Something’s fishy. Is it fate? Chance? God?

On the Platte River in central Nebraska I gather with friends from Chicago for the spring migration of the Sandhill Cranes. We arrive at our rented cabin just in time for the dusk fly-in ¼ mile down the road at the Audubon Rowe Viewing Stand on Elm Island Road. On the boardwalk-like stands we parrot the 100-plus birdwatchers as they steer their binoculars toward the goose-like honking in the sky. The bugling cries grow louder as the cranes start to

appear. Thousands of birds swirl in the overhead vortex down into the shallow river with their spindly feet splayed like landing gear on an airplane. It takes about two hours for the birds to land in their overnight roosts on the sandy Platte. We press our binoculars into our eye sockets until the very last bird nudges itself into place, snuggling alongside its friends in the water for the night.

Sandhill Crane

The long-beaked crimson-headed North American Sandhill Crane coexisted with dinosaurs, making it one of the world’s oldest bird species. For six weeks every spring, 600,000 of these five-foot tall grey beauties stop in Central Nebraska.

At dawn, Peter, Amy, Anne, Laurie and I make our way back to the riverbank for the lift-off. The cranes yak each other awake in one of nature’s most melodic cacophonies. They fly off in waves after socializing for a long stretch extending their time on the river to mid-morning. During the day they forage in the corn fields adjacent to our cabin, packing in calories for their long trip north.

Murmuring overtakes the viewing stand. The nature-loving brood from Illinois, California, New Jersey and  Florida grow collectively quiet to hear the cranes’ every cackle, trill and honk. Conversations spring up, “I was in New Jersey once. Drove out route 80 to 70 to 35 to the Atlantic Ocean.” Why do men always talk in numbered roads?

I overhear an Audubon tour guide whisper on down the line to her group, “right there, below that white roof at the river’s bend, there’s a whooping crane.” I focus my binoculars. There it is.

Whooping Crane

There are 500 whooping cranes in the wild in North America. And I just saw one.

I run to my pals at water’s edge repressing a squeal, “There’s a whooping crane!” We are silenced by the stark white ladle-shaped body of the whooper shuffling among the blue-grey hoards of Sandhills over a mile upriver. We report the news to strangers around us, lending our binoculars to latecomers, cooing when the big white bird stretches its wings in view of our naked eyes. I whisper to Peter and Amy, “if I see a river otter before we head for home you can throw me from the plane because my life will be complete.”

River Otters

An hour later Peter nudges me. “there’s an otter.” And so it is. Fishing around in the water, diving down and popping up, nature’s graceful pet latches onto a tangle of twigs and leaves, twirling around and around as it floats downstream under the bridge away from sight.

Yes, something happened on the Platte. Was it you, God? You, who are both fishy and honorable? You, the everlasting instant.


Inspired by the hymn “You, Lord, Are Both Lamb and Shepherd” (“Christus Paradox”) by Sylvia Dunstan (1955-1993) who drafted these words on a commuter bus “after a particularly bad day at the jail” where she was serving as chaplain:
“You, Lord, are both Lamb and Shepherd.
You, Lord, are both prince and slave.
You, peace-maker and sword-bringer
of the way you took and gave.
You, the everlasting instant;
you, whom we both scorn and crave.*

10 thoughts on “Something Fishy at the Spring Migration on the Platte River

  1. Wonderful. You bring back my memories of the Platte and Sandhill Cranes, magically experienced with Jane Renner Hood. We were looking for a spot to stop and had not found the correct viewing area. So, perhaps, shamelessly, Jane parked the car near a farm path and we walked along toward the river, following the sounds of the gathering Cranes. Night was closing in rapidly but we could make out the occasional form at a Crane landing in the neighboring field or swooping overhead toward the roosting place. Dark was complete by the time we came near the river’s edge, but we listened in awe. Cranes called their families home. A gentle breeze brought sounds of rippling water and Cranes spreading then folding wings. We eavesdropped on Crane to Crane conversations like beloved neighbors gossiping secrets over the backyard fence or welcoming children home from the playground, the murmurs spread up and down the river.
    We felt our way back to the car in the dark and in silence, all three of us holding tightly to the peace and awe inspired by the cranes’ tradition.
    Thanks for bringing back that magical experience.


  2. So much gratitude for making the trip with you and for stringing words together to capture the magic and the glory of this experience. No way I’d ever throw you from a plane, river otter or not.


  3. this one took my breath away. “You, the everlasting instant.” and i love that you make it a sacred rite to return to the Platte River. my mother has always talked about sandhills as if they are messengers from above…..


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