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 Blue Water – The Land of History and Cranes

In 2017, I returned to Blue Water to help my mother and the rest of my family with Nebraska’s Sesquicentennial celebrations at Ash Hollow.  The Convergence of Cultures endeavored to bring cultural and historical interpretation to a famous location that was both sanctuary to the pioneers, and the site of a bloody massacre.  These 2017 events also commemorated the return of artifacts taken from the Little Thunder family during the Blue Water Creek Massacre in 1855.  The Smithsonian Museum created a temporary exhibition to display these events.

These events that brought me home also introduced me to Phil Little Thunder, who over time, became a friend, and someone who could shed light on stories about cranes in this area.  The cranes were another reason I was drawn home throughout my postgraduate education.  In 2014, I returned to capture the local sandhill crane population that annually stage in the Lewellen and Ash Hollow area from February through April as they migrate north.

Lewellen and the surrounding area sit on the border of Garden and Keith Counties in western Nebraska.  Lewellen also sits between Clear Creek and what locals now call Blue Creek.  Blue Creek is a small, yet vitally important stream because it flows out of Crescent Lake and south into the North Platte, making it a significant landmark for those who wished to travel north or reach larger bodies of pooled water before the days of SIRI and GPS.  Lakota descendants of those who lived here two centuries ago call this general area around Lewellen and Ash Hollow Mini To Wakpala, Blue Water Creek, or simply Blue Water.  They, among others, choose to call the area Hollow Blue Water as one way to bring back the area’s history as a form of remembrance, or in some cases, reconciliation for the tragedy that unfolded in the area over a century and a half ago.  The Lewellen, or Blue Water area, is the location of a famous battle.  In 1855, General W.S. Harney camped on the confluence where Blue Water Creek meets the North Platte River in anticipation of attacking the Brule Lakota who lodged north of this area.  What ensued was a bloody match between General Harney’s men and Chief Little Thunder’s people.  Eighty-six Lakota men, women, and children were killed, and the US Army lost twelve soldiers.  One hundred and sixty-five years after these historic events, cranes still use Blue Creek as a landmark.  They graze across the many fields on the creek’s edge, and spend their afternoons preening, loafing, and dancing in the wetlands.

2008: Meeting the Sandhill Cranes

One by one, red-capped, steel grey birds poked their heads up as we whizzed past them in a rental vehicle traveling parallel to the North Platte River between Clear Creek and Blue Creek. It was 2008, and I was a mere passenger, invited by my aunt and her desire to share the sandhill crane migration with me.  She and my uncle were both generous enough to include me in their thirtieth wedding anniversary vacation so I could see the crane spectacle myself.  I had never seen a crane before, and little did I know this journey would change my life.  I’d traveled Highway 92 hundreds of times as a child, but at this moment, the only unfamiliar sight was the many tall, silvery birds feeding and lingering in spent cornfields.

The cranes also surprised my aunt and uncle, who grew up in this area, but did not remember seeing so many cranes on this stretch of highway.  I asked if we could stop so I could get a closer look.  They reassured me I would see plenty of cranes when we arrived in the Central Platte area.

They were not wrong.  The cranes won my heart in the Central Platte area.  Lauded as one of the few great migratory spectacles remaining in the United States, the spring sandhill crane migration stirs the hearts of many who come to watch these magnificent birds pause on a 70 mile stretch of the North Platte River as they make their journey north from the southern-most reaches of the United States.  The landscape from Kearney to Grand Island is a sight to behold.  When one first arrives to this fifty-mile stretch of plains, they will see cranes thread the skies during the day as they journey from field to field, their silver wings sequined in the opalescent sunrises and sunsets as they return to their roosts during their daily routine.  When the birds lift off in small groups, one can hear the whoosh of their wings colliding with the air with the same audio richness of waves crashing against a rough sea.  When the birds lift off in large groups, their wings create a rumbling thunder, often accompanied by their cacophonic cries and trills.

A sea of cranes as far as the eye can see on the Central Platte River in 2009

My aunt’s invitation to witness this wonder was a life-changing blessing for which I’m forever grateful. This first journey to see the cranes inspired me to learn more about these creatures, and travel to corners of the country where they loaf, roost, and graze.  I visited Suavie Island in Oregon to see cranes spend their summers in broad river wetlands.  I also bought a camera and began studying media arts partly because I wanted to begin photographing cranes and their story.  I had the opportunity to intern at New Mexico’s Bosque del Apache’s Festival of the Cranes in the fall of 2008.  There, I met conservationists, photographers and biologists who encouraged me to volunteer at Rowe Sanctuary for the 2009 crane season.

Throughout my travels, the cranes of my summer backyard while growing up in Blue Water stayed with me.  A bird that I had never seen before—and only just began to love—lived, without my knowing it, in a place that I called home.  They were so much a part of me that in 2014, I paused from my studies abroad to once again visit the cranes on the Platte and near my home in Lewellen.  Though I was completing a postgraduate film degree in Australia, footage of Nebraska’s sandhill cranes became an integral part of my final production.

When I returned to Blue Creek to help my family in 2017, I arrived unaware that I would stay for good.  Of all the places I could go with my degree, the Blue Water area pulled at me the most. The sandhills, with their rolling waves of sage and grass reminded me that my love for the ocean was born here, on the high plains, when my mother and an old family friend would take me to Ash Hollow, and then up to the battle ground to tell me the stories of the Blue Water Massacre. My aunt and uncle’s decision to bring me to see the area’s sandhill cranes was another reason I was drawn back again, and again.  I’ve had the pleasure of watching cranes around Blue Creek for three seasons. When they fly north, they often do so above Blue Creek to the west and Clear Creek to the east.

The scientist in me wanted more proof that they were what I hoped. However, the storyteller in me wondered if they were two sandhill cranes, returning to Blue Water for what was becoming a sacred event for many.  It was also a moment in my life where I had the opportunity to stay in rural Nebraska, and I can’t help but think that these birds, and the people I met through the Convergence, were a large reason behind my decision to stay in my family’s homeland.  As the Convergence concluded, I looked forward to seeing the cranes of Blue Water.  I only had to wait until February. 

Cranes at Clear Creek, near Blue Creek, in 2014.

These Special Creatures

In 2018, I began my search for the cranes of Blue Water once February arrived, and had the privilege of seeing many bald eagles and trumpeter swans as I waited.  Around the middle of the month, cranes began trickling in, first in flocks of 15 to 20, and then in larger congregations.  One night, I traveled to the cliff face overlooking Ash Hollow and watched cranes land in four primary locations. All these locations were gently managed for waterfowl and other wild game.  Two of these locations were confluences where waterways met the North Platte River.  One of those waterways was Blue Creek.  Only one of these locations rested on land available for public use and close observation.

Despite the presence of some managed land, the cranes struggled to find optimal space as their numbers increased throughout the season.  They seemed restless, sometimes settling on one roost, only to move to another in any given night.  In addition to contending with each other under cramped conditions, these birds navigated wetlands fenced in by towering trees, and many braved foraging on busy roadsides and roosting in fields instead of the protected waterways.

I introduced myself to a landowner whose property hosted cranes during the midday and evening hours.  He permitted me to film cranes next to where Blue Creek merged with the North Platte River.  After speaking with him, I learned that he managed the land for the waterfowl he and his guests hunted earlier in the season.   The cranes benefitted from his efforts, and they took advantage of his wetland to loaf, graze, and preen as a part of their daily routine.  At times, cranes lingered on this property well into the evening, and the landowner was certain that they chose to roost in the safety of his field rather than settle in the river.

Just east of this property, thousands of cranes chose to land in the river every night to the delight of many travelers who stood on the Old Lewellen Bridge to watch them. While many of these visitors experienced the Central Platte crane migration at least once, they revered this small segment of the North Platte because they perceived it as a place to watch cranes in a wilder, less manicured habitat, free from hordes of tourists.

The cranes of this river valley also kept many guessing as to their exact story.  From my observation, these birds looked smaller, with proportionally smaller beaks than the sandhill cranes I saw in central Nebraska between Kearney and Grand Island. Were these lesser sandhill cranes?  Avid birders and visiting biologists expressed uncertainty about the exact sub-species dominating this population of cranes.  Many scientists agreed that the cranes pausing near Blue Water were lesser sandhill cranes, while others suggested they were greater sandhill cranes.   Experts also debated where most of these cranes nested, where they came from, and where they would go to roost and rear their young.  The research I consulted claimed that most of these birds traveled the furthest among the sandhill cranes, and possibly staged along the North Platte River because they were further west, and therefore closer to Alaskan and Siberian nesting grounds.  For example, a 2014 study by Dr. Gary L. Krapu and his team of scientists suggested that more than 90% of birds staging on the North Platte Valley were the Western Alaskan and Siberian cranes.  However, visiting biologists suggested that most of these birds were greater sandhill cranes who traveled short distances to nest and rear young among the shadows of the Rocky Mountain foothills.  Still, a few of the scientists I reached out to admitted that few in their field had performed studies on the cranes visiting Lewellen each year.  Travelers, who made the annual pilgrimage to see these birds, knew mostly about where they fed and roosted, but could not tell me about their other activities, or how the birds would respond to blinds, an improvement in land management, or other supporting infrastructure.

The cranes who paused at Blue Water revealed many unanswered questions just by gracing the area with their presence.  The cranes that stage in this region are a relatively small and little-known population of birds compared to the Central Platte spring population.  However, a significant group of people traveled from Wyoming, Colorado, and beyond to see these birds in Lewellen, and some scientists speculate that this population is one of the largest gatherings of birds outside the Central Platte region.

Did these cranes always come to this stretch of the North Platte, and if not, why now?  How were cranes faring in the current Blue Water habitat just west of Lake McConaughy, and would these cranes benefit from lands better managed for their well-being?  If Krapu’s research is definitive, and these birds primarily travel to Western Alaska and Siberia, then they would require a healthy staging period, and their time at Blue Water is vital to their overall health.  Yet the greater Keith and Garden Counties communities remained unaware that this population required such rest, and many did not even know this population existed.  Out of their desire to cherish them, unassuming travelers would sometimes accidentally startle the birds.  What is at risk if our community continues with business as usual, or can we achieve a better situation beneficial for both man and crane?

Finally, what stories, if any, existed among the original inhabitants of Blue Water?  Are they still being passed on among the ancestors of Blue Water’s first peoples, or have they been lost with the voices of the Blue Water Creek Massacre?   I asked Phil Little Thunder if such stories existed as April’s warm winds swept the 2018 migration from our community, and he agreed to help me.  I wanted to know learn everything about these birds, as they’ve been flying over a place I’ve called home for much longer than written history.  In 2019, I set out to address these questions, hoping to find answers to at least some of them.

Lake McConaughy slowly melting from its icy lock in the middle of March.  Cranes could be heard above the clouds.

2019: The Year of Ice and Flood

The year 2019 began with unseasonable warmth.  The bald eagle population at Lake Ogallala was thin and no one thought Lake McConaughy would freeze over. Many expected an early spring, and an early arrival of the cranes with it.  Then, a sudden chill sunk in and locked Lake McConaughy in some of the thickest ice in local memory.  A natural event—which took months to develop in 2018— occurred within just a few short days in 2019.  Several late-winter storms swept in, deterring migrating creatures and barring winter residents from traveling north.  Suddenly, bald eagles congregated by the hundreds on Lake Ogallala’s ice banks, and they stayed well into March.  The cranes, however, were nowhere to be seen. The skies were empty, and the wind vacant of their soft trills.

Then suddenly, when the storms paused, cranes invaded overnight.  I was returning from a weekend in Cheyenne, Wyoming when I caught my first glance of their arrival. On my way home, I detoured into Lewellen eager to confirm the many reports from locals who knew my desire to see the cranes. Sure enough, cranes trafficked the skies.  They flew in long, thread-like trails between the river and the fields, and they passed each other like orderly lines of vehicles on busy thruways.

The second and last mass influx of arriving cranes occurred the following weekend after another intense blizzard.  From what I observed, most of these cranes arrived from the east, through the corridor where the North Platte River meets Lake McConaughy, and from the South Tablelands.

Cranes dance and play with sticks in a crop field just east of Blue Creek.

Heavy snow and large snowdrifts inhibited my ability to safely and properly scout cranes and determine their daily movement patterns.  Unlike previous years, where early arrivals established a roosting, feeding, and loafing routine that later arrivals either fell in line with or adapted to, this year’s huge influx involved birds shuffling about for a week or two before finally settling into some semblance of a routine.  They faced their own navigational challenges.  Ice-crusted riverbeds and flooding waters locked them out from roosts they’d used years before.

Cranes unison call among housing and agricultural equipment just west of Blue Creek.

No one could guess if the cranes would stay longer than usual or leave around the middle of April as they did in previous years.  After a week of observation, and with no confirmed evidence of where large populations preferred to roost, I had to curb my desire to film Blue Water cranes roosting.  Instead, I placed a time-lapse camera at the western edge of a field where cranes loafed, and I situated my blind on the east end, giving the cranes a few days to acclimate to these structures before I returned to the site.

Cranes flying low as observed from a permanent pit-blind between Blue Creek and Clear Creek.

From the Blind

Choosing to watch cranes from a blind is a gamble.  Hours in a blind means waiting for cranes that may land in another location just beyond view.  In 2018, I situated blinds where cranes were roosting, only to find that Blue Water cranes preferred to arrive to roosts later in the evening and leave earlier in the morning than their Central Platte counterparts.  In 2019, historic flooding across the state pushed water levels up, and the sandbars at normal roosting sites now hid under unusually high waters.  Finding exactly where to situate blinds is a guessing game. However, when all goes well, the blind offers an intimate window into the daily life of cranes.

Once I established blind locations at Blue Water, I observed crane patterns each day, and in an effort to maintain consistency, I carefully scheduled my arrivals and departures based on crane movements.  Cranes above began scouting the site around 10 AM, with the first set landing about thirty minutes later. Group by group, their numbers grew until finally, the field was full of gray birds.  Some arrived calmly and tucked their heads under their wings to preen feathers or sleep.  Others jumped, flailed wings, and announced their presence with their high-pitched cackle.  These birds did not hesitate to peck and chase at others who got too close.

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Once on the wetland, the birds spent the rest of the morning drinking, foraging, and preening, all to the tune of each other’s call.  Then suddenly, as if ordered to attention, the cranes popped their heads up together, and looked around, alert and silent. The first time I observed this behavior, I wondered if the presence of some other creatures, or perhaps my own presence, startled them. It was my experience that this call to attention was behavior that took place before the cranes flushed a field.

During each of my blind sessions, however, this behavior led to more silence as the birds relaxed to preen, loaf, and graze.  Eventually, they would tuck their heads under their wings and nap, or make their way to the water to drink. Soon, almost every bird napped, some standing on one leg, others lying in the grass, all with their heads tucked under their wings. They did this for several hours, as one bird for approximately every 20 kept on the lookout.

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Then, as each bird broke their siesta, they would stretch their legs behind them, or spread one wing at a time.  Many also greeted each other pleasantly, and they replaced their morning behaviors of territorial flailing with afternoons of bows and dancing.

The fields slowly morphed into balletic performances with cranes posing, leaping, twirling, and finally, lifting off to the sky, usually in small quartets, until the field stood empty of birds. Of all the opportunities to see cranes dance, this afternoon courtship was by far the best.  Cranes were less eager to leave the loafing grounds than their morning roosts.  Sometimes small groups would linger for hours before taking off for their nightly feeding.  I only departed my blind after the last bird left the field.  By this point, the sun was at that angle where everything glows in metallic, when shadows lengthen across the horizon, and when the only evidence of the birds lingered in the remaining feathers glistening in the late daylight.

A series of 9 photos mapping a courtship dance.

Each time I had the privilege of viewing cranes from the blind, I was keenly aware that my blind offered an intimate window into the crane’s daily life. In many ways, it was voyeuristic.  Here I was, observing and photographing the crane’s daily spring ritual, without knowing if this bird truly cared that some other strange creature was present to watch them eat, court, and bathe.

Timelapse of the Blue Water wetland where so many cranes loafed throughout the season.

Blinds also offered unique experiences to enjoy other animals intermingling with the cranes.  At times, great blue herons fished, otters played in the water, and Canada geese landed to co-exist with the visiting cranes.  For these moments in time, they shared stories with the cranes, and they always kept me company on those days when I gambled and lost my bet to see cranes from blinds.

The Flooded Playas

From the air, disc-like playas gleamed on the Southern Table of the Keith County Tablelands.  I observed them from a Cessna as a Nebraska Game and Parks biologist pointed to the ducks in these ponds and admitted that he had never seen so many ponds in this location before.  We flew over the tablelands to reach the North Platte River Valley where we were certain to see cranes.   Over the course of three seasons, I made many trips to the Southern Tablelands, located between the Platte Rivers, in search of cranes only to find empty fields or cranes flying north to the North Platte River, if present at all.  By now, I dangerously assumed looking for cranes in the tablelands was a waste of time.

However, these watery discs, or playas as many call them, intrigued me.  I photographed these large pools of water.  My assumption was dangerous because at that time, I had no idea I was photographing 2019’s popular crane roost.

It was no wonder they chose these discs.  In 2019, when the cranes arrived, the North Platte waterways greeted them with swift currents and frozen riverbanks. At dusk, I traveled to the river with the hopes of discovering where the cranes were roosting. In previous years, these birds favored sandbars at the confluences of the Clear Creek, Blue Creek, and the sandbars just off Lewellen’s two bridges.  A few birds flew overhead, and fewer still landed in these previously-loved spots. I was not surprised.  When the birds first arrived, ice locked the river and obscured sandbars with high frozen water and snow.  Later in the season, the water was so high that it hid sandbars and carried a current swift enough to knock people off their feet.

Some landowners claimed they saw cranes roosting in the fields early this season.  After the third week of March, I observed these fields from a distance, and they were empty well after the last rays of sun evaporated from the horizon.  Wilder still were my friend’s claims that she heard cranes at 10 PM in the fields around her house on the South Table.  I thought of this one evening from my blind as I watched departing cranes fly over the southern bluffs and up to the tablelands.  That night, I paused by the river to meet the cranes flying over the old Lewellen Bridge.  A number of travelers also waited in anticipation, many expressing their concern that there were not as many birds this year.  While some cranes flew downstream, I noticed others flying south to the tablelands after the sun disappeared against the western horizon.  I wondered then if my assumption about the cranes avoiding the tableland was wrong.

The following night my friend informed me that cranes were once again landing in her fields.  She invited me out to her house and allowed me to use it as a blind so I could observe these birds myself.  I arrived shortly before cranes would customarily leave their loafing grounds. As the sun gleamed against a cloudless sky, I looked out on to the many playas decorating the landscape.

This landscape hints of green, promising new plant life, mourning doves cooed along to the trill of redwing blackbirds, and the western meadowlark sang.  The hum and drum of distant prairie chickens exposed a far-off lek I could not see. Then from the north, crane trills joined the symphony, and I looked up to see them gliding so low they could almost land on the house.  I watched them drift down into the fields to the west. Group by group, they foraged their way to the vast standing body of shallow water. As the skies darkened, the cranes positioned themselves around the fields and began a slow walk to the playas, snacking in the field along the way.  Later arrivals landed directly in the water to join them.

Timelapse of cranes on playas.

From that point on, I spent at least ten nights listening to the cranes as I slept in a room that faced the playas they roosted on, and when I woke up at dawn.  Just as they did years before at the bridges and on the Central Platte, these cranes broke their rest with soft trills, and began their gentle morning grooming routine.  As the sun rose, cranes lifted off the roosts, sometimes as families or in groups.

I spent several nights in this one location watching how the birds negotiated with the playas as they shrank and grew with the changing rains and weather patterns.  One playa, which hosted cranes only days before, dried swiftly during a brief warm spell.  As it did, cracks appeared in the ground, and crane tracks fossilized in the dry mud.  As the season closed, these artifacts became the sole reminder that cranes relied on these tableland playas—at least for this year.

 One in a Million, Times Two

One day early in the season, I paused to look on to a field just north of Highway 92. I noticed a flock of cranes peeling off ground, and among them, I thought I saw a white crane with grey flecks across its wings. I lost track of it almost as soon as I saw it, and assumed I was only observing an anomaly caused by the fading sunlight.

Days later, I returned to the field, and there it was: a white sandhill crane. It was too small to be a whooping crane, and it lacked the distinguished black linings and wingtips. Instead, this white crane had the body and face of a sandhill crane, and gray feathers speckled its body as if it were some kind of aviary dalmatian.  Over the next few days, I paused to get to know this crane from my car window.  Frequently it walked with two others and dined with them on waste corn. Soon a slightly larger gray crane lifted its neck in a unison call.  The white crane responded, tilting its head at a 45-degree angle, letting out a faintly higher pitched rattling call in pulse-like rhythms. The crane also had a protective personality.  Though usually calm, it was not afraid to strike out and defend its family from other cranes who grazed too close, or picked fights.  Generally speaking, the family also stayed in the field later than most of the other birds around it.  At sunset, the three birds took off together to fly north somewhere beyond the river.

I learned that the crane in question was leucistic.  Leucism is a congenital condition where there is pigmentation loss in a creature’s hair, skin, scales, cuticles or in this case, feathers.  Unlike albinism, leucism does not affect the eyes, nor does it seem to have the same survivability risks.  Leucism is especially rare in cranes, which meant this unique crane would give me a hint as to how long individual birds stayed on the North Platte this spring.  Through careful scouting and blind-work, I also learned that this crane spent days loafing near Clear Creek on property owned by another landowner who also chose to manage his private land with cranes in mind. In late March, he allowed me to sit in one of his permanent blinds, and from there I saw this leucistic crane mingle with other birds.  By April, this leucistic crane became a local celebrity.  Many people asked me if I had seen the white crane, and indeed, I was fortunate enough to say yes.

On April 9, I could not find the leucistic crane, though I spent a lot of time searching for her.  I looked into the south field, wondering if she found a new location.   There was an unusual crane there.  It appeared slightly lighter than the others around it, but it wasn’t as light as the leucistic crane, and was somewhat strange from the others around it.  Though its head was down and busy foraging corn, its body had a different, more triangular shape with a more boxlike back and faintly darker feathers near the bustle. This bird did not have the gray flecks of feather through it like the leucistic crane, and it did not appear white.  However, it intrigued me, and I lingered.

A nearby train passed, and the field of cranes lifted their heads up at attention.  This bird joined them. Unlike those around it, it had a black neck, a rounder beak, and the red patch on its head was so small it was hard to distinguish.

I was observing a Eurasian crane, and I did not know how long it would stay. Though the birds were far away, I did not want to open my car door and risk scaring them.  I pushed my tripod out the window and set it up from my passenger seat.

Several thoughts raced through my mind.  How long did this Eurasian crane graze in the field south of our leucistic crane, and how was I the first to see it so late in the season, after most travelers had long left?  Or was I the first to see it in the south field because the rare leucisitic crane no longer drew my attention to the north field?  I read that leucistic cranes were perhaps the rarest cranes of them all, and yet, Eurasian cranes were a ‘Code 5’ on North American Rare Bird Alert’s scale, indicating it is among the rarest to be seen in North America.  What were the odds that these cranes would be together, just a field apart?

I could not help but feel a little sad for this Eurasian.  It seemed alone and lost among the many sandhill cranes surrounding it.  Unlike the leucistic, this Eurasian did not wander with a family unit.  It kept to itself, foraging and interacting only when another crane got too close.  At times, it looked directly at other cranes as they stared at it as if both were trying to figure out what appeared so different about the other.  Cranes are highly social, and yet this crane was alone and far from its kind.

The Eurasian Crane who frequently gave other birds this ‘look.’

This crane was proof that Lewellen’s cranes went on to Siberia, occasionally returning with feathered strangers to this land.  Like the Eurasian crane, the leucistic crane also told me something about our local crane migration.  I observed this crane for five weeks, which arbitrarily suggests that at least some Blue Water cranes stage for long periods, perhaps so they can prepare for their epic journey.

Though I looked, I only saw the Eurasian crane once.  After that sighting, a winter storm swept in, and many cranes left in the lead-up to the bad weather.  Some returned for a short few days after the storm, including our local leucistic celebrity.  However, within a few days, the fields stood empty, and the sky was void of cranes.

The People Who Dance with Cranes

Cranes have a dedicated fanbase.  These fans primarily consist of biologists, artists, locals, avid birders, and of course, self-proclaimed ‘Craniacs.’  Anyone who follows these birds knows about the Craniac. These intrepid travelers make the annual pilgrimage to the Platte River to marvel at the spring sandhill crane migration.   Crane lovers visit Lewellen’s birds because they desire an authentic experience free of the busy tourism that inundates the Central Platte during this time of year.  Some have made this journey for years, while others aspire to study cranes as biologists, writers, or photographers.  Many take a keen interest in the art and lectures hosted by the Most Unlikely Place, a local art gallery and café that acts as the ‘crane headquarters’ in the Lewellen community. Its team of artists, musicians, and small business owners go to great lengths to welcome the sandhill cranes’ followers.

Like the cranes, these individuals arrive predictively.  The Central Platte features many public and private locations to view birds, and conservation groups work tirelessly to ensure visitors can enjoy the birds on carefully managed landscapes. They offer enclosures at a safe distance that the birds have grown accustomed to over the years.

In Lewellen, such enclosures do not readily exist, and land carefully managed with waterfowl in mind primarily serves as a hunting ground for avid sportsmen.  Therefore, the crane-loving pilgrims must congregate at the river’s edge, or on bridges.  In recent years even these locations have become unsuitable for visitors.  A series of laws now aim to keep people from observing cranes on bridges, and while they sought to target observers on much busier Central Platte roads, their statewide enforcement implies that Lewellen’s viewers must find another viewing location.  Likewise, unpredictable water levels and limited viewing space along the river means that crane viewers must compete with campers, fishermen, and outdoor adventurers for a limited space of river. However, in 2019, cranes avoided such locations for their roosts.

I do notice that when viewers flock to the old bridge, cranes glide in with trepidation in the presence of so many humans.  Some circle the few sandbars before landing, and others, veering to land, decide to lift up again, flying further downriver.  This year, many kept flying south over the bluffs and to the playas on the table.  I cannot say whether the pilgrims trouble the cranes, but it is clear the cranes do not descend as easily as they did when I observed them.   I often wonder what this experience would be like if a nearby blind was constructed or if the Lewellen Bridge offered a concealed viewing platform along its edges.  Perhaps in time, the cranes would relax and land as they did near blinds and houses, accepting that viewers inside are not going to hurt them.

This year, travelers expressed disappointment that there were not as many cranes landing in this spot as there was last year.  In late March, we all agreed to travel to the Highway 26 bridge to see cranes leaving a morning roost they favored in years past.  This year, the cranes were far fewer in numbers and many left before they could be seen in the early morning light.   Still, dialogues among locals and visitors reveal a passionate admiration for the cranes of Blue Water.

The Upshot

Cranes have power over many people.  They have power over the ‘craniacs’ who follow them from staging ground to staging ground, and they manage to double, perhaps even triple, Lewellen’s small population at least once a year.  They have inspired myths, books, movies, art and fetes in conservation, and they compelled me to stay in Nebraska.

Spring flowers crop up in Ash Hollow,  facing a marsh where the last of the season’s cranes loaf.

It is no wonder that cranes inspire stories. However, one story remained elusive:  the Indigenous story of the cranes before Europeans reached these plains.  Upon returning to assist with the Smithsonian exhibition, I began searching for these stories. I’ve struggled to uncover anything.  One Lakota storyteller informed me that cranes stories existed among people who lived in wetlands near the Great Lakes region, but she did not know of any along the Platte River. Other stories, primarily meant for children, referenced cranes from Asia, but they did not speak of our gray birds or the rare white whoopers.

It wasn’t until mid-June that I heard a story from a Lakota elder Phillip Little Thunder. He was instrumental in returning the Battle of Blue Water artifacts for the sesquicentennial commemoration and has since become a close family friend. It is appropriate that he knows such stories of cranes because his family descends from the chief who fled Blue Water during the 1855 battle.

During a spontaneous reunion, Phillip kindly shared a story about a young stubborn crane that would not leave the North Platte River during the fall migration.  This crane desired to stay until spring.  The story carefully balances one’s desire to be independent and different with the wise knowledge which has kept generations of the Lakota people, the cranes, and other animals alive throughout the seasons, and over the ages. The lesson in the story is a cautionary tale, and Phil was kind enough to share it along with his four directions song.  Like the cranes, he told his story in a way that kept it relevant for the times in question. He referenced the pictures I took of the cranes as well as the horses eating grass in the nearby fields.

Months after the cranes of Blue Water turned north for the year, I had the pleasure of attending a gathering of Indigenous water protectors and like-minded women in the Black Hills of South Dakota.  I heard elders speak on the importance of story in relation to the waterways we all love.  I listened as the elders spoke on the healing power of stories, and the way that stories can reshape a cause and help an ecosystem survive.  As I listened, my eyes wandered to a map of North America where a piece of yarn traced a general line from Siberia, down through the Bearing Straight, through Canada’s western regions and into the Dakotas.   Given the context, I wondered if this map showed the hypothesized migration trail of the first people who arrived to the Americas by land. But it also occurred to me that this was the current flight path of the Blue Water cranes that flew across these lands well before humankind arrived.  For them, this year may not be the anomaly, but instead a norm where a slightly cooler world preserves and gives more freshwater for life to enjoy.

This migratory map shadows the overland route some of America’s first people took to reach our High Plains some 14,000 years ago.

After leaving the Black Hills, I returned to Blue Water Creek to check a time-lapse camera situated across from the 1855 battlefield. I observed how the landscape had changed.  In a moment of distraction, I noticed two birds fly along the horizon to the south.  They were grey, had trailing legs, and had that unmistakable wingbeat of the cranes decorating the skies earlier this year.  Off in the distance, I heard one trill.

In late May, a local game warden reported seeing two sandhill cranes flying over Oshkosh, and last year, the same warden told me he saw two more in Bridgeport.  I wondered if some cranes were staying the summer, and for days, my friend and I debated the species of these birds.  The scientist in me wants more proof, a photograph, some footage, or another occurrence.  However, the storyteller in me knows deep down that they are two sandhill cranes that chose to stay in Blue Water.  Right now, there is far more to these birds than what we’ve discovered.

A feather lingers in a green field after cranes have departed for the season.
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