Plains Folk

Sandhill Cranes

As I write, on the northern plains, loose V’s of snow geese fill the sky with cackling confusion, some headed north, others bouncing back south from continuing cold in Manitoba. Companies of tundra swans are in the area, stoking up in stubblefields. A few mallards also squat in the soaked fields.

So far, no sandhill cranes; they are later comers, much anticipated. I’ll hear them before I see them, it will take some searching of the skies to espy them, and when I do, it will be transporting. The cranes of spring evoke episodes of boyhood in central Kansas, specifically hot wires.

Early spring was a time for putting the cows on winter-wheat pasture, which required running electric fences—rolling out the smooth wire, spliced here and there from previous use; spacing the posts; stretching the wire and clipping it to insulators. It was not exciting work, and the cranes were welcome diversion.

As it is welcome to read this description: “Flap-flying in wide circles and then carried aloft on rising thermals, the cranes mount the skies all the while calling, perhaps to stimulate others to join them and perhaps to maintain cohesion in the flock. At a height of several thousand feet, and apparently in response to prevailing crosswinds, they stop flapping and glide. After a period of gliding and loss of altitude, the flock will circle and flap-fly to regain altitude and then glide again.”

That’s from a gorgeous new book, On Ancient Wings: The Sandhill Cranes of North America, by Michael Forsberg, a photographer from Lincoln, Nebraska. The photos are stunning; the text is compelling; even the papers are beautiful, although not so beautiful as circle-gliding cranes glittering in the blue sky.

Forsberg describes cranes in the corners of North America, but the heart of the book is in the heart of America, the Great Plains, where we witness the migration of a half-million lesser sandhills. In spring they stage massively along the Platte River, in Nebraska; in fall they stage along the international border, mainly in Saskatchewan and North Dakota. Their nesting regions are arctic and subarctic; their wintering grounds are on the southern high plains.

An ancient species, sandhill cranes have survived and flourished on the modern plains, even taking advantage of the changes wrought by field agriculture. The grainfields of the plains are vital to their migrations and to their winter survival. On the other hand, the requirements of agriculture reduce wetlands on the northern plains and deplete the Platte River, threatening the water environments also essential to the cranes. It’s a tender balance, one worthy of husbandry.

Forsberg journeys to the Yukon-Kuskokwim River delta to photograph cranes in their tundra nesting grounds. He intercepts their fall migration in central Alaska, at Denali National Park, and again at Semans, Saskatchewan. He stalks the cranes on their wintering grounds at Muleshoe, Texas.

And Forsberg lingers with the cranes on the Platte. “In nature you experience moments you never forget,” he writes, “experiences that connect and forever bind you to an animal, a place, and even your maker.” Here the birds concentrate on about twenty sites, mainly between Lexington and Grand Island, before mobilizing north.

There are too many sublime images in the book to treat in a brief review, but the one most compelling to me is spread across pages 128-29: thermal-gliding cranes wheeling in the blue. I’m watching for them.


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