THE MORNING THE PLATTE RIVER DANCED


It had been a good week on the Platte River during the spring migration of Sandhill cranes. The numbers were remarkably large for the date, probably in no small part due to unfavorable weather preventing the birds from continuing their migration north; instead of warm southerly winds, central Nebraska was getting strong northerly blasts from Manitoba.  The price I and the clients were paying for viewing were exceptionally cold mornings and evenings in the open viewing blinds, with single digit wind chills requiring five layers of clothing in order to stand for over 2 hours.

It only hurt when we warmed up afterwards.

The only issue I had was when I seemed to be the only person present who hadn’t seen a Whooping crane.  Granted, the numbers of these birds are small, under 400 worldwide in the wild, and they were usually in Kansas this time of year, but many had seen them on the Sanctuary, and some who came into the Visitor’s Center were saying they had seen some nearby in the fields as well.

One night, I operated the Crane Cam, which involved my using an iPad to run a camera a mile upriver.  There was a lot of delay from the instruction to move the camera and its subsequent position, but despite that, I was able to put the camera on three Whooping cranes in the river at dusk.  That was nice, but it was still virtual seeing; anybody in the world could have seen it, or at least the 1973 people who had logged on.  

I try to be philosophical in that rare sightings in nature are just that: rare.  I believe that if one is in the right place at the right time often enough, something good will happen.  And if it doesn’t, I prefer not to hear about it from those who were successful.  I waited.

The morning after the Crane Cam, I was back out in a real blind and was fairly sure there were still whoopers in the river.  I set up a spotting scope and within 30 seconds saw three white dots—nearly a mile distant—moving, and in one instance dancing.  I was happy, finally seeing them.  I had never seen whoopers closeup, and I hoped maybe that might happen, although I wasn’t really expecting it.  Low expectations are a good philosophical approach to viewing wildlife.

The next morning, as I drove into the Visitor’s Center at about 10, another volunteer flagged me down.  She was an expert birder, one who frequently had seen whoopers, in no small part because she was often in the right place at the right time.  Experts find a way to do that.  She came to the driver’s window and whispered somewhat conspiratorially to me:

“Mike, a half mile east of the Lowell Bridge, on the river.”  I didn’t have to ask what.

I did what she later said one had to do in those instances.  Go.  Don’t wait. I drove forward, did a U turn, all while computing exactly where a half mile east of the Lowell Bridge was.  Three miles later, driving along the Platte, I spotted four large white birds ahead in the river, obvious that they were whoopers given their size and color, along with two parked cars along the road, a sign in Crane Country in spring that whoopers are nearby.  The rules for viewing cranes are to be quiet, stay in the car, and don’t do anything stupid.  The birds are protected by law from harassment, and they burn needed calories unnecessarily should they have an unplanned flight.

I was amazed.  They were huge.  The head was black on the crown, red on the sides, the legs black, the birds a foot taller than Sandhills, with an absolutely striking white body.  I took some pictures, stared, told myself this might never happen again, rolled up the window, backed up, and quietly drove away.  

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I got to the right place at the right time by knowing the right person and being at the parking lot at exactly the right time.  Five minutes earlier or later, I would have not known about the cranes.  I would later see two more on the Sanctuary, and a man running the gate at night, making sure only people booked for tours came on the Sanctuary, saw a whooper land in a field about 50 yards from him.  It was a good year for us in Nebraska.

The second to last day in the morning viewing blinds I was still looking for those cranes.  I didn’t expect to see any, but I enjoyed observing more than ten thousand Sandhills on the river in front of me, open to looking at whatever the river offered.  I was watching right at the special moment when there is perfect light; sunlight’s reflection off the cranes turned them into flying copper and the browns of the prairie grasses became pure gold.  I was watching the birds dancing across the river, out in front of me, bowing, hopping over each other, everywhere, running towards each other and away, circling each other, pairs and groups dancing, when I suddenly saw, both out of the corner of my eyes and in front of me, the entire river’s appearing to be rising and falling as if it were one big living wave of birds.  The wave was there—so remarkable, so beautiful, so unexpected—and then it was gone, lasting perhaps two seconds.

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Pure copper

I’m analytical, but it would be 24 hours before I tried to figure out what exactly happened, and frankly, the spiritual explanation seemed better at the time and right now, if you really want to know. The river rose and fell for a couple of seconds.  I saw it happen, even if nobody else in the blind commented on it.  Maybe I saw it because I was looking from the right window, or maybe I needed to have had a lot of time looking at cranes: I’ve been in the blinds over one hundred thirty times over 10 years.

Whatever happened, I was clearly at the right place at the right time.  Paul Johnsgard, the famous crane researcher and writer, wrote eloquently of a magical time when the season (spring), the river (Platte) and the bird (Lesser Sandhill crane) came into conjunction.  To his words, I would add a brief conjunction of cranes dancing in so many places that at some point all the dancing would briefly—if only for two seconds—be in unison.  One could be at the right place at the right time, but one additionally had to be ready for what was going to happen.  It was a matter of knowing what was likely to happen at the same time keeping one’s mind open to anything else that might be unexpected.

I left the Platte this, my tenth season, thrilled to having seen several Whooping cranes close up. It was a “finally” moment, and I told myself I may never see this again.  But I saw it once.

I expected that my most vivid memory of the trip would be seeing whoopers close up.  But it wasn’t.  My most memorable moment was two seconds one morning when I saw the Platte River dance.   

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3 Responses to “THE MORNING THE PLATTE RIVER DANCED”

  1. Steve Nash Says:

    Absolutely magical. I’ve got to start getting to the right places again.

  2. Mike Says:

    I thought this would be my tenth and last year, a good run. The weather was really cold, but the cranes and the people were great. I am reconsidering in the face of fairly compelling evidence.

  3. denisehelmkay Says:

    Your words made an image in my mind of the river dancing. Thank you

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