Ten million years – Sandhill cranes awe and inspire

Ten million years

The Platte River is wide and shallow. The perfect overnight spot for Sandhill cranes.

Sun shimmers on a river
one mile wide, three inches deep.
The Platte River stretches wide beneath the skies,
offering refuge to weary travelers,
as it’s done for 10 million years.

And the Sandhill cranes come.

From the broad expanses of Mexico and Texas
before there was a Mexico or Texas.
Choosing Nebraska before there was a Nebraska.
To rest and feed and dance and chatter.
Before searching out even broader expanses
in Canada and Siberia.

As they’ve done for ten million years.

Earlier we watched them in fields,
their feathers the gray of winter clouds,
eating to store power for the long flight north.

Sandhill cranes settle in after dark on the Platte River. Photo courtesy of Mary C. Gottschalk

The cranes dance with wings spread,
leaping in the air. Why?
For mating, for territory, for joy.
All the time chattering
to each other day and night,
their call the hoarse, throaty sound of frogs in a marsh.

Twilight beckons, and we line a bridge across the river,
searching the horizon, waiting, hoping.
Will they come here, tonight, to this stretch of river?
Will they bless us this one year out of ten million?

Smudges become faint lines in the sky.
Cranes leaving the fields where they spent the day,
to seek the shelter of the river,
safe from predators.

Cranes by the hundreds fly weave across the Nebraska skies.

Drifts of cranes, forming and re-forming
With all the permanence of smoke.
Line after line.
Groups of three, ten, a hundred, ten thousand.

The sunset so beautiful.
The river so perfect.
We will them to land.
But they do not.
This is not Disneyland, we say,
laughing to hide our disappointment.

Still the Sandhill cranes bless us
as they pass through this
narrow bit of the Heartland.
Fulfilling their life cycle.
Including us.
Migrating as they have
For 10 million years.


**The fossil record indicates Sandhill cranes have been migrating through Nebraska for 10 million years. This year, an estimated 500,000 cranes will make the trip. Modern farming has reduced wetland along the Platte River by 90 percent. We wondered how long abundant corn will be an adequate tradeoff for the wetlands.

Hungry & growing – A robin update

Mouths open, ready to eat!

Mouths open, ready to eat!

An experienced Mama Robin is very difficult to photograph. Her babies aren’t so easy to capture either. But I’m pleased to report that the baby robins in the downspout nest are making good progress.


As I passed by recently, Mama was dropping worms into wide-open mouths. As soon as I grabbed my camera, Mama flew off, probably hoping to attract me away from the nest. I snapped this picture before the babies got the word and retreated below the nest rim. You’ll need to look closely because the babies blend perfectly with the nest and the bricks behind them. Very good camouflage. There are at least two babies, maybe more, mouths up and wide open, ready to eat.


Mama doesn’t spend near as much time on the nest anymore. She spends more time shuttling back and forth, finding worms and bringing them back to fill hungry mouths. It helps, I’m sure, that the weather has grown modestly warmer. Mama’s food is more important to the babies than Mama’s body heat.


FYI, the windowsill nest is still in place but no one has returned to take up residence.


In other bird news, I looked up from reading the morning paper to see a Baltimore Oriole on the deck rail. My camera wasn’t handy, so I simply enjoyed the sight until the Oriole flew away. Then I quickly went for my camera and when I returned, there was an Indigo Bunting at the finch feeder.  I’ve never seen either Orioles or Indigo Buntings so close to the house.  In this picture, the Goldfinches are easy to see. Look to the bottom of the feeder and you’ll see the bright blue of the Bunting.


Two Goldfinches and an Indigo bunting

Two Goldfinches and an Indigo bunting

A bit of trivia courtesy of The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds, “Indigo Buntings have no blue pigment; they are actually black, but the diffraction of light through the structure of the features makes them appear blue.”


I love this time of year. So many birds migrating offer a continuous show! 


Other Robin posts:
Life & Death in the Wild Kingdom

How to spend waiting time? A robin, writing update
And then there were four

A bird’s eye view