I stepped out of my vehicle, stretched, and heard an unmistakable sound overhead… a bit like a goose with a stutter. A single sandhill crane was doing a low, lazy fly-over, its long legs dangling behind it so you could never mistake it for a large goose. My pulse sped up. In my whole life, I’ve never seen more than one or two of these imposing birds at a time. Tonight would be different. Tonight I paid my $25 to spend two hours in a blind at the river’s edge to watch The Spectacle at sunset.
This is the Platte River Valley of central Nebraska, and over half a million (!) of these birds use it as a staging ground each spring en route to their breeding grounds in far northern North America. There will be precious little food when they get to the tundra, so their three- to four-week stop fattens them up; leftover corn in farm fields will add 18% to their body weight. At night they descend en masse onto the sand bars of the river, preferring 3-6″ of water to roost in overnight which will be an Early Warning System if a fox or bobcat is on the hunt.
At the Rowe Audubon Sanctuary, permanent blinds enable viewers to be at river’s edge without stressing the birds. As I waited for the group to gather, forty or fifty birds landed in an adjacent field to eat. With my binoculars I could easily see their majestic bearing, the red crown, the bustle over their tail.
The sky was cut by small V’s that rattled, trilled, honked their way to wherever they were going. I couldn’t wait to get to the blind…
[photo from google images]