Good Going Platte River Valley, Nebraska
Performing an elegant courtship dance, sandhill cranes strut, leap, spin, and bow in a wet meadow.
"The ultimate value in these
marshes is wildness, and the
crane is wildness incarnate."
--Aldo Leopold, A Sand
County Almanac and Sketches
Here and There, 1949
I WILL NEVER FORGET THE FIRST TIME I saw sandhill cranes come to roost on the Platte River in Nebraska--strange, ancient figures with long legs and trumpeting voices filling the sky and falling so gracefully, like autumn leaves silhouetted against a river set afire by the sunset. Nor will I forget the first time I spent all night on a midriver sandbar in a dugout blind. Amid thousands of cranes, I eavesdropped on their conversations, harmonic waves as mesmerizing as ocean swells breaking onshore. Or the morning I saw a mature bald eagle fly low over a nearly mile-long crane roost at first light, splitting the seam of the river, lifting and scattering boils of birds. The sound grew like the roar of a stadium crowd doing the wave until the spectacle passed overhead with a deafening roar and rush of wings.
Between late February and mid-April, about 500,000 sandhill cranes, roughly 80 percent of the world's population, descend on the Platte River Valley, a sliver of threatened habitat critical to North America's Central Flyway. They come from scattered wintering grounds in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Mexico. They rest and refuel for nearly a month before beginning their long journeys to northern breeding grounds as far as the Canadian Arctic, western Alaska, and northeastern Siberia. Sandhill cranes typically migrate 200 to 500 miles a day; some fly more than 10,000 miles in their annual migration cycle.
By night, cranes roost on shallow, submerged sandbars in the river's widest channels, some a quarter mile across, a distance that protects the birds from predators. By day, they feed on waste grain, mostly corn left from the fall's harvest, and forage for snails, earthworms, and other invertebrates that provide nutrients critical for proper chick development. A sandhill can gain up to a third of its body weight during its stay. Once replenished, flocks of cranes take to the sky in tight spirals, riding thermals of warm air to the upper-level winds that carry them northward, toward the rim of the world. --Michael Forsberg, adapted from On Ancient Wings (Michael Forsberg Photography, 2004)