Beyond the slow water and sandbars, I spot my first wisp of smoke on the horizon, as Jane Goodall calls it. The renowned conservationist ventures to rural Nebraska each March for one of the world’s most remarkable migration rituals. From my perch by the Platte River, bundled alongside birders from across the country, I grab my binoculars. A lump forms in my throat as the stippled skyline wisp becomes a mass of wings, beaks and gangly legs headed for our stretch of water at the Nebraska Crane Trust.
Sandhill crane migration. Photo courtesy of Nebraska Tourism Commission.
The horizon begins to swallow the sun, and the birds descend. A rattly trilling builds as dozens of wisps become thousands of cranes lining the banks. The nightly staging ritual can last an hour, until one bird moves to the water. Alighting on a sandbar, it triggers a splash mob of bedding down—and a flurry of shutter clicks in our blind.
At 3 to 4 feet tall, Sandhill cranes bulk up during this few-week layover between Mexico and Canada (or Siberia for some). Central Nebraska offers fields of fallen corn by day and a safe communal roost at night, far from foxes and coyotes. The Platte’s wide but shallow waters draw half a million cranes, the vast majority of the world’s population, to a 70-mile stretch from late February to April.
Overnight, the bugling wafts through a window in my cottage. “They’re extra chatty this morning,” guide Ben Dumas whispers while shuffling through fog and prairie grass and into a dark blind. The water slowly turns purple, then golden, revealing nearly 100,000 birds. They stretch their wings or dance about before taking flight. For some, it’s another day of feeding. For others, it’s goodbye until next March.