Walking across my backyard the other day, I heard an unmistakable sound overhead. I knew immediately what it was. I had heard it many times while hunting pheasants in southwestern Minnesota and South Dakota. I had heard it on brisk March mornings along the Platte River in Nebraska.
Sandhill cranes on the move.
Once you’ve heard the call, you never forget it. It’s a rattling bugle, say some birding guides. Duluth ornithologist and author Laura Erickson describes the call as a “guttural, weirdly trilling trumpeting” in her “Field Guide to Birds of Minnesota.”
I looked up and saw the loose ribbon of birds heading west — likely on their southward migration, perhaps making a course correction to avoid flying over the cold waters of Lake Superior.
I watched until the cranes were finally swallowed up by the sky. My fall was complete.
Many of us have our touchstone species, I suppose — white-tailed deer, moose, chickadees, spring peepers, whatever. In most cases, I think, our fondness for a particular species goes far beyond the critter itself. It’s an almost spiritual connection to a specific place, a season, perhaps an indelible memory. One glance at such a creature, or the sound of its call, is enough to transport us across the miles and years.
Perhaps you, too, have made the mid-March pilgrimage to central Nebraska, where more than a half-million sandhill cranes stage on the shallow Platte River. They gather there on their long journey north and stay for a few weeks, feeding mostly on waste grain in fields along the river.
At dusk, they return to the river in clangorous congregations, dropping from the sky onto the Platte’s sandbars to roost for the night. Their strange, ratchety calls intermingle until they become one continuous, shrill din. When you think the sandbars are standing-room-only, more cranes arrive, long legs a-dangle, and somehow find space among those already there.
This goes on until the dusk thickens and the last birds have come in, until you can barely make out the dark shapes of the birds against the sandbars.
I have not seen the wildebeest migration of the Serengeti, but I have seen the cranes return to the Platte in March.
One evening, after the 12-hour drive from Duluth to the Platte, Phyllis and I arrived just at dusk. A brilliant full moon hung over the farm country, illuminating the countryside. We got out of the car at a country bridge where we saw others gathered. We stretched and listened.
Cranes were still rising from their feeding in the fields, headed back to the river to roost. The cool evening air was full of their calling.
And then we saw them — group after group passing before the just-risen moon. Single lines of cranes. Great V’s of cranes. Pairs of cranes. The memory is etched in my gray matter forever. We stood there, Phyllis and I, in rapt silence.
We watched, along with birders from across the country, until it seemed the fields had emptied. And still more came, flying across the face of the moon.
So, when the croaky trill of the sandhills reached me in the backyard this week, when I looked up and saw that wavy column of gray birds, I was carried away to the Platte River.
Maybe it’s time to go back again.