NEAR WOOD RIVER, Neb. – I should have brought ear plugs.
Wearing ear plugs just makes sense when you’re going to sleep on the Platte River in Nebraska in the middle of more than half a million sandhill cranes, famous for their distinctive and near constant squawking. Truth is, I intended to have plugs with me. I simply forgot to pack them before I left Minneapolis for the eight-hour drive to the southwest.
While this early April trip was my fifth time seeing the cranes as they migrate through the central part of this state, it was my first spending all night among the birds.
Typically, visitors observe cranes from a handful of blinds along the river operated by two nonprofits, the Rowe Sanctuary in Gibbon and the Crane Trust in the city of Wood River. A person chooses a morning blind and gets to watch the sandhills leave the Platte to feed in fields, or picks an evening blind to witness them returning to roost in shallow parts of the river overnight, where they are safe from predators.
Either is a sublime experience, but in recent years I have found the blinds too crowded. At times more than 30 viewers are elbow to elbow in a blind, vying for window space. Other viewing options, such as public platforms near a handful of bridges, are to me a bit too far from where the cranes normally roost.
While the nonprofits do have blinds, they were all booked by the time I was ready to make my plans. So for this trip I found one — essentially a plywood shack about 7-by-7 — built and rented by local farmer Chad Gideon on a 300-acre property his family owns along the river. For $300 I had the place to myself, with an opportunity to see the birds coming in at night and going out in the morning.
There are always plenty of birds to see at this time of year. During the week of my visit, a record 659,000 cranes were estimated along the river, fattening up on waste corn as they stop off during their travel from the southern United States and Mexico to their summer homes in Canada, Alaska and Siberia. They begin appearing in mid-February and are gone by mid-April.
What I didn’t know until shortly before my travels was that the blind I rented was located on an island. To reach it I had to wrestle on a pair of chest waders and traverse the flood-swollen river. I thought that might mean splashing through a few yards of river, but it was something more. To stay out of deeper water, I had to take a circuitous route to the island, crossing a half-dozen channels in the river and the sandbars that separated them.
Gideon provided me with what he called “a boat” — it was an ice fishing sled — that I loaded late on the afternoon of April 1 with my camping gear and photo equipment. I then floated it across the water and dragged it behind me on the sandbars.
With the current running strong because of the high water, and each step a slog because of the soft river sand sucking in my boots, I had to tread carefully. I kept a firm grip on the pulk. It took me nearly half an hour to reach the island, which was about the size of a football field.
After setting up my tripod in front of one of the openings in the blind, I settled in to wait for the show. Like all birds, cranes are woefully ignorant to a photographer’s desire for them to perform in optimal lighting conditions, so they began congregating on the river only after the sun dropped below the horizon. As always, a couple of cranes serving as scouts checked the spot to determine if the landing zone was appropriate and if there were any predators. Once the all-clear signal went out, dozens of other cranes joined them. Then hundreds, then thousands, turning the sky black. I shot photos until the light was gone and the cranes seemed to be settled (but still bugling).
Sandhill cranes are hunted in most states, so they can be a bit skittish. I was careful to make sure the blind was closed tightly before I clicked on a flashlight and rolled out my sleeping bag. The blind barely muffled the birds, but a storm with rain and high winds blew through and they quieted down a bit, at least enough that I could eventually get to sleep amid the cacophony.
I crawled out of my bag an hour before dawn and made a cup of coffee on my camping stove to warm up — the temperature had been around 60 degrees when I arrived on the island but dropped below freezing as I slept. I then carefully opened a shutter facing the east. The sunrise was obscured by clouds, which meant no sweet orange sky, but I could view the cranes as more than just silhouettes (photographers can find the good and the bad in any conditions).
In front of me were roosting cranes. Everywhere, within eyeshot, was filled with birds. Gideon later told me there were as many as 100,000 birds on the water that morning. The scene was breathtaking. Before long, the multitude began to stir. Birds flapped their wings, danced, pranced, called, and in small groups and large begin taking off for the fields. Slowly, the river began to empty. It took nearly two hours for them all to disperse, and at last it was quiet. It was a little past 9 a.m. I’d taken 600 photos.
All that remained was for me to pack up my gear, don my waders, work my way back to the mainland and wait for Gideon to pick me up. Halfway over, though, I realized I really had no clue how I had come over the evening before. I stood on a sandbar and looked down the river to a small opening in the trees on the other side of the water, having a hard time believing that’s where I had come from. I had just persuaded myself to go straight across — “the shortest distance between two points” you know — when Gideon materialized on the riverbank and waved me off. “It’s too deep there,” he said. “Go further down.” If I had plunged ahead, I realized, I would have taken a plunge.
I said a silent prayer of thanks for the timing of his appearance. My perfect outing would not be ruined.
Perfect … well, except for the ear plugs.
Jeff Moravec is a freelance writer and photographer from Minneapolis. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.