Prior to the experience, my knowledge of the sandhill cranes was limited to Michael Forsberg photos and people telling me that I simply had to see them. I had never even heard of them until I came to Nebraska, where these birds are considered magical and special– an annual marvel that arrive at the closing of winter and the first breaths of spring. People from all over the world come to see these birds every year along the Platte River, to witness their strange and whimsical ways. In California, rarely did I ever see birds migrate in such vast numbers, assuming that I saw any at all. It was a sight to behold, everything that I had heard and imagined.
At 6AM in the morning, I followed other bird watchers in the dark to a crane-viewing blind at Rowe Sanctuary in Kearney. I became a little concerned; our tour guide admitted that the evenings were usually more unpredictable and exciting than the mornings– but I’m glad to say that that AM proved to be an exception. Upon entering the blind, which was almost pitch black, I looked out onto the river to see hundreds of dark shapes in front of the blind, gently breathing in the night. I’m no birder, but I assume they were sleeping with their heads tucked behind their wings that way. Our loud creeping did not seem to stir them. As photographer, I impatiently waited for the sun to peak over the horizon.
Out of the blue, the birds took off. I had no idea what startled them, or if they just felt like flying. Sometimes, it seemed that way. The birds flew in large fleets, in and out of each other, up and down the river. Their unified flight created a great noise, almost like the sound of applaud in a stadium. They did this all morning, and it was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.
I was a little frustrated because the birds in front of me flew before I got any decent light. It was also a challenge to shoot out of a rigid square hole in the blind. Ironically, my better photos came from walking back to the car.
I like the photo below, but I’m bummed that I didn’t get the top bird’s entire wing. Oh well. I’ll get them next time. These birds flew right over me, and they were stunning.
If you haven’t seen the cranes yet, you should go this week! I heard someone say that seeing the cranes should be a requirement of all Nebraskans. I completely agree. If I could go see them within 3 months of living here, anyone can.