Bundled against the chill of a March morning, we gathered in
predawn darkness in a Nebraska cornfield, bathed in the silvery
light of a full moon. Paul Tebbel, the lanky bearded director of
the Audubon Society's Rowe Sanctuary, cautioned us to remain
absolutely silent as he led small groups across the field to a
two-story wooden blind built on the bank of the Platte River.
We had come to witness one of the most spectacular natural events
in North America - the migration of a half-million sandhill cranes,
funneling through the Platte River basin, as they have done every
spring for millions of years. It is by far the largest
concentration of cranes anywhere in the world - part of a vast
movement of geese, ducks, and other waterfowl numbering up to 9
million birds passing through this region of flat lands and shallow
For birders like me, this was a long-awaited pilgrimage. Mr. Tebbel
laughingly calls it "the Super Bowl of bird-watching." But even for
the casual observer, the cranes of the Platte offer a spellbinding
experience of nature that will never be forgotten.
The elegant, long-legged gray cranes spend their nights crowded
onto the sandbars of a 70-mile stretch of the river, whose shallow
waters provide warning of the approach of coyotes. After spending
their winters in the south central US and Mexico, the cranes spend
about a month here. They forage by day in the fields for corn
kernels, worms, and insects to fatten themselves up before heading
to their nesting grounds on the Arctic tundra.
A chorus of avian voices
In the darkness, the cranes were still not visible, except as
indistinct clumps. But we could hear their calls, a long, vibrating
bugling sound that can be heard for miles. At first the calls came
singly, the almost plaintive sounds of early risers seeking
company. Then others answered, the calls rising steadily to a
chorus of avian voices that one author has dubbed "crane music."
As light filled the sky, the dark outlines slowly began to resolve
into a vista of tens of thousands of cranes, some standing only
feet from our hiding place, slowly rustling and moving.
Suddenly the sandhill cranes began to "dance." In a complex and
fascinating display, they lower their heads almost to the ground,
while lifting and spreading their wings. Then the elongated birds
lift their heads, while pulling their wings down. Sometimes they
literally jump. Two birds may face each other, dancing
simultaneously. The behavior is infectious, spreading through
groups of cranes in an almost ecstatic explosion of activity.
Cranes are among the most ancient of all bird species - there is
fossil evidence of cranes in the Platte River basin going back
about 9 million years. Perhaps because of their size and behavior,
cranes have long fascinated mankind. Cranes are long-lived - some
have lived in captivity into their 80s - and they pair for life.
References to cranes fill the literature and art of human
civilization, and in many cultures they have a mythic status as
symbols of long life, happiness, steadfastness, and love.
Despite their almost revered status, cranes are also perhaps the
most threatened family of birds. Of the 15 species of cranes
worldwide, seven are considered endangered, as are two subspecies
of sandhill crane. There are several species of sandhill cranes,
but the most numerous is the lesser sandhill crane which, despite
its name, stands four-feet tall. …