the clouds as the smaller sedges filled the skies.

As the wind and rain battered the small, 6 ft. by 8 ft. blind at Rowe, I was holding onto both hope and patience as I glanced out a covert slide-down window on the side of the blind protected from the pelting rain. Above the stately skeletons of the bared cottonwoods on a slip of land just across the Platte, hundreds of sandhills were coming to roost. Sedge after sedge. Occasionally there would be an “explosion” when literally thousands of the cranes would suddenly erupt to rise above the cottonwoods before returning behind the separating spit of land.

My patience was not rewarded, although sitting comfortably in snow pants and a parka staring across the river at the distant cottonwoods and cranes was still relaxing in a Zen-like way for I was sharing a moment repeated in geological natural history spread over eons, and I was a witness. Just being in the blind observing and hearing the cranes, a chorus accented by the blustery wind, was sweet music. After all, I was dry and warm, and would remain so despite a fitful night of sleep. 

Sometime early in the morning, with the skies still in complete darkness, I was jerked sleepily from the warmth of the sleeping bag when a sudden crescendo of sandhill wings and calls filled the sky. Outside the blind window, deep into the dark pre-dawn mazarine sky, barely visible black crane silhouettes filled the air as if I were inside of a sky-wide umbrella. Oh to have had any semblance of light! It seemed the entire universe, all 645,000 of cranes by the volunteer’s count, had taken to the sky as one.

The “far wanderers” flew with grace and beauty.

With the coming of dawn, though, there were still numerous sandhills around as sedge after sedge rose from the river through the framing of the cottonwoods. My volunteer said someone would come once the cranes had departed for the nearby grain fields, and that it could be anytime between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. As at Crane Trust, the birds continued to fly in small sedges up and down the length of the river. With the sun finally peeking through the clouds and a wind now eased into a slight prairie breeze, I opened all the blind windows to watch, going from one to the other with my camera, capturing what I could while watching with wonder and admiration.

No, they wouldn’t ease down to overnight right in front of me despite my hopes and patience. There are worse fates, and our trip was delightful regardless. We met with friends from near here for one of the few times since the pandemic to share a lunch and a trip to a delightful art museum before meeting later on a state park bridge with other birders with more hope and patience as we once again waited for the sedges of sandhills to land on the nearby shallow sand islands of the North Platte. A grouping of a half dozen white-tailed deer played in the river as the sun graced us with a most colorful and beautiful sunset. There was no need to question the definition of magic. 

From the bridge we caught several sedges in the sunset, adding magic and wonder to the moment.

Yet, there we were, witnesses of the entrancing wonder of a spring crane migration, of which Stafford writes in his poem, “Watching Sandhill Cranes:

Spirits among us have departed ­— friends,

relatives, neighbors: we can’t find them.

If we search and call, the sky merely waits.

Then some day here come the cranes

planing in from cloud or mist — sharp,

lonely spears, awkwardly graceful.

They reach for the land; they stalk

the ploughed fields, not letting us near,

not quite our own, not quite the world’s.

People go by and pull over to watch. They

peer and point and wonder. It is because

these travelers, these far wanderers,

plane down and yearn in a reaching

flight. They extend our life,

piercing through space to reappear

quietly, undeniably, where we are.

Celebrating an Odd Anniversary

Isn’t this where we came in last year? Back in March? With the Snow Geese and White Fronteds flying through? With murmurations of black birds poetically gracing the skies? With something called a coronavirus threatening worldwide mankind, a pandemic creating fear not seen in our lifetimes? 

Now, a year later, with similar plans to head to Nebraska for the Sandhill Crane migration, a trip that was canceled last March because of Covid-19, we move hopefully forward with less fear and a sense of confidence for the future. Thankfully a year ago our human consternation didn’t halt the Sandhills nor did it stop the murmurations or those stretching skeins of geese gliding noisily overhead. It stopped only us.

Finally, thanks to vaccinations and covid consciousness, we seem to be closer to our former normality. A couple of weeks ago it seemed warm enough to invite friends home from Texas for a steak fry. Not warm enough to break a sweat, yet with enough warmth to carry the deck table and chairs from the studio and the bag of charcoal out to grill the first steaks of spring. All of us were vaccinated and we still practiced social distancing. It was a glorious and welcomed night. Then, a couple of days later the deck was once again covered with snow. 

The skies, stretching from horizon to horizon, were dotted with skeins.

Yet, what a week! The warmth. The “political calm” that has seemed to settle in since the inauguration. Beautiful arrays of sunrises and sunsets that have been both joyous and spectacular. Plus we have watched nature awaken around us. On a recent morning a male pheasant, with those red eye patches in contrast to those startling green facials, was striding through the path where half-melted cross country ski tracks were cast in twin shadows. His stride was as if he owned the prairie, which I suppose he has as much right to ownership as I. 

Then suddenly came a second rooster, and a third. I called for Mary, and we watched a parade of male pheasants, perhaps ten, as they followed one another in near military formation up the path cut through the tall bluestem. It’s not that we don’t see pheasants in our restored prairie. Usually a sighting comes on a startled flight after being flushed by Joe Pye.

Thus the curtain was drawn on the breaking of Spring, of our highly anticipated anniversary when the sight of normality seems within our collective grasp. In the intermittent warming, with quilts flapping on the clothes line, our first small murmuration of redwing blackbirds circled the grove, scurrying from tree cluster to tree cluster, then into the bluestem for nutrition. Later, on the way home from picking up a borrowed cot for our trip next week to central Nebraska for the Sandhill Crane migration, we passed a murmuration stretching as far as we could see. It was a blackbird vortex rising from a field into the sky. One of those had we been distant would have been pure feathered choreography.

For more than a week the Snow and White-fronted have been in the wetland just over the rise from our prairie.

What has been so rewarding and entertaining for us, though, has been the unexpected arrival of a massive flock of Snow and White-fronted Geese that chose the wetland over the rise from our prairie to recoup and recharge on their way to their Subarctic and Arctic homes. They began arriving on a Sunday afternoon while I was on a call from nature at Maplewood State Park. Just two hours after having a solo picnic in a parking lot overlooking a frozen lake that was surrounded with hillsides of snow, I walked out of the garage to see a skyful of skeins overhead. As with the pheasants, this is just something that causes you to pause in appreciation. 

The skeins continued to fill the sky for a couple of hours. Thousands upon thousands of geese, high in the sky, all heading northeasterly. After sitting on the deck with a nice white wine (a prelude to summer, right?) while watching them for quite some time I finally broke down and headed to my studio to fetch my camera. There was both ample time and opportunity in the skies above. We have no way of even guessing how many flew over, though they were in the thousands.

We passed this huge murmuration of “black birds” that would have been poetry in the skies is seen from the side, stretching for as far as the eye could see.

Then the surprising magic occurred as they began filling the melting wetland just over the rise. We could hear them at night, and in the morning as the sun rose. They seem to be feasting, noisily, in adjacent fields, with as many arrivals as there are those leaving. It’s a constant movement that has now lasted for at least a week and a half. In time silence will announce their departure. 

Having such closeness to the natural world reminds us of life unencumbered by a human pandemic and the ills of our human existence as reported in the news. We can now offer a sweet sigh of relief as this anniversary, marked by the timeless migrations of our feathered nature, that a blip of our human history, one churned by ugly politics and those that questioned the reasoning of science which might have saved countless lives, is seemingly evaporating in front of us. 

What a joy of watching this seasonal ritual of nature unfold before us, helping us celebrate this odd anniversary of our personal human survival after the pandemic.

We should rejoice in this odd anniversary of mankind that we’ve survived to hear the geese as we lay for sleep, that we can watch with wonder with their coming and going from the nearby wetland, that the winged poetry of the murmurations are still in the skies and that within a week we’ll be seated in an overnight blind witnessing once again the magnificent Sandhill Crane migration in central Nebraska. All is most welcomed. 

A Continuing Disaster

March is said to be the month of winds, which perhaps means the originators of the saying didn’t live in a prairie for we seem to have winds all year long. Especially in the wintery months. When you subject that constant with farming practices that perhaps began with the first of the early settlers you can only imagine the result. Well, you really don’t need to imagine, for a drive along most any rural road will illustrate the sad results.

If it were not for the contrast given by the snow perhaps the unaware would likely miss seeing all the fine particles of dirt blown into the roadside ditches and across the windswept prairie. A few days ago my friend and fellow blogger, Jim VanderPol, and his wife, LeeAnn, drove to the edge of their mostly grassed farm where they raise hogs and cattle on perennial grasses to catch a glimpse of a late February wind and the results of a winter’s worth of windblown soils from a neighbor’s tilled and bared field.

LeeAnn filmed a short video of Jim walking into the muck covering his grasses where he bent down, grabbed a handful chilly mud before disgustedly wiping it off his hand. Behind him the near horizon was a hazy brown, which for Chippewa County is far too common. The mud blanketed his grass for nearly 40 feet fron inside the fence (catch the video on his blog at 

Jim VanderPol with a handful of mud from his neighbor’s tilled field. Behind him the dust storm erodes even more of the topsoil.

Several miles north of the VanderPol’s, on a hillside overlooking the Pomme de Terre River, so much dirt has blown off a field that the complete hillside, which is a grassed meadow, is entirely blackened with the dirt blown from an adjoining crop field. This is a valley hillside of the Pomme de Terra River, meaning that some of that dirt will eventually seep into the river. If not the soil, then the washable nutrients placed on the crops and embedded in the dirt are certain to drain into the river. 

Roadside ditching are thick with wind-eroded dirt. Some on both sides, and on one stretch of a county road near here there is more than a mile long where drainage ditches on both sides are blackened with wind-eroded dirt. So thick you cannot tell where the field edge exists. Not on the same road is a farm home where an entire yard was encrusted in black through the winter. Dirt that had blown across the highway to become clogged in the drifts of snow duned by the trees in the adjacent grove before lapping around the northwest corner of the house and into the front lawn. Besides the house, the only object not covered in blackness was the propane tank! All from a field across the highway. 

These on-site observations comes on the heels of a report published in late February by three geoscientists from the University of Massachusetts … Evan Thaler, Isaac Larsen and Quin Yu … called “The Extent of Soil Loss Across the U.S. Corn Belt.” Their use of high definition satellite imagery across an eight-state Corn Belt swath, including Minnesota, showed that A-horizon (nutrient-rich topsoil) was essentially no longer present on convex slopes. If you’re crossing the former prairie and current commodity crop complex this evidence are all those tan or light brownish spots you see on the rises in the fields where the topsoil has eroded ­– what VanderPol was holding in the palm of his hand in the video. “The A-horizon was almost always gone on hilltops,” says Thaler.

The geoscientists calculated that about a third of the crops in the eight-state Corn Belt are being grown on erosion-prone, B-Horizon soils … evidenced by the tan colored soils shown here. That estimate is far higher than those published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “I think the USDA is dramatically underestimating the amount of loss,” Thaler adds.

The low areas are medium to dark brown on the satellite imagery, which is where some of the A-horizon soil has eroded to. When the prairie was first broken a century and a half ago, those soils, including what you now see as tan B-Horizon sub-soils, was covered with about a foot and a half of fertility rich topsoil. By the mid-1970s nearly half that topsoil had already been lost to both wind and runoff erosion. Despite such conservation efforts as contour plowing and various set-aside strategies that paid farmers to keep marginal land out of production, the soil losses continued. This was more than 50 years ago and the erosion continues on soils that are left bare from fall plow-down in October and November until there is some sort of plant protection by the following June. In other words, soils are left unprotected for nearly nine months. 

The geoscientists calculated that about a third of the crops are being grown on erosion-prone soils. That estimate is far higher than those published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “I think the USDA is dramatically underestimating the amount of loss,” Thaler adds.

This isn’t a pretty sight, and it’s also a dangerous one. In his sobering book, “Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations,” David R. Montgomery wrote, “Projecting past practices into the future offers a recipe for failure. We need a new agricultural model, a new farming philosophy. We need another agricultural revolution. Unlike the first farmer-hunter gatherers who could move around when their soil was used up, a global civilization cannot.”

Wind erosion is only a part of the issue, as evidenced by this image of clear water (below) entering the Minnesota River from Beaver Creek near Renville. The outline of dirt edges the clear water as all enters the perpetually muddy Minnesota.

In other words, this is it: we are growing crops on the earth’s very last productive soils. “The estimated rate of world soil erosion now exceeds new soil production by as much as 23 billion tons per year, an annual loss of not quite one percent of the world’s agricultural soil inventory. At this pace, the world will literally run out of topsoil in little more than a century,” adds Montgomery. “It’s like a bank account from which one spends and spends, but never deposits.” 

Once again there are farming techniques that might preserve these last few inches of productive topsoil including using cover crops. Those farmers who have bitten the bullet to integrate cover crops into their cropping repertoire have reported some significant benefits even beyond protecting their soils from erosion. Better water retention, a disruption of weed issues and less compaction, among them. Perhaps what is known as “conservation tillage” has helped in some degree, although driving past those fields indicates “not much.” Perhaps the least expensive alternative is to simply leave the corn stalks untilled until just before planting … when the soil is worked once again regardless. On soybean and sugarbeat fields, there is little to no protection whatsoever.

“Don’t these guys even notice the erosion?” Apparently not.

Someone even suggested that perhaps a solution to change would be to forbid those guilty of such erosion should lose their crop subsidy benefits. Regardless, too much of the remaining topsoil is subject to both wind and runoff erosion, and there appears to be quite a lackadaisical attitude among those who tend to the land. How many times have we asked one another as we drove past those miles upon miles of dirt covered roadside ditches, “Don’t these guys even notice the erosion?”

Apparently not.