Thursday, March 26, 2015

Thursday's Reflection: Sandhill Crane Watching

I don't have a Bucket List, for to me such a list implies doing something for the sake of having done it. Check--did that. Check--did that one, too. But that's just me. However, there are places I would love to visit and things I would love to experience, feeling that in someway those places and events would resonate with my soul. This past weekend was one of those opportunities, something I have wanted to experience for several years-- a chance to see the sandhill cranes as they rested and refueled in Nebraska's Platte River Valley during their spring migration from Northern Mexico and Texas to their breeding grounds in Canada, Alaska, and Siberia. Thousands of them. As many as 60,000 in one area alone during March and early April.

A Few Facts
According to a brochure from one of the nature centers near Kearney, Nebraska, sandhill cranes have come to that area of Nebraska for centuries. In fact, fossils of sandhill crane wing bones dating back nine million years have been discovered in Nebraska. Sandhill cranes are considered living dinosaurs. 

They come to this area because of the abundance of waste grain in corn fields which allows them to build up depleted fat reserves needed for migration. Also, the Platte River is narrow and shallow with sandbars that provide safety for them at night or as the brochure says "secluded loafing areas for rest, bathing, and courting." The cranes enjoy their R&R in the area for about three weeks. 

Like all cranes, sandhill cranes mate for life, and the females typically lay two eggs per year but usually only one chick survives the first year. A group of cranes is called a sedge or a siege, according to our Google expert, granddaughter Maren who was with us on this trip. 

Our Journey
Our home in Madison was near a nature preserve, Pheasant Run Conservatory, which was home to many sandhill cranes, and most non-winter mornings when I went for a walk I could hear their haunting, other-worldly call. We often saw them in the skies or gathered in corn fields or along Pheasant Creek. For some reason it was always thrilling. I could feel an inner vibration when I saw or heard them and hoped someday to see them in even larger numbers.

This was the year to do just that. Bruce's sister Sue, who lives in Omaha and is an avid photographer, invited us to make the trip with her. We packed our binoculars and boots and umbrellas in case of wet weather, and I did some internet searches about where to go and what to expect. We invited Maren to join us since she was on spring break and we headed to Nebraska.

The first time we saw masses of cranes in the air we all let out our own version of a whoop. I must admit there had been some momentary trepidation --what if we don't see any or if we only see a few? Well, from that moment on we saw cranes everywhere --on the ground and in the air. We stopped along country roads, and Sue took lots of photographs (Thanks, Sue!), and the rest of us marveled at how many there were, clustered in the fields snacking on all the leftover corn. Oh, and by the way, we certainly weren't the only ones--everywhere we went, including the nature centers we visited to learn more, we saw other crane watchers, just as dazzled by the sights as we were. 

In the evening at dusk the sandhills vacate the fields and bunch together on sandbars in the Platte River, a stunning and astonishing sight we were told, and we certainly wanted to experience that. The first night we went to a state park we had seen on a map as a good viewing sight and stood on a bridge over the water, along with  a hundred or so other hopeful souls. As the sun set, we saw group after group of cranes fly above us, but none landed where we were. Cameras were ready, and for the most part the expectant crowd was hushed as if in a place of worship. We were waiting for the ritual to begin.  

Some, however, expressed irritation that what was supposed to happen didn't. One person reminded those of us around her that dusk was scheduled for 7:47 and the sandhills should be here by now. They were there, but just not landing there. I wondered what made her think cranes should be "on demand" similar to watching our favorite television shows whenever we want, "on demand." 

Others seemed more interested in socializing, and we learned a lot about how a mother and her daughter happened to be in Nebraska, looking at grad school for the daughter. We heard about traffic and weather in the Washington DC area where they lived and how they didn't know anything about cranes (Duh!) but had heard this was something they should do as long as they were in the area. They seemed like friendly, bright people, but at the same time were not attuned to the reverence of the moment. I yearned for silence and needed to reach deep within to create my own sanctuary oblivious to the manmade distractions. 

Yes, I would have loved to see the cranes swooping down to their nighttime monastery, but that was not to be. Eventually, we all left the bridge and hiked back to our cars. At least we saw them in silhouette against the night sky. A sight in itself to behold. 

The Next Night
We studied the maps and inquired about other good viewing locations and off we went, grateful we had another chance. We gathered on another bridge, not quite as secluded, but where others had assembled, although fewer people and not as clustered. We began to see and hear the cranes lifting from nearby cornfields and we watched strings of them in the sky. Sue had wandered to another bridge close by and discovered a small group of cranes on a sandbar in the distance. We changed our position and were rewarded for our patience. String after string of cranes joined the first group on a sandbar. Each time there was adjustment of those who had already landed--the more the merrier they seemed to say. Nevermind that we were spying on them. They knew what to do.

The sun set and so did their haunting calls. Like a baby talking to itself in a crib, the birds quieted themselves as well. It is time to rest. It was not easy to pull myself away, even when I could no longer really see them. I had felt a sense of the liminal--moments of being in-between time. Not past. Not future or even present, but all time. Not here or there, but everywhere. This was a time outside the ordinary and part of something greater. I felt connected to the Universe, but at the same time so inconsequential in the bigger picture. 

In a way this was a pilgrimage, for it was a time of engaging with life, letting life beyond my own being and the lives of those I love enter me. I felt wonder. I felt restored.

An Invitation
At what times in your life have you felt wonder. When have you felt out of time and place? I would love to know.

Photo credits: Sue Kelly

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