It’s late in the evening in March on the Platte River, bone-chilling cold in the viewing blind, where I stand alone.  I am in the center of what many call “fly over” country, about to witness one of the greatest scenes in nature.  It is one of my top four, but don’t take my word for it: Jane Goodall lists it in her top ten.

I hear the whining noise that sounds like a jet engine, but this sound is a lot closer.  It is the sound of thousands–no, tens of thousands–of Lesser Sandhill Cranes, coming into the river for the night.  Fly over country, indeed.  I am in fly over country; the birds are flying over the blind, in circles around the blind, at the blind, at me.  I am freezing cold, shivering with thrill, holding the video camera, exclaiming words I don’t usually say:

“I have never seen anything like this in my life.  The sky is black with birds.”

It is not often I post before I have completed what I want to say, but crane season is now, and I want to get some pictures up and some videos as well.

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Platte evening

Platte evening

I’ve been in the viewing blinds 90 times, alone, with other clients, which I once was, and with clients whom I now guide to the blinds.  I have been in the blinds in 80 and 15 degree weather, thunderstorms and snow, gorgeous sunsets and with a biting wind that only Nebraska can dish out in March.  There is not one single time I have failed to learn something, about the birds, people, or myself in the blinds.

I am proud to be a Rowe Sanctuary volunteer.

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Rowe was established forty years ago, now having a lovely visitor’s center, made of recycled wood from Nebraska schools, insulated with straw, and microphones to pipe in the sound of the cranes at night, which few hear, except in scattered farm houses along the river.  There are other buildings to house volunteers, with all sorts of tools and vehicles.  They now have a Crane Cam, too, which once I help put up, far upstream, so that when one “runs” the camera at night, the individual is showing the entire world the sight.


A big reason why I volunteer. It is for the children, so they will learn to love nature and the beauty of the world. Tower Blind.

Far more briefly than what I tell people, the cranes winter in the southern states and migrate to Arctic Canada, Alaska, and Siberia.  I have seen them in Bettles, north of the Arctic Circle. They do their final staging for their migration in the southern bend of the Platte.  They cannot perch in trees, so they live on the ground, in the air, or in shallow water, which keeps them safe from predators at night.  During the day, they feed on waste corn primarily in the fields near the river.  They go to the river at night for safety.  They gain 15% of their body weight in this period of time, the Platte’s becoming the largest single bar in the world for Sandhill Cranes.

Crane Moon

Crane Moon, 2010

From my bed, on the floor in the visitor’s center at night, I hear the cranes before I drop off into a brief sleep, for I will be awake at 4:30, getting Rowe ready for the 6 a.m. blind tours.  I may go as a guide, I may go to help a guide, but I will go.  The morning is different, because one arrives in darkness, hearing only cranes, or sometimes nothing, complete quiet, itself a rarity in this country today.  As the river wakes up, the cranes start to move.  Some “dance,” better than the stage, one lady told me, and they do it for courtship, pair bonding, and likely for fun.  Occasionally, all the birds leave at once, and one can see 25,000 in the air simultaneously.

Platte sunset.  So many nights I never thought I would see a good sunset.  So many nights I was wrong.

Platte sunset. So many nights I never thought I would see a good sunset. So many nights I was wrong.

The evenings are when the birds return.  They may stage in fields and wait until after dark.  One evening, I told a group we would leave a few minutes late.  “They are nearby in the field over there,” I said.  Two minutes later, several thousand erupted before us.  It made the tour.

large group on river

large group on river

The colors at sunset are remarkable

The colors at sunset are remarkable

Birds and setting sun.

Birds and setting sun.

nother evening, I counted approximately 10,000 in 30 minutes. coming from one direction.  I’ve seen two flocks of 10,000 meet overhead.  I cannot describe the sight or the sound.   They come across the Sun, too.



When I became a neurologist, I learned that birds have “basal ganglia” brains, their behavior programmed, just like our walking, so we don’t think about it.  Last year, however, I learned the avian brain is configured differently.  The same neurotransmitters are present, and that was a tipoff maybe I could deal with my cognitive conflict: how can a bird with automatic behavior may appear to have fun.

The answer lay in the fact that birds can learn.  This has been seen and documented by a couple in Fairbanks, Alaska, who see the same pair of cranes return each year.  They see the cranes teach their young to fly.  A young crane who died was visited by the parents and sibling, who pulled grass over the body.  I don’t know what that means, and I am not even going to speculate, but I don’t think this is basal ganglia behavior.

Pair close by.  The red patch is featherless.  It becomes larger, should the bird be angry or aroused in any way.

Pair close by. The red patch is featherless. It becomes larger, should the bird be angry or aroused in any way.

I think my learning neurology forty years ago assumed things were later questioned.  Others may disagree with me, but they are disagreeing with a human neurologist who has seen pictures of how the avian brain is constructed, and has left, shaking his head, saying, “That is why they look like they are having fun.  They are.”

I have also learned how much fun I have, when I am at Rowe.  I work 17 hour days, occasionally with breaks to upload pictures or talk to people who visit–except that is supposedly work.  I clean toilets, drive ATVs to take people to the special photography blinds, expensive, but these are booked far in advance, and nobody ever complains about being cooped up in a 4 x 8 piece of plywood over night with a 4 foot high roof, 4 windows, and a chamber pot, not allowed to leave for any reason until morning pick up.  I’ve brought these folks back to the sanctuary, dirty, sleepy, and happy, with stories of what they have seen.  I’d be jealous, but I have seen most of this, too.  I am happy for them.

Tours run morning and evening, about 25-30 in a blind.  All tours are different, and sometimes a two minute period makes the day, or the week; the video I uploaded was 2 minutes, after about 2 hours of watching a pleasant river.

I meet volunteers from around Nebraska, with a few from neighboring states.  These people teach me common sense, how to work with tools, how to be a better person.  We don’t always agree, but we do whatever we can for each other.  Seldom have I had this experience anywhere else.  Last year, a 75 year-old woman taught me how to back a trailer.  She had been doing it since she was 8.

The cranes?  During the day, I have stopped driving the pick-up with the Buffalo or Hall County license plate, gotten outside, and looked up, sun reflecting off their wings of cranes, soaring at 500, 1000, or 2000 feet.  In late spring, they rise like a giant beehive, waiting to catch the south wind at 1600 meters, spread their wings, and as one volunteer put it, “Godspeed,” as they go to the Canadian Arctic, Alaska, or even Siberia to nest.   I’ve seen them migrate south over the Boundary Waters, and Hilt, California, the most northerly city in the state.

The few weeks a half million spend on the river are beyond compare.  I never tell people what they will see except “Cranes, plural.”  It is not my show, it is the birds’ show.  Almost everybody likes it, a few are changed a bit, and a lucky few, like me, are forever transformed, looking forward to the special time of year when as Paul Johnsgard puts it, the season, the river, and the bird all come into conjunction.

Spring, the Platte, and the Lesser Sandhill Crane.  All are needed.  All are sufficient.


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