Aerial Serengeti

The flights of snow geese form irregular, thread-like chevrons stretching to the horizon

By Rob Breeding

I’m obsessed with cranes. My treatment-defying condition developed sometime in the 1980s, when I still lived in Southern California.

I recall watching a documentary about crane migration on the television, probably PBS. Footage included flocks of birds, thousands of them, wading in the Platte River in Nebraska. An hourglass-shaped graphic suggested sandhill cranes from across the U.S. congregated every year along a short section of the Platte in central Nebraska. Once refueled on waste corn, they made their way north, fanning out across the tundra of Canada and Alaska, where pairs raise single chicks during the summer.

I vowed to someday travel to Nebraska in the spring so I could witness this epic migration firsthand. Someday, I’d escape the urban rat race and travel to a wild place like Nebraska (ha ha) and experience untamed nature.

Last week I finally received the therapy I’ve long needed as I stood along the Platte River, under a sky filled with birds.

I’ve seen plenty of cranes since my PBS epiphany three decades ago. My first were a trio I spotted along a small river in Alaska when I was on assignment for a fishing magazine. The parents were attending to a still flightless youngster, and the folks in the second boat of our flotilla saw the birds too. That was bad news for the cranes as that boat carried a film crew for an outdoors television show. Confronted with nature, the crew chased that young bird for a half hour, recording B-roll, while the parents protested desperately just above.

The film team avoided eye contact when they returned to their boat. Editing allowed them to remove evidence of the terror they inflicted on nature prior to broadcast.

Such behavior is seriously frowned upon in Nebraska, where sandhill cranes share a spot as a state icon along with author Willa Cather and a cornhusker, whatever that is. Ethical viewing behavior is stressed, the primary rule being stay with your car on the road. There’s no crane hunting season in Nebraska, so if you want to set your teeth into the ribeye of the sky, you’ll have to get your hunter-gatherer thing on elsewhere.

I’ve seen plenty of cranes since leaving the rat race and moving to the Rockies, but nothing quite prepared me for the spectacle along the Platte. When the cranes are on the move, birds fill the sky like black confetti in a ticker-tape parade, except the festive music you hear is no brass band but the confetti itself. The birds are raucous, and the noise comes at you from every direction. It’s almost as claustrophobic as it is joyful.

The crane’s sonic trill also reminds me they are surviving dinosaurs. The cacophony of an incoming flock probably sounds like the last thing a protoceratops heard before a pack of velociraptors moved in for lunch.

Cranes aren’t the only migrants making hay in Nebraska’s cornfields. Geese crowd the river in numbers dwarfing the more charismatic sandhills. Despite sharing the same space, the birds don’t mingle. Cranes fly at lobby level, their flights barely skimming the tops of the black walnut forests that hug the river. Snow geese, on the other hand, like the view from the penthouse. You see them up high, in V-formation, flying east or west following the Platte.

The snows seem more businesslike, constantly going somewhere as compared to the more disorganized cranes. The flights of snows form irregular, thread-like chevrons stretching to the horizon. In those moments the calls of the migrating birds grow so loud the sound eclipses everything else: the gurgle of the river; the din from I-80 just beyond the tree line; the occasional farm tractor putt-putting across a barnyard.

These birds aren’t to be ignored. No bird pleads its fate as urgently as snow geese on the wing.

Rob Breeding is editor of www.mthookandbullet.com.

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