Sandhill Cranes: North America's greatest migrations

Each year in Kearney, Nebraska, more than a half million sandhill cranes gather along the Platte River in route from the Southern United States to Canada, Alaska, and Siberia for what Jane Goodall has referred to as one of the most magnificent spectacles in nature. Photo: Matt Payne

KEARNEY NEBRASKA - July 10, 2012 - Around me are twenty or so birders who have gathered from ten different states.  Each is armed with some combination of scopes, binoculars and cameras with impossibly long lenses. Upon first light we will witness what Jane Goodall has often said to be one of the most magnificent spectacles in nature: the sandhill crane migration.

It is half past five in the morning and most of us have been up for two hours sipping tepid coffee and shivering in an elongated rudimentary blind at Rowe Sanctuary just off the gently undulating waters of the Platte River near Kearney, Nebraska.

The enthusiasm is a curious blend of that of a child awaiting Santa and of a pitcher in game seven of the World Series. Two men bicker in aggressive whispers over the species of a sparrow spotted the previous night while others adjust their camera settings or simply sit quietly in the darkness and wait.

Though nearly hidden in the deep amethyst of pre-dawn, there are hundreds of thousands of statuesque sandhill cranes casting jagged, moon-cut sihouettes onto the Platte. The oncoming day seems to vibrate with the peaceful trill of the birds’ collective lullaby. The silhouettes stretch out like a grayish blanket to both horizons of the braided river. Soon the sun will rise and as it does, so shall the nearly five hundred thousand of these majestic, spiritual birds in an annual avian ritual that has been occurring on this tiny stretch of river for more than a million years.

Sandhill cranes stand between three and a half and four feet tall. Their feathered bodies float like grey clouds above twiggy black legs. Their elongated necks lead to a black beak and contemplative eyes settled just under an explosive crimson crest. They are playful birds with a unique variety of calls; each call serves a different purpose and is commonly referred to as bugling. Devoutly loyal, the birds mate for life and often travel with their extended families. While each bird, with its regal appearance and honorable sense of family, is commendable on an individual level, it is the action of the entire species that distinguishes the sandhill crane as one of nature’s most remarkable creatures.  

Sandhills on the Platte

Each year, after spending the winter in parts of Florida and all along the gulf coast extending into Mexico, these elegant birds begin their journey north to Canada, Alaska, and Siberia, where they will spend the winter and lay their eggs. While migration is common in many species of animals, one cannot help but marvel at the cranes’ curious pit stop on the small stretch of the Platte River. Each year, between mid-February and mid-April, or, as the locals say, Valentines Day to Tax Day, hundreds of thousands of cranes from all across the southern United States and northern parts of Mexico gather in southern Nebraska to feed on corn left over from the harvest in order to fatten up for their long journey north.

While the all-you-can-eat buffet of corn and freshwater shellfish are no doubt a draw for the cranes, the Platte River also plays host to this colossal roost because unlike anywhere else in the migratory path, the river offers the cranes an unrivaled sense of safety. The Platte is often described as a mile wide and a foot deep.  This type of wide, braided river is without vegetation and allows the birds to roost safely on sandbars and in the shallow water through the river at night. To sneak up on this massive gathering without being seen or heard would be nearly impossible.

Sandhill in a Nebraska cornfield.

For two months, the stripped, brown cornfields of Kearney are dotted with miles of slow moving grey blobs. At any given moment, five of six groups can be seen in various parts of the sky, making their way from field to field, in either a straight line or a “V,” searching for a yet-to-be-discovered field of corn.

The town of Kearney has taken full advantage of the annual return of its feathered visitor. Restaurant walls are adorned with artwork featuring massive flocks circling the Platte and close-ups of bugling birds. At Rowe Sanctuary one can find shirts, hats, shot glasses, spoons, stuffed animals, statues, paintings, sketches, key chains, and just about any other form of knickknack or curio adorned with the sandhill crane. Locals talk about going to see the cranes like golfers talk about playing eighteen on a Saturday. 

Hotels begin serving bagels and coffee at obscenely early hours to satisfy the palates of avian-loving guests setting out to get a look at the early morning roost before the birds take off for their own cornfield dining experiences.  The masses of quirky bird-loving visitors who visit this sparse, quaint Nebraska town are arguably as much a spectacle as the birds themselves.

Like many wonders of nature, the sandhill migration is threatened. While their numbers are not particularly small, the river is changing due to increasing development. What was once a nearly sixty-mile stretch of river has been reduced to roughly six. The migratory pattern is so embedded in the cranes’ instinct that to eliminate the cranes’ secure roost would be to eliminate the species itself. 

This potential elimination is hard to imagine as the sun begins to rise into the mid-March morning, casting an orange light onto the endless fleet of cranes. They begin to shuffle as though to stretch out after a long rest. Cameras click and anticipatory whispers in the blind turn to whispers of awe. The argument over sparrow species abruptly comes to an end. By light, the grey blanket, spotted with the red of the birds’ crests, seems to be moving. The trill grows louder and begins to vary in tone, its volume rising in accordance with the growing sun, eventually becoming so loud that it drowns out thoughts.

One bird begins to hop up and down.  The leaping is infectiously joyful and soon others follow suit. They begin to jump, alternating turns, circling, leaping against the hypnotic rhythm of their call. The cranes cast their necks back and ruffle their rear feathers, bouncing in a dance that feels as old as time, and slowly, in groups of threes, sixes, twelves, and then twenty-fours, they begin to take off, the sun glowing orange and massive behind them.

Three deer watch indifferently from the other side of the bank while the twenty or so birders, including me, watch in what has gone from a deliberate, curious quiet to a breathless and reverent silence filled only with the ever-echoing call of the sandhill crane.

Birder in a blind off of the Platte River.

The moment stands still in time. Thousands have taken off for the day and yet the density appears unchanged: the mass of cranes is still hundreds of thousands thick. Though they are threatened, it is hard to imagine them all gone. As that thought occurs to me, an eagle flies over, tracing the bank of the river, and with his graceful soar and shrill cry, the cranes scare, leaving the roost all at once in a mad exodus of flapping wings and panicked bugling.

So dense is the abrupt departure that the sun is momentarily blocked by the birds as they circle in a massive grey and red cloud, splitting up into groups heading in a thousand directions all at once… and then they are gone.

Jane Goodall was right. Magnificent.

The eagle circles back to the other side of the river, which is now empty. It is a curious denouement. The birders begin to put away their binoculars, their cameras and their scopes. Some talk about the cranes and others say nothing. The debate of the sparrows, I assume, will start up again soon.

Not interested in hearing it, and hungry, I hurry away. As I go, I glance back at the Platte for just a moment, and watch it as it rolls on.


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Matt Payne

Matt Payne has lived and worked as both a television writer and producer in Los Angeles for nearly ten years.  Matt grew up in Oklahoma City and began his career with a degree in Film and Video Studies from the University of Oklahoma.  Since then, he has worked as part of writing staffs for such hits as 24 andWithout A Trace. Most recently Matt wrote and produced episodes of CBS’s The Defenders starring Jim Belushi and Jerry O’Connell and Memphis Beat, starring Jason Lee, which is set to air on TNT in August of 2011.

In addition to a successful television-writing career, Matt has developed features with major production companies and continues to work as a freelance script analyst for Relativity Media, the production company behind such hits as The Fighter, Zombieland, and Catfish where he has provided script feed back on nearly a thousand features.

When he is not writing and producing television, Matt works as contributor to the Washington Times Communities Travel section, where he has writing skills have taken him from the top of the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpar to the jungles of the Philippine Islands.  New York City’s finest restaurants to the earthquake ravaged Port au Prince Haiti. 

Matt was the winner of the 2004 Comedy writing award for Scriptapolooza, a finalist for the Warner Brothers Television Writer’s workshop, and is an active participant in Los Angeles’s Young Storytellers Program.  

Early in his career, Matt spent two years working as an assistant the Endeavor, which is now part of WME, the second largest talent agency in the world, working closely with such talent as Christian Bale and Michael Douglass.

Matt  is a member of  the Writer’s Guild of America and the Screen Actor’s Guild.

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