Sandhill crane

Sandhill crane

Sandhill crane

Sandhill crane

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Sandhill crane

Sandhill crane

Duck

Duck

Robin

Robin

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Sandhill crane migration, Nebraska

The Sandhill Cranes of Nebraska
by Billy Collins, from Aimless Love

Too bad you weren’t here six months ago,
was a lament I heard on my visit to Nebraska.
You could have seen the astonishing spectacle
of the sandhill cranes, thousands of them
feeding and even dancing on the shores of the Platte River.

There was no point in pointing out
the impossibility of my being there then
because I happened to be somewhere else,
so I nodded and put on a look of mild disappointment
if only to be part of the commiseration.

It was the same look I remember wearing
about six months ago in Georgia
when I was told that I had just missed
the spectacular annual outburst of azaleas,
brilliant against the green backdrop of spring

and the same in Vermont six months before that
when I arrived shortly after
the magnificent foliage had gloriously peaked,
Mother Nature, as she is called,
having touched the hills with her many-colored brush,

a phenomenon that occurs, like the others,
around the same time every year when I am apparently off
in another state, stuck in a motel lobby
with the local paper and a styrofoam cup of coffee,
busily missing God knows what.

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Sandhill cranes in Nebraska, flying above the Platte River

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Sandhill crane

Last year at this time I was journeying to the Platte River in Nebraska to see the migrating flocks of sandhill cranes feeding for their long journey north.  I am so glad that I made the effort to witness this migration at least once in my life.  Natural phenomena like the sandhill crane migration are a mystery and a wonder and bring to new life a word like awesome.

I don’t always make the time to seek out these great spectacles of nature.  It’s not just a matter of limited time, but of financial considerations and prioritizing this type of travel.  This winter, for example, I did not drive north even once to see the flocks of snow geese over-wintering in the Skagit valley.  I have seen them several times in the past, but it is my loss not to have seen them this year.

As the seasons cycle, we have many chances to stop and enjoy Nature’s unique offerings.  We can take the time to notice, or we can get wrapped up in other things and miss out.  The words of Billy Collins’ poem point this out.  Missing out happens with regrettable regularity.

Spring seems to bring a succession of opportunities in my immediate local environment.  Just now the Yoshino cherry trees are blossoming on the University of Washington campus.  I did make the effort to see them once again.  How lucky I am to be able to do this!

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Cherry trees on the quad at the U of W campus

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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”

 

 

“The very flight of birds is a writing waiting to be read.”
— Loren Eiseley

Cranes at sunset, from the bridge at Fort Kearney Historical Recreation Area

Cranes at sunset, from the bridge at Fort Kearney Historical Recreation Area

“The Sand Hill Cranes”
by Lola Haskins, from The Poets Guide to the Birds, edited by Judith Kitchen and Ted Kooser

The blue air fills with cries of regret.
The cranes are streams, rivers.
They danced on the night prairie,
leapt at each other, quivering.

The long bones of sand hill cranes
know their next pond.  Not us.
When something is too beautiful
we do not understand to leave.

Sandhill cranes in flight

Sandhill cranes in flight

Sandhill cranes returning to the Platte River at sunset

Sandhill cranes returning to the Platte River at sunset

“Migration of the Sandhill Cranes
Sulphur Springs Valley, Arizona”
by Alison Hawthorne Deming, from  “Short Treatise on Birds”

Perhaps they would forgive us our
greed if they lived with moral codes.
Instead they take our leavings, corn-
fields crowded with migrants ’till they
rise, wheel, stream apart in columns
then join again.  If they have a
purpose, it must be communal
flight, swarms that meet to read the sky.

Sandhill cranes in flight

Sandhill cranes in flight

Bird watchers gather for the evening move to the roosts near the Rowe Sanctuary

Bird watchers gather for the evening move to the roosts near the Rowe Sanctuary

 

Sandhill cranes returning to Platte River to roost for the night

Sandhill cranes returning to Platte River to roost for the night

Sandhill cranes at sunset

Sandhill cranes at sunset

“It is a seductive space of suction and vortex, of migration and wandering and swirl.  Open to sun, open to lightening, each day and step have a distinct uncanny potential for revelation.”   —  Richard Powers, The Echo Maker

We watched the sandhill cranes return from the fields to the Platte River, where they roost at night.  The shallow sandbars provide a habitat relatively safe from predators.  There were a few early cranes claiming their roosting spots, but as the sun set, more and more strings of sandhills flew overhead, seemingly rushing to find safe harbor  before dark.

We weren’t as close the these wild birds as I would have liked for intimate photographic portraits, but the opportunity to see such vast numbers in huge flocks was as special in its own way.

“In sandhill cranes the daily flights to and from roosts are closely tied to light levels. . . . Almost cetainly light levels, rather than sunrise or sunset per se, are the critical factor, for in the Platte River area the cranes always begin returning to the river before sunset on cloudy days, but often wait until a half hour or later beyond sunset on sunny days with extended periods of twilight.”  — Paul A. Johnsgard, Cranes of the World

 

Cranes at dawn from the blind at the Rowe Sanctuary

Cranes at dawn from the blind at the Rowe Sanctuary

Sandhill cranes on the Platte River at sunrise

Sandhill cranes on the Platte River at sunrise

“Soon after the sun fires the horizon, the crane armies rise in stupendous celebration, crossing the black winter trees along the river . . . . an exaltation of life . . . when the sandhills rose in thunder, swirling and climbing and parting into wisps and strands in the fiery suffusions of the sunrise.”  — Peter Matthiessen, The Birds of Heaven: Travels with Cranes

Yesterday morning we got up at 4:30 a.m. to drive in the dark to the Rowe Sanctuary, where we had reserved space in one of their blinds on the Platte River.  We waited as quietly as possible for the sunrise, and then saw the cranes come to life.  They left the river in small groups, headed for the corn fields and their day of fattening up.

This was definitely a multi-sensory experience.  The cranes vocalized nonstop from our arrival before dawn.  Thousands of crane voices, rising to the new day.  Wonderful.