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.
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.
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.”
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.*