An ancient episode of March, sandhill cranes move from their winter home in Texas northward, stopping over at the Platte River in Nebraska for "spring break."
We are at the Rowe Sanctuary, on the banks of the Platte River. The Sanctuary is sited outside of Kearney, Nebraska, a town of 30,000 in the center of the state, built on the shoulder of Interstate 80. Kearney is a major stopover for travelers on the Interstate of today, as it was during the 19th century for the miners, farmers, settlers and migrants of all kinds headed westward on the Platte River Road, following the Mormon, Oregon, and California trails, as well as the route of the Pony Express.
Not too far away from Kearney, this Sanctuary is witness to its own group of two-legged travelers: huge flocks of 7-pound, red-headed, grey-feathered, 4-foot tall Sandhill Cranes. Each March, these cranes fly north from Texas and come stop for 2-3 weeks in the Platte River. By night they can rest on the “mile-wide, inch-deep” waterway, relatively safe from coyotes and fox, and close to rich fields where they can feed on waste corn, earthworms, snails, grubs and small rodents and reptiles. During their spring visit to the Platte, they gain some 15% in weight, gathering their energy to gear up for their long flight north to Canada, even as far as Alaska and Siberia.
But for now, it’s still dark here, before a March dawn, as we sit inside a blind along the south bank of the Platte. We know that there are some 60-70,000 cranes in the 3-mile stretch of river in front of us, but they make little sound, only a brief call back and forth between a single pair of birds. But, as the sun starts to rise, and the light filters across the mist on the River, we start to see the Cranes standing on the river’s sandy shoals in neat dark rows. With time, the cranes begin to rustle and move, chatter and call, unfold and stretch their wings, as their day begins.
By 8 am, a few start to shuffle around and move to the edge of the flocks, finally leaping into the air. With a few powerful flaps they are airborne and gathering speed and altitude as they wheel above their fellow cranes, who still wade and hop and even dance in the river’s shallows and islands. Finally, these first flights of cranes head out to the cornfields to feed for the day, and, within half an hour, nearly all the cranes have left the Platte to search for food.
As early afternoon comes on, we look up to see the cranes flying again, and are surprised to realize that they have begun “kettling,” spiraling ever higher, honking to their fellows, and looking for dependable winds to carry them northward. Eventually, they find the winds, form their vees, and set their wings. Their stop along the Platte River is over, and they are ready to make their way north, covering some 200 to 300 miles a day on their journey to the tundra, to nest, mate, and raise another generation of cranes to begin this age-old cycle all over again.
David Todd coordinates the Texas Legacy Project, a multi-media history of conservation across the state of Texas. He and his family live in Austin.