“I think the most important quality in a birdwatcher is a willingness to stand quietly and see what comes.”
— Lynn Thomas, Birding with Yeats

Birdwatchers along the Fort Kearney Historical  Recreation Site bridge

Birdwatchers along the Fort Kearney Historical
Recreation Site bridge

A "V" of  sandhill cranes in flight over the Platte River

A “V” of sandhill cranes in flight over the Platte River

“Watching Sandhill Cranes”
by William Stafford, from Even in Quiet Places

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.

The car can be a useful blind for watching skittish birds

The car can be a useful blind for watching skittish birds

Bird watchers gather for the massive return to the roost at sunset.

Bird watchers gather for the massive return to the roost at sunset.

My trip to Nebraska to witness the Spring sandhill crane migration was greatly enhanced by traveling with knowledgeable companions.  My brother and sister-in-law are both biologists and bird watchers and they know a lot about birds and habitat.

And they are experts at finding birds.  One morning we rose before dawn to find a prairie chicken lek.  They had done some research and we spent the previous afternoon scouting out spots where we might see these grouse.  They are most active at sunrise.  Sure enough, my brother found a lek with about a dozen prairie chickens, mostly colorful males and some females.  We watched through binoculars and a scope as the birds strutted and stomped and leaped.  They were much too far away to photograph through my zoom lens.  (You can find some video clips on You Tube.)

Audubon's painting of Greater Prairie Chickens

Audubon’s painting of Greater Prairie Chickens

One of the great things about traveling with bird watchers is that they are extremely motivated to get up in the wee hours before sunrise to be in place for the dawn, or to be sure to be outside near sunset, when birds are often most active.  Fortunately for me, these were also the times of the day when the light was best for photography.

Before sunrise on the Platte River, from a blind at the Rowe Sanctuary

Before sunrise on the Platte River, from a blind at the Rowe Sanctuary

Birdwatching from the blind at the Rowe Sanctuary

Birdwatching from the blind at the Rowe Sanctuary

Birdwatcher shadows

Birdwatcher shadows

The rewards of being outside t sunset -- Sandhill cranes flock to the Platte River.

The rewards of being outside at sunset — Sandhill cranes flock to the Platte River.

Watercolor sketch of sandhill crane

Watercolor sketch of sandhill crane

 

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“The blood-red head bows and the wings sweep together, a cloaked priest giving benediction.”
— Richard Powers, The Echo Maker

Watercolor sketch of sandhill crane

Watercolor sketch of sandhill crane

“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.”
— Also Leopold, from “Marshland Elegy,” A Sand County Almanac

Their beauty may lie beyond words, but as I was reading about sandhill cranes in preparation for my trip to Nebraska, I came across so many wonderfully descriptive and poetic passages by expert writers.  Sometimes the writing was as lyrical and beautiful as the physical birds.  While I was crane watching, it was rewarding to overlay my observations with these writers’ words.

” . . . in the faint light of the new day, I could see cranes downriver, emerging from the water like the pilings of some abandoned, improbable ruin.”
— Paul Gruchow, “The Nebraska Sandhills: The Flight of Cranes,” from The Necessity of Empty Places

Early morning on the Platte River; view from a blind at the Rowe Sanctuary

Early morning on the Platte River; view from a blind at the Rowe Sanctuary

“The cranes stood like a congregation in the shallows of the river.  I could see their long necks now, could watch them stalk about as if on tiptoe, could observe them stretching and settling their wings.  Already some of their brethren from the sandbar farther south had taken flight, heading from the river to the fields nearby to feed for the day.  They showed the characteristic profile of the cranes, necks straight out, legs tucked in, feet trailing behind like rudders.”
— Paul Gruchow, “The Nebraska Sandhills: The Flight of Cranes,” from The Necessity of Empty Places

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“Into this single field were crowded tens of thousands of cranes, standing in gray ranks like weathered corn. . . . Hundreds more were landing every minute, planing down at a shallow angle, bugling and calling.  When an especially large flock would begin its approach, the clamor was almost deafening, as the incoming birds sideslipped and tumbled like falling leaves, spilling air from their wings, then straightening out an instant before impact and thumping down, one after another.”
— Scott Weidensaul, Living on the Wind:  Across the Hemisphere with Migrating Birds

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Morning dawns accompanied by the unbroken clamor of the cranes.

Morning dawns accompanied by the unbroken clamor of the cranes.

“At the rim of the horizon, the sky began to lighten.  The sound of the birds was hauling up the curtain of the day.”
— Paul Gruchow, “The Nebraska Sandhills: The Flight of Cranes,” from The Necessity of Empty Places

” . . . the primeval sound rushed in, halfway between a croak and a song, the music of dry bones rattling.  It surged and fell in a regular rhythm, like waves of water washing against a shore. . . . The sound of the sandhill cranes is like the roaring of the sea in a conch shell; when you have finally heard it, you recognize that you have always known it.  It is like the cry of a loon or the howling of wolves or the warning rattle of a snake, an article in the universal language.”
— Paul Gruchow, “The Nebraska Sandhills: The Flight of Cranes,” from The Necessity of Empty Places

“Crane chorusing can only remind one of listening to an amateur performance of Handel’s ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ as chaotically sung by a vast assemblage of tone-deaf but enthusiastic lovers of fine music.”
— Paul A. Johnsgard, Sandhill and Whooping Cranes:  Ancient Voices Over America’s Wetlands

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“The thousands of cranes . . . rose into the air as one body, the force of their wings sounding against the weight of the air like the rolling of a thousand snare drums.”
— Paul Gruchow, “The Nebraska Sandhills: The Flight of Cranes,” from The Necessity of Empty Places

Watercolor sketch of sandhill crane shortly after taking to the air

Watercolor sketch of sandhill crane shortly after taking to the air

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“The daily return of the cranes to the [Platte] river near sunset is not so much a sudden explosion as a gradual build-up of tension and beauty, in a manner resembling Ravel’s ‘Bolero.’  As the western skies redden, the cranes fly up and down the river, calling with gradually increasing urgency, evidently trying to decide where they might safely spend the night. . . . The decision to land is finally made by a few adventuresome souls, and the rest of the birds tumble in behind, all calling at the tops of their lungs.”
— Paul A. Johnsgard, Sandhill and Whooping Cranes:  Ancient Voices Over America’s Wetlands

IMG_1518“A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds.”
— Archibald MacLeish, from “Ars Poetica”

 

 

Sandhil crane, Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary

Sandhill crane, Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary

” . . . for a full and true appreciation, one must go to the books before going to the birds themselves.”
— Louis J. Halle, The Appreciation of Birds

Double-page spread from Birds of Heaven by Peter Matthiessen

Double-page spread from Birds of Heaven by Peter Matthiessen

In anticipation of my trip to Nebraska to see the sandhill crane migration, I did quite a bit of reading about these birds. Here are some of the books I liked:

  • Cranes of the World by Paul A. Johnsgard
  • The Poets Guide to the Birds edited by Judith Kitchen and Ted Kooser
  • A Sand County Almanac by Also Leopold
  • Living on the Wind:  Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds by Scott Weidensaul
  • The Birds of Heaven: Travels with Cranes by Peter Matthiessen
  • The Migrations of Birds:  Seasons on the Wing by Janice M. Hughes
  • “The Nebraska Sandhills: The Flight of Cranes,” from The Necessity of Empty Places by Paul Gruchow
  • Sandhill and Whooping Cranes:  Ancient Voices over America’s Wetlands by Paul A. Johnsgard

I had seen my first sandhill crane in Homer, Alaska in 2008.   I have been practicing painting sandhill cranes from the photos I took at that time.

Watercolor sketch of sandhill cranes

Watercolor sketch of sandhill cranes

Watercolor sketch of sandhill crane

Watercolor sketch of sandhill crane

I was thrilled to see a few more sandhill cranes on my recent trip to the Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary in British Columbia.  They were right on a dike path, and we were able to get incredibly close.  (I can’t imagine we will ever get that close to a wild sandhill crane in Nebraska.  But we’ll see.)

Sandhill crane with shadow

Sandhill crane with shadow

Sandhill crane, Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary

Sandhill crane, Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary

Sandhill crane, profile

Sandhill crane, profile

Sandhill crane, back view

Sandhill crane, back view

Sandhill crane

Sandhill crane

The cranes in the Reifel sanctuary spent a lot of time grooming and preening.  This is considered a comforting behavior.  “Preening by cranes is a time-consuming activity that begins shortly after hatching and continues throughout life, especially during molting periods.  Typically cranes preen a single region for up to about 20 seconds, then move to another area.  Frequently the feather is nibbled at its base initially, and then the feather is gently drawn through the beak between the upper and lower mandibles.”
— Paul Johnsgard, ” Individualistic  and Social Behavior,” Cranes of the World: 2, January 1983

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All of my reading and past experiences seeing these magnificent birds have just whetted my curiosity for seeing hundreds of thousands of them in migration.  I’ll keep you posted.

Wreath and Tree

December 26, 2014

Watercolor sketch. wreath of birch leaves

Watercolor sketch. wreath of birch leaves

Watercolor sketch, tree of birch leaves

Watercolor sketch, tree of birch leaves

Fa La La La Caw

December 25, 2014

Ink sketch of crow

Ink sketch of crow

Merry Christmas!

Peace on Earth

December 22, 2014

“Peace is not just the opposite of war
or the time between the wars.
Peace is the law of human life.
Peace is when we treat nature well and justice rules
between all of the people and all of the nations.”
— Audrey Shenandoah, Onondaga
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Raven pulling eagle's tail!

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