Bucket lists tend to focus one’s thoughts.
After reaching a certain age, it’s time to take stock and be sure that anything important that you want to do is not ignored or forgotten.
Seeing the crane migration probably isn’t important on a global scale, but to my husband Dale and me, it was something that had been on the fringes of our minds for a while. This year we looked at each other, climbed in our trusty Toyota Tundra and followed the birds north.
Sandhill Cranes and Whooping Cranes normally winter along the Gulf coast, from Texas into northern Mexico, although some intrepid adventurers brave the Oklahoma winters. This year, some of the cranes stayed in Nebraska, a very unusual occurrence.
From Valentine’s Day until mid-April, these stately and beautiful birds head north, most over the central part of the United States and some along the eastern flyway. The birds who follow the central path stop for three weeks in Nebraska on the Platt River to rest and regain body fat. Wave after wave of the birds come, filling the sky and cleaning the fields of waste corn. After about three weeks, the birds wake up one morning, test the thermal currents that will ease their trip, and then responding to some kind of crane logic, sweep into the air, form their distinctive “V” formation, and head north.
Crane watching brings tourists and bird watchers to Grand Island, Kearney and North Platt to listen to the cranes’ distinctive yodeling music and watch the stately creatures grazing in the fields. The tourists and bird watchers also come, hoping to see a Whooping Crane, still one of the rarest birds in America.
We stopped at a Nature Center just a few miles out of Grand Island, Nebraska to get information and perhaps some tips on good crane-viewing back roads. As we left, a man followed us out and said, “Would you like to see a Whooping Crane?”
Being savvy city dwellers, Dale and I looked at each other. But the man was alone in his red jeep and looked harmless, and who could pass up seeing a member of an endangered species?
The Whooping Cranes came within a heartbeat of extinction with only 21 left in the wild in 1941. They have teetered back from the brink, but nothing is certain for them now. As of 2011, there were an estimated 437 birds in the wild and around 165 in captivity. About half of the wild whooping cranes follow this central flyway through Nebraska. In other words, the chance of seeing a Whooping Crane is very close to the old ‘slim to none’ percentage. However, Dale and I are optimists. We pulled out of the Nature Center and followed the man.
Our friend led us down several back roads and finally stopped at the east side of a large field. Far, far off in the distance, we could just make out a small white dot. The man showed us a smaller road and a pump house where we might get closer, then he said goodbye and drove off, possibly to his job at the Grand Island, Nebraska Post Office. His kindness was absolutely the best part of the trip.
Dale took our camera and stealthily made his way to the little well house. My lens unfortunately was not a long lens so the shots still showed only a minuscule white dot. However, thanks to the editing software on my computer, below is one of the photos.
There are a number of efforts underway to protect and increase the Whooping Crane population, the most interesting (to me at least) being Operation Migration. The cranes are hatched in Florida, taken to Minnesota and then led by an ultralight aircraft on their first migration from Wisconsin to their winter quarters in Florida. When the time comes in the spring for their northward migration, they are able to make the trip back to Wisconsin on their own. Wikepedia has a nice article on the Whooping Crane with links to several sites.
So our bucket list is one item shorter. We’ve watched the sky turn black with the wings of these majestic creatures and listened to their song. I would wish for each of you an experience as rich and beautiful.