Standing on the Edge of the Platte River

Mary Ellen Alea

In the ebbing light of the day, watching Sandhill cranes come back for the night, I was transported.  Having claimed a spot in a blind with several other visitors, I grew quiet, transfixed by the slow movement of the water, the fading gold of the sunset, and the birds flying in, circling, and then settling on sandbars.

The Platte drains out of the Colorado Rockies’ via eastern slope tributaries, pulls itself together and forms a braid of sandbars, islands, and channels in the central Nebraska plains.  Here it offers these birds refuge for the night, its slow currents protecting them from predators.  As the cranes migrate from northern Mexico, southern Texas, New Mexico and Arizona to their tundra nesting grounds near the Arctic Circle 1600 miles away, their flight pattern forms an hour-glass which narrows to a 70-mile stretch of the Platte between Kearney and Grand Island. The cranes spend 3-5 weeks here each Spring, putting on weight before they continue their movement north. This is the largest bird migration in the world and has been happening for thousands of years.  Crane fossils found in the area have been dated 6-10 million years old. Experts conjecture that the link between the cranes and the Platte points to the river’s origin, after the last ice age, some 10,000 -12,000 years ago.  And they still come. The week I was there in March of 2017, the official count was 406,000 cranes.

Every evening at dusk, these birds return to the river after a day of feeding (and dancing) in nearby untilled cornfields, first in small numbers--family groupings of three or vee-formations of a dozen or more. These small groups, the “early birds,” are the first to land, establishing roosts on sandbars.  As the daylight diminishes, more and more birds fly in. The sound the Sandhill crane makes has aptly been described as a creaky door, so when a group comes in from behind the blind or beyond the treeline, the first evidence of their arrival is that sound. The closer it gets to the darkening of the day, the larger the flocks.  Eventually they arrive in groups of hundreds, group after group, dark clouds of them flying in over the treetops. It is hard to recognize how large these birds are because from a distance and in such numbers they could almost be mistaken for kettling blackbirds as they circle for landing.  At 4 feet tall, with wingspans of 6-7 feet, and weighing 6-12 pounds, these are big birds.  Yet they fly so gracefully, necks and legs outstretched, sounding out their purpose, their connection to each other, their arrival.  And then they light on the river, creating what look like islands of birds.

I stood in the blind, mesmerized, taking it all in, lost from my sense of time and of self, completely absorbed in what I was seeing. There came a moment, though, when I realized my sheer delight, almost giddiness.  In the last hint of light, an enormous group flew in upriver.  There must have been thousands of birds.  They just kept coming.  Their sound was a roar, like a crowd at a ballpark.  I was seeing something so beautiful, so rare, so powerful, so natural that I could do nothing less than laugh.

When all the light of the day was finally gone, our guide signaled that it was time to leave the blind.  Still absorbed and now sort of sad, I wanted to linger there, at least to keep listening to the cranes as they began their long night on the river.  But this was not about me.  This was all about the birds.

Mary Ellen Alea, long-time Eau Claire resident and retired UWEC English/American Studies teacher, now travels a bit. 

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