by Robert Hemphill
Why, one might reasonably ask, would an otherwise normal person leave a lovely beach house in San Diego, where the March temperature averages 68 degrees F, the rain is essentially non-existent, and the winds moderate when they blow at all, only to venture into the middle of Nebraska where the temperature averages below freezing, there is lots of wind, and lots of rain, and many of the rivers are frozen? To add to the attractiveness there are large, unsightly globs and piles of dirty brown snow on the ground, bordering all the sidewalks and streets.
Why indeed? Because said normal person, in his general reading, stumbled across a Smithsonian magazine article detailing a huge gathering of large birds who are in the middle of a seven-thousand-mile migration from their winter homes in northern Mexico to their summer nesting places near the arctic circle. They take a six-week break along the Sandhill and Platte rivers, centering on Kearney, Nebraska. They are thus called “Sandhill cranes”, or Antigone canadensis, although one supposes that they might as well be called Northern Mexico Cranes or Arctic Circle Cranes. I guess we got there first and claimed naming rights. The intriguing thing about this particular bird and this trip is that there are 600,000 to 800,000 cranes who pass through central Nebraska in early spring, and this said to be the largest migration of any animal on the North American continent.
After I read the article I immediately called up my cousin Jim, one of my four Nebraska cousins. Two of them live in Lincoln, a mere 120 miles from Kearney along I-80. “You ever hear of the Sandhill cranes migration? It’s supposed to be quite spectacular.”
“Oh sure,” he said, “It’s over in Kearney in the spring sometime.”
“Jim, I have been coming to Lincoln every Fourth of July for the family reunion, and no one has ever mentioned this to me.”
“Well, we did take you to see the state capital downtown that one time,” he acknowledged. “It’s pretty neat, the tallest building in Lincoln.”
We left it at that.
And thus we departed balmy southern California, heavily loaded down with warm ski wear. All the books said “bring really warm clothes, really”—and so we did. We landed in Omaha, picked up a rental car, and drove west to Lincoln to see my 95-year-old aunt, now living in the Pine Manor Retirement Home, which has no pines around it. At lunch, she asked why we were visiting. “I’ve lived here 95 years,” she noted, “and I’ve never been over to Kearney to see those birds. I guess they’re pretty big?”
“We’ll see, I hope so, or else we will just have to make do with the wonders of Kearney,” we said.
“I don’t think you’ll be that impressed, so I hope your birds show up,” she concluded helpfully.
She was right about Kearney. Population of 33 thousand, in a state that only has 1.8 million residents, it’s the fifth largest city. It has an arch crossing over the interstate but just barely as it is more flat than arch-like, kind of a bridge from one side of the interstate to the other, except that there is nothing on either side except corn fields. And you can’t drive a tractor over the ‘arch’ so the point eludes me. There is a small downtown that is the site of Fort Kearny. This fort, a small building and a modest stockade, was named after Gen. Stephen Kearny, a Mexican war hero and capturer of California. It opened in 1848 and helped protect travelers on the Oregon Trail.
We arrived late in the day and immediately after went over to the 1,900-acre Rowe Audubon Sanctuary just south of the river. After an introductory briefing, a group of us who had previously signed up for this “viewing” tramped out into the mud and cold to get to the viewing blinds. These fronted and paralleled the river and resembled individual rail cars, but longer and thinner. The northern side was pierced by a number of one-foot square openings for viewing ports looking out on the river, but the blinds were otherwise enclosed. This was a good thing as it was very cold and unheated. This added to the experience.
We looked out the ports. We looked out the ports with our binoculars. We looked through the ports using the telescopic sights of our cameras. We saw patches of ice on the river, a small bit of river gurgling along quite near us. We saw lots of birds in the sky. They were in “V” formations, they were in single file, they were in flocks and gaggles and whirls, they were in maelstroms, they were in agglutinations and aggregations. What they were not was close and on the ground. And because flying entails a certain amount of velocity, they were tough to keep your camera or your binoculars focused on. And the light in the grey and cloudy sky was fading. We were quiet inside the blind because we had been lectured not to make any noise as this could spook the birds. And why had the Audubon people chosen this time for us to stand around shivering in a dark blind in the vanishing light?
How this works in interesting. From what one can gather without calling on the resources of the ornithology department at Cornell (the best bird source of knowledge in the US, maybe the world), the cranes spend the winter months in northern Mexico, generally. Then at some point in time in February or early March, something tells them to fly the 1200 miles to the Sand Hill and Platte River Valley, which parallel each other and together are more of a flat plain—the descriptive material calls the Sandhill a “braided stream” with many sand bars and islands. The early settlers classically described it as “a mile wide and an inch deep.” It is all very, very flat. Hence the spread out nature of the water course.
Once the birds arrive, they find to their delight that the farming in the area, and there is nothing but corn farming in the area, has left a lot of corn on the ground. When you think about mechanical harvesting of a whole corn field, it’s not like getting an ear at the local market and then carefully peeling off the husk, and so on. It’s a lot more banging and pulling and cutting and depositing stuff on conveyors and then shooting the ears into large rolling bins to take the corn back to the silo. Hence the fact that some ears escape the process, and that some ears have some kernels knocked off onto the ground by the process, is not surprising. The cranes are the beneficiaries of this, along with a lot of snow geese and Canada geese, who are making a similar but less arduous migratory trip. The cranes are basically gleaners.
They stand around in the open fields all day eating corn. Then as evening falls, they retreat to islands in the river, as this is a safer place, much more difficult for predators to sneak up on them. Besides, the coyotes and foxes, etc. would get wet. In the morning, the whole thing reverses—the birds wake up and then fly off to the corn fields.
The cranes stand about four feet tall, with 5-foot wingspans, and weigh only six to ten pounds. During their three week or so stay, they add 20% to their body weight. They eventually fly off to their summer preference, somewhere in the northern part of Canada, near the arctic circle. This area makes up 69% of Canada and has 2% of the population. And it’s a balmy 45 degrees in the summer. They (the cranes, not the people) build nests, they hatch eggs and fledge chicks and eventually fly back to Mexico. For reasons not obvious in the literature, they don’t do the same feeding stopover when heading south. The cranes can fly as fast as 30 mph and when migrating fly at 3000 to 5000 feet. This keeps them above the range of small arms, as anyone who has flown a helicopter in combat will know. They are legal to shoot in most states but not Nebraska. And the clever cranes only hang out in rural Mexico and very rural Canada, with the brief stopover around Kearney and Grand Island. This whole arrangement keeps them out of the way of people, which is clearly fine for them.
The cranes are said to be one of the longest surviving species on the planet, with some fossils clearly identified from 2.5 million years ago. We could not find anything conclusive on the baseline population of cranes while the Plains Indians were still in charge, although one source guessed at 100,000. So now why the expanding population?
Pre-settler, there were no dams on the Sandhill or its tributaries, and about half of Nebraska was either “wet meadow” or river. The cranes were then confined to eating “seeds, berries, tubers, insects, worms, mice, snakes and frogs” but not fish. Not sure there was a heck of a lot of fish to eat in the shallow river and creeks. The settlers and the Bureau of Reclamation created the corn fields. If I were a crane, I would sure rather just look down in the middle of a field and find lots of corn, than root around looking for snakes and insects. We speculated that unlike most human/wild animal contacts, humans did the cranes a favor and made their feeding stopover easier and better. It probably wasn’t anyone’s plan, but so it goes.
You can go out into the farming areas and drive along the dirt roads and see cranes feeding in the fields, and we did that, but the farmers don’t think you to drive through their fields, and the local gendarmes are not happy with tourists arbitrarily blocking the narrow roads while photographing the cranes. And the cranes keep a wary distance.
So that leaves us back at the blinds in the cold darkling evening. About 45 minutes after we get into the blind—which by the way feels longer since all you can see is the vegetation on the bank across the river and the white expanse of flat island with ice on it between you and the wintry trees—one notices that some geese have landed on the island, maybe 50 feet away. But, honestly, I can see Canada geese pretty much anywhere, they’re kind of a pest. We persevere and the light continues to dim—it’s pretty grey out to begin with.
And then someone whispers, “We’ve got cranes dropping!” It is a perfect description. Nobody said that these were the most graceful birds in the aviary. They don’t crash but they do come in at a very steep glide, big wings flexed to slow them, and they look like they’re hitting a bit hard but they don’t fall down. And when one starts, suddenly everybody gets the message. It’s raining cranes, all along the snow covered island, in rows and volumes and bunches and gaggles. It happens in minutes and it is beautiful. Damn, there are really a lot of them when they hit the ground and walk around making the loud gravelly cluck cluck that is their signature sound. And then more land, and then more after that until it seems that there’s no more room, but somehow there is. It is impressive and even wondrous. All these cranes coming to a 60 mile stretch of a cold shallow river in Nebraska in the same six week period.
It was about eight-thirty when we left the Sanctuary center, and we were elated but tired and hungry. Bad news—Kearney may be the crane capital of the world, but you cannot find an open restaurant after nine. Believe me. We drove up and down the main street. Red Lobster, closed. Copper Skillet, closed. Charlie’s Tacos, closed. Thunderhead Brewery, closed. McCue’s Taphouse, closed. We were staying in a high-end Hampton Inn, even with a pool, but no food service or restaurant. We did find an open liquor store, so we bought an acceptable bottle of Pinot Noir and some potato chips, but it was not what we were looking for, really.
We got out the next morning at five thirty, drove to the Audubon center, it’s still cold, it’s still dark, it’s still a long muddy slippery hike out to the blind. When you get there and look out at first you can’t see anything. Philosophical questions begin to plague one, like “Why am I doing this, and paying for it, without even a doughnut (shop closed) or a cup of coffee (no Starbucks in sight).” Then through the icy gloom you begin to make out many, many cranes, even closer and more numerous than the night before although it is difficult to count. As the light grows the individuals become more distinct and the clucking grows louder and the extent of the cranes that you can see up and down the river grows. Then just before there is enough light for really decent pictures, somebody (some bird?) gives a signal and they all lift off. Not all immediately together, but in waves like fighters coming off an aircraft carrier, and in minutes the cranes and the geese are all circling around in vortices, gaining altitude, then dispersing in all kinds of directions. I hate people who use the word “magical” as an all-purpose descriptor, but the lift-off is pretty close to that.
In ten minutes the birds are all gone. We hike back to the center, get some coffee, and buy a crane t-shirt. I mean, we are Americans, after all.
The next day we had planned on going out to the fields again, but the morning dawned rainy and very foggy. The forecast was for more of the same, weather in which you really had no chance of seeing anything except maybe a little bit ahead on the highway. We weighed our chances, looked at the TV images of the Denver airport totally shut down by a storm coming our way, and decided to depart. A week later the eastern half of Nebraska was flooded and I-80, the way we had taken into and out of Kearney, was closed. I imagine the cranes were still out in the fields eating, and avoiding the flooded parts.
Final avian facts: The cranes are in the top ten, but at 800,000 are not the most numerous birds in America. Top billing goes to mourning doves (475 million) followed by 300 million robins, 190 million red wing blackbirds, 70 million house sparrows and 24 million crows. See, isn’t that interesting?
Cranes mate for life, which for these guys is around 25 years. According to a brochure we picked up at the Rowe center, “Mated pairs will celebrate their union with head pumping, wing-flapping, bowing, leaping and tossing sticks, vegetation and clumps of soil into the air.” Better than many weddings I have been to.
More from The Smithsonian here.
Sunset photo at top, courtesy Kearney, NE Visitors Bureau.