A Narrative in Five Parts: Sandhill Cranes
Witnessing an ancient ritual play out by the Platte River
It is 19 degrees at 6 am in mid-March in Kearney, Nebraska.
I am in a bird blind at the Rowe Sanctuary awaiting the fly-off
of sandhill cranes. There are hundreds of thousands of cranes –
murmuring, purring, babbling among themselves. It is impossible
to speak above them, and whispering is barely allowed as I await
their fly-off. Last night I witnessed their fly-over and landing,
a majestic sight, one that I would call the 8th wonder of the world.
They had arrived at early sunset, a radiant orange-yellow with
outlines of leafless trees stark against the low horizon. They
came in small noisy groups, then circled in massive numbers,
jabbering, the sky so filled with cranes it was as if a giant surge
of some other life form had consumed everything else, every
thought, every worry; it was a lightness of pure joy. Those
milling flocks of birds pumping their gray feathered bodies,
gliding through the evening sky were a giant bubbling,
talking mass, seeking their night’s sleep as they have for
thousands of years on one of the many sand bars in the
Now, the morning after, as I await their departure, they are
murmuring again, louder, as a few birds stir restlessly. Still
dark, I know they are nearby, even though I cannot envision
how many there are. Not until the light eases over the Platte
River does this ancient feathered congregation begin to take
form. These are the huddled masses, huge groups tightly bound,
standing in shallow water to avoid predators. Expansive swaths
of cranes have gathered as far as my eyes can see — gray clarifying
into shapes as the sun continues emerging from the horizon.
One large group, just in front of the blind I am in, burnishes
golden as sunlight slowly spreads across the flocks.
Suddenly ruffling begins, a stretching of wings, the murmuring
still louder, and thousands of cranes swish into flight, massive wings
quivering, flapping, shifting into smaller clusters within the huge
flocks, each batch flying in different directions, all gliding grace-
fully into early morning sky. As one group lifts, another follows,
and another, gray outlines punctuating the sky, their lighter
undersides visible with a certain slant of light and they appear
bathed in gold.
Skies quiet as I await another burst, another explosion, my
breath taken away, a vast fluttering caught in sunlight, the
surging of tens of thousands of wings rushing, pulsating into
sky. Nothing, nothing else matters.