Sleeping with the Sandhill Cranes

Dancing cranes © 2012 Bruce Fox

Dancing cranes © 2012 Bruce Fox

Friday night my husband Bruce and I did something we never imagined. We crammed ourselves into a 4 x 8 x 5 foot wooden blind and spent the night on the Platte River in central Nebraska with several thousand sandhill cranes for neighbors.

If you aren’t familiar with it, the sandhill crane migration is one of nature’s wonders. Each spring, half a million cranes stop to rest in Nebraska before the long flight north to their Arctic breeding grounds. They spend their days in neighboring cornfields and at dusk, they head for the shallow river.

For Nebraskans, the crane migration is a backdrop to your life the same way Husker football is, and it can be easy to take this miracle for granted. I’ve lived in Nebraska since 1980 and Bruce is a Nebraska native. Like so many people who live here, we had talked about seeing the cranes and never done it, in spite of how this annual spectacle draws people from all over the world.

On Friday night we found out why. Nothing prepares you for the arrival of the cranes, no matter how much you’ve heard or read about it. One minute you’re watching an empty stretch of river and sandbars, wondering if they’ll really show up; the next they’re coming in waves, swirling through the sky and talking the whole time.

And they keep talking, all night long. Bruce said it was like eavesdropping on a New Year’s Eve party, and it was, with nonstop chatter, outbreaks of dancing and the occasional spat. The wildlife biologist who dropped us off said if they get quiet, it means a predator like a coyote is passing through. They did get quiet a couple of times and I wondered if they left. Bruce said the quiet is what woke him up.

High jump © 2012 Bruce Fox

High jump © 2012 Bruce Fox

 As night turned to day, the intensity of their chatter increased and so did their exuberant leaps and dances. I saw one crane toss a stick into the air several times. They left as they arrived, in small groups that got larger until the sky was swirling and the sandbars were quiet again.
Taking flight © 2012 Bruce Fox

Taking flight © 2012 Bruce Fox

Spring was earlier than usual this year and so were the cranes. One of our guides told us their numbers peaked about two weeks ago and they could have gotten more visitors if they had only known. No one knew except the cranes, who followed the same internal clock they’ve followed for nine million years.

The cranes don’t know about the disagreements over water rights that threaten their habitat. They don’t know about the encroachment of development and power lines. Every year, like magic, they reappear. They follow the rhythms of daylight and moonlight, of feeding and roosting. They trill and leap and bow and dance for joy. And if you’re lucky enough to see them, your heart leaps with them.

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23 thoughts on “Sleeping with the Sandhill Cranes

  1. Beautiful post, Jackie. Thanks for sharing this wonder of nature with us. As you said, it’s so easy to take such a miracle as this for granted. It must have been an awesome night.

    • Thanks, Kathi! Yes, it really doe put things in perspective. I’m glad I got to introduce you to this wonderful ritual. It’s so timeless & we felt outside of time for that brief while.

  2. Thank you thank you as someone who has been a volunteer Crane guide for years it is always a plus when others get excited like I do.

    • Marie, your comment went to spam! I’m so sorry I didn’t see it earlier! Well, there is always the much shorter group tour–you’re in a big blind with lots of windows with maybe a couple dozen other people. It’s only 2-3 hours–you don’t have to spend the night :) My boss at work was in one of those blinds at the same time we were in our little bitty blind. I told him what we were doing and he said “Wow, that’s hard core!” :)

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  4. I love this!!! I had never heard about this. Thank you for sharing. I don’t know what prompted you and your husband to go, but I’m so glad you did! What an amazing experience, being so contacted to nature that way. It reminds me of the whale watching I did with my family a couple of summers ago off the coast of Gloucester. Nothing compare to seeing these animals in their natural habitat. It’s like being let in on a secret. So special. Thanks, Jacks, just awesome.

    • Hi Stacey! What prompted us to go was this was the first time the crane trust made private blinds available. We had talked about going for many years but the 3-hour large group tour wasn’t as appealing. You summed it up perfectly; it’s like being let in on a secret. Whale watching sounds awesome too!!! XOX

  5. We stayed in an overnight blind a few years ago, and your description of the experience is spot-on! I still find it difficult to explain to people – it really is something one has to experience themselves. Glad you got to do it!

    • Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Robin. I agree, it’s very hard to explain. It made me think of what Harley riders say–”If I have to explain, you wouldn’t understand.” :) Although I think people appreciate us trying!

  6. Wow. What an amazing experience (and post!). I lived in Nebraska for much of my life, but wasn’t aware of the magnitude of this migration. It sounds spectacular. I’m so glad you and Bruce were able to catch such great photos/video–feel like I just lived vicariously through you :)

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