On a Nebraska Cornfield, Birdwatchers Respond To the Call of the Cranes
Witness the spectacular migration of the most ancient of bird species
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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 marshes.
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. After one year, the crown of the bird is bare and the skin bright red.