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The Prairie Serengeti

Despite all our bucket-list ambitions, the fact is that most of us won’t ever make it out on an African safari. But that doesn’t mean you’ll never witness one of the planet’s last great wildlife spectacles. In fact, there’s one waiting right now in central Nebraska.

Yes, Nebraska, where the mighty herds that come to mind probably consist of beef cattle lazily cropping grass. But each year between roughly Valentine’s Day and mid-April, the Platte River in the state’s center fills with a migration like those from the stories of the bison and passenger pigeons.

The stars are Sandhill cranes, which are to bird-watching what the Super Bowl is to football. The cranes stand roughly 5 feet tall with red heads, daggerlike beaks and a croaking cry that surely sounds exactly like a pterodactyl. And they hang out on the Platte in a flock about 500,000 strong. A map of their spring migration looks like a giant hourglass flaring wide in Mexico and Canada and concentrating to a narrow neck on the Platte. Here the birds find grain in the fields and rest on midriver sandbars that feel like a moat-guarded fortress to a bird that coyotes find delicious.

The birds draw carloads (and busloads) of visitors, sometimes deemed “craniacs” by local residents. They gather on bridges and in riverside blinds to watch clouds of cranes come and go from the river at sunrise and sunset. They fill meeting rooms in local hotels to hear presentations about crane folklore and shop for crane art. They drive locals nuts by constantly slamming on the brakes along country roads every time they see a crane bouncing in a field in its signature mating dance.

But the risk in poking fun at craniacs is that you can easily turn into one. When you’re cruising the farmland near Kearney, you find yourself scanning the fields, looking for the silhouette of a gray crane materializing from the fog. You plan afternoons around snagging a good sundown viewing spot at the river. You start rationalizing the purchase of $500 birding binoculars, even though you can’t tell a wren from a sparrow.

That’s the intoxicating power of the cranes, which have long been symbols of grace and spiritual power in many cultures. When you stand by the river, surrounded by thousands of enormous birds gliding in for the night, drowning out any sound with their calls, it’s impossible not to feel transported. As if you’re witnessing the kind of spectacle that human progress has denied those of us living today. That’s a pretty good addition to the old bucket list.

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