I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Nebraska, or even imagined what Nebraska might look like. The land stretches out as far as the eye can see, with a few trees dotting the landscape. No hills, or mountains, or even swells of rolling green, it’s the perfect, if unexpected, landing strip and runway for millions of birds.
Every year, I come to this midwestern state for the greatest migration spectacle in the North American continent—the flight of Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese to their Arctic and Subarctic breeding grounds. During a four-to six-week window in March and April, these birds gather in large numbers along the central flyway—concentrated within an 80-mile mile stretch along Nebraska’s Platte River. Over half a million cranes and two million snow geese pass through here during this time period, stopping to rest and feed in preparation for their long journey north.
I’ve always marveled at the flight of birds. It seems like a miracle that some feat of physics and aerodynamics takes place between their lighter-than-air bones, lithe muscles, and feathers (feathers!) to lift them off the ground to maneuver in every situation. To be surrounded by these birds, as they gather, and murmur, and rise up on the wind, is to feel a part of a tradition millions of years old. It bestows on the onlooker a sense of connection to the land, the sky, to the ancient tug of instinct and renewal.
One morning while driving along a road near Kearney, I saw a massive gathering of Snow Geese in a field. Thousands and thousands of these birds, milling about, honking, preening, flapping to fluff out their wings. I pulled over and began to photograph them in their gentle chaos. Suddenly, tuning into some secret signal sent out to the group, they lifted up with a great cacophony of calls. Awestruck by the sight and sounds, I raised my camera to capture a wall of birds making an Escher-like, abstract pattern from earth to sky. Looking at this image takes me back to that instant in time, feeling the wonder as thousands of individuals rose up as one--a living, moving cordon to the sky.
Moments like this in nature make me think of a poem I love by Wendell Berry, “What We Need Is Here”:
Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye,
clear. What we need is here.
I do feel that nature constantly reminds us, if we only listen and watch, that what we need is here. May we notice, treasure, and preserve the wild among us. You can support the leading organizations that work hard to protect habitat here for these birds, the Audubon Rowe Sanctuary and The Crane Trust.