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The Great Migration

Dr. Jane Goodall

Photograph by Thomas D. Mangelsen

Dr. Jane Goodall watches cranes as the sun sets over the Platte River.

Every spring for the past 15 years, I have spent some days in Nebraska with photographer Tom Mangelsen and a few close friends at his cabin that nestles on the banks of the Platte River. This is when the sandhill cranes interrupt their migration to feed on corn left over from the harvest, building up fat reserves for the long journey to their breeding grounds in the Arctic.

Those are magical days. I never tire of watching the cranes fly back against the spectacular prairie sunsets to their roosts along the wide, shallow river. They’re an ancient species, and their voices carry the memory of the world as it was. The cranes circle, then seem to float down, long legs dangling. They settle, and gradually the sandbars are covered by a gray feather carpet.

Nebraska has realized the potential for ecotourism and found ways of sharing its secrets. Visitors to the Platte River, accompanied by guides, leave in the predawn darkness and, from a blind, watch the cranes fly up from their roost and head for the cornfields. Sometimes hundreds of them take off at once and pass close overhead; the sound of their wings and their wild calling is almost deafening—thrilling, haunting. Driving through the fields during the day, visitors may see cranes as they put on their graceful “dances”: facing each other, spreading their wings, leaping into the air, wings outstretched.

It is not only the sandhills that contribute to the awe-inspiring spectacle of this avian migration. Nearly 20 million water birds take part, mostly ducks and snow geese, and several hundred bald eagles take advantage of the inevitable deaths along the route. You may even be lucky and see a few highly endangered whooping cranes.

I often imagine how the prairies must have been before the settlers: a vast landscape of grass and sky with hundreds of thousands of bison. Now only relatively small areas are left. Fortunately, conservation groups are working on many very successful restoration projects.

Some ranchers are restoring the habitat where the mating displays of prairie chickens and sharp-tailed grouse now attract many visitors. I once watched prairie chickens at the Switzer Ranch. It was still night when we arrived at the hide and very, very cold. As dawn broke, males began to gather on a patch of short grass, known as a lek. Suddenly, a male uttered a series of booming calls by inflating the bright orange air sacs on either side of his neck. He lowered half-stretched wings, raised his tail over his back and stamped his feet again and again. One male in display posture ran toward another, then stopped. The two glared at each other, then leapt up and down, hitting out at each other with their feet. This was repeated a few times until one retreated, seemingly defeated. Eventually, a hen moved into the lek, and the displays of the males became more spectacular—but she seemed totally indifferent.

I have never laughed so much. It is a spectacle that should be on everyone’s bucket list—along with the migration of the sandhill cranes. Visitors will leave with memories for a lifetime, and the local people will realize the value of saving their fabulous natural heritage.

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