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.
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.