They first appear as phrases written in the sky. A line of cursive coalesces in the air, then fragments. Hundreds of shifting lines with words moving between them; language forming, breaking up, reconfiguring. That is how it appears to me. To my friend, Patricia Wynne, an artist, the blue sky seems filled with black lace that is coming unraveled, being rewoven. We pull our car to one side of the road and stand next to a cornfield to watch a lattice weave itself above us and to hear the air fill with the twanging, plucked-rubber-bandlike calls of thousands of migrating sandhill cranes.
These tall red-crowned birds arrive every spring and pack into fields along a 60-mile section of the Platte River in southeastern Nebraska. For several weeks, the Platte is a crucial stopover along a migration path called the Central Flyway for about 500,000 sandhill cranes, the largest grouping of cranes in the world, and for roughly 10 million other birds--northern pintails, snow geese, greater white-fronted geese and, we soon learn, an occasional surprise. As we stand mesmerized, watching wave upon wave of birds come out of the south and circle, Pat glimpses a flash of white. We chortle to ourselves, thrilled to see one of the rare whooping cranes that sometimes fly with the sandhills. A farmer passes without a second glance; he had seen hundreds like us.
This article was originally published with the title A Great Echelon of Birds.