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.

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About John G. White

Somewhat retired after a long award-winning career in newspapers (Wisconsin State Journal, Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, Denver Post and a country weekly, the Clara City Herald). Free lance photographer and writer with credits in more than 70 magazines. Editor with various Webb Publishing magazines in St. Paul, and a five year stint as editorial director at Miller Meester Advertising.

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