Mary Beth Writes

April 2019 

Sandhill cranes spend their winters in the southwest and in Mexico. They spend their summers mating and raising their young in the Artic or worse; some fly OVER the north pole to Siberia!  They manage these long migrations by resting and eating for two to three weeks somewhere between February and April, along an 80-mile stretch of the Platte River near Kearny, Nebraska.  Scientists say the cranes have been doing this for millions of years; probably because this was once the southern edge of a glacier and Sandhills like to hang out in cool places.  That’s a long memory.

If you want to see 600,000 cranes - go to Kearny somewhere in late winter to early spring when the world feels as if a glacier might be getting ready to retreat. That’s a Midwesterner’s nuance of weather that not just everyone understands.   

We heard about this Sandhill crane phenomenon decades ago. If you like nature crazy big and astonishingly noisy and as beautiful as beautiful can be – consider putting the Sandhills at Kearny on your list, too.

The first thing we did when we started to make our plans last fall was make a motel reservation. This was probably not necessary. Kearny has many motels; we think we would have gotten a better price if we had called a few hours before we arrived in town. The city was busy but not jam-packed for the cranes. 

The next thing we did was reserve “Indoor Crane Viewing Experience” for $20/each at the Audubon Center/Rowe Sanctuary on the Platter River outside Kearny.  They had docents as well as blinds from which we could watch the Cranes close up.  http://rowe.audubon.org/

Kearny is 700 miles from us; two days of driving each way. We left Sunday morning, did a few things along the way, arrived late Monday afternoon. Because of the serious flooding going on in Nebraska, we decided to stop by the Audubon Center before we finished the last few miles of the drive to Kearny. Good thing we did that. We rarely saw flooding during the long trip; it is mostly occurring along north/south rivers so we mostly stayed on I-80 going straight east and west. We saw flooding at the Missouri River between Iowa and Nebraska, but we drove over it. The trip was smooth for us.

When we were almost to Kearny we got off I-80, took a 2-lane highway a few miles south to the dirt road one needs to drive upon to get to the Audubon center. It had rained heavily over the weekend and that dirt road was ripped up with deep mud ruts. The Audubon center was sending emails advising that only tall vehicles with 4WD should attempt it. Not even close to what we own which is a short Ford hybrid.

Hmmm. Late that Monday afternoon we gazed down that rutted road wondering what to do. A guy in a massive Jeep had just come out and said he wasn’t going back in; the road was too awful.

We asked how far it was to the center. “Maybe a mile and a half.”

Bingo. We had boots in the car. Also, I leave a flashlight in the bathroom supplies bag that we bring when we go out of town. Plus Len always packs a flashlight in his bag. (When we were first married, I made fun of Len for packing flashlights. I have been mum since the year we “vacationed” in a surprise hurricane.) 

We got up at 4AM Tuesday morning (that was rough), drove to a small parking lot along the Platte by 5:00 and had already walked a fair distance when a couple in a giant vehicle asked if we wanted a ride. Yep. Same thing happened hours later when we left. We are grateful to both of those couples with their hardcore vehicles.

But Len and I also appreciate that we have memories of walking alone, just the two of us, in pitch black pre-dawn, listening to the rustling and squawking of 600,000 Sandhill cranes a couple hundred feet to our right. That was something.

The main thing I want to say about seeing the cranes that morning is this.  When you are standing in a big blind with twenty other curious, gentle, weird old people – it is already a good and interesting morning. You see rosy dawn peaking over the river to the east. The cranes are crooning and squawking, some are flapping their wings, they are restless against the coming light.  You stand around, moving to this window and then to that. You sit on the benches, you see flocks lifting into the sky up the river, down the river. Your feet ache a little from all the walking and standing. It’s a lovely moment but you could really use another cup of coffee.

Right then the eighty birds directly in front of you bob their heads to each other and take off. Over you. It’s their moment to flap their giant wings and plow up into into the sky over your blind, over your head. They are loudly squawking and yelling out their prehistoric paean to light. Tears you had not even considered spring to your eyes and leak down your face. It is so loud! You hear their voices, you hear the whuff of their powerful wings beating through the air.  You reel in the mystery of beauty and power far more related to the universe than you are. There is more eternity in that moment than there ever was in all those other holy places you have been in your life. 

It beats up your soul, but you stay there as long as they fill the sky.

And then it’s time to go back to the center, look in the gift shop, walk back out on that rutted road.  Another nice couple picks you up and drives you back to your car. You drive back to Kearny, eat a huge breakfast, and then you go back to your plebian motel and fall asleep for a very long nap.

There were other surprisingly beautiful places. Let me suggest if you are ever driving through western Iowa - not widely famous for robust beauty - that you get off I-80. We drove east on Iowa Highway 44 from Harlan to Panora and it was a stunner. Even in Iowa. Even in March. Even though the whole world was as gray-brown as Sandhill feathers. That road swerves and sways through and around high hills. One constantly drives around a bend in the road and there is another panorama of hills, valleys, and horizon. The sky was summer blue, clouds fluffed along on the eternal winds of the American west.

It’s good to be home.

 

YouTube videos of the Sandhills at Rowe Sanctuary.

LifeCam: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KD1whQg5cwg

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KD1whQg5cwg

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Srtb5nUcqIA

This Smithsonian article has a lot of fascinating info about Sandhill cranes.

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/500000-cranes-are-headed-nebraska-one-earths-greatest-migrations-180949816/?page=3

Comments

Beautiful

I loved reading about this, and I (Iowan back in the 1960s and 70s) think Iowa and Nebraska are just gorgeous, and I look forward to all my road trips in the Midwest! I've never seen the cranes but it's now on my "hope-to" list!
Mary Beth's picture

Thanks! I'm sitting here now, with the live camera on my phone, watching cranes take off!

Those pictures are extraordinary! As are the words. Thanks for sharing that cool experience.

https://www.facebook.com/glenarbor/videos/592456451230554/
Mary Beth's picture

That is so beautiful! Is that 3rd bird walking on ice? They like cold weather, but really, one would think they'd hang out in Florida another week or two... Thanks!

Awesomeness. I know a few things about those cranes - the noise they can make. I can’t imagine so many birds all in one place. Love the pictures and hearing the minute details of the trip. Smiled at “when Len and I fight we go silent”. The joys of traveling and a long day and finding your way. You really do have an awesome way with words. Mom and I were talking about that yesterday.
Mary Beth's picture

Awww. You just liked "Spring is cupcakes in your heart". Actually, so did I.

Sandhill cranes spend some of their time here in NM -- the big crowd is at Bosque del Apache Preserve neat Socorro, but there are also many who hang out in various open spaces around Albuquerque.
Mary Beth's picture

I should have told them that I know you!

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