Sandhill Crane Migration

By: Amanda Pays

I remember the first time I saw the Sandhill crane migration.

It was March of 2014. As a member of the University of Idaho’s wildlife society club, I was on my way to attend the Western Students Wildlife Conclave (that year held in Lincoln, Nebraska). Beginning our trip from Moscow, our group made the 23 hour journey to Kearny first, then Lincoln – in a van for twelve people that we hesitantly filled to capacity. We suffered through every hour in that cramped van, rotating drivers every eight hours, only stopping for gas and food.

The last eight hours we spent on the road began at 10:00 pm. I was sitting up front with my friend who was driving, talking with her to stay awake and pass the time, driving through the long black distance ahead. All night we conversed about past road trip experiences, childhood memories, and other wildlife projects we had experience with – all while our companions slept blissfully in the backseats. At some point (I think around 4:00 am) I dozed off, my head leaning against the window, arms folded beneath my Wildlife Society sweatshirt.

The next thing I remember was a hard punch to my left shoulder. “Wake up! Amanda, wake up!” My friend was shaking me with her free hand, the other on the steering wheel. I opened my eyes to see we were still on the road, though dawn was just breaking. The sky was slowly brightening, transitioning from a navy color to a powder blue hue on the horizon. It was 5:30 in the morning and I knew Kearny wasn’t far ahead. Around us the landscape was vast and open. With barely any light, the surrounding features were inky black silhouettes against the waking sky. The Platte River was visible as a winding ribbon to our left, reflecting the blue of the turning sky amid a dark plain. Ahead of us the road stretched on, a gray curving path of stone. I failed to see right away why she had woken me. Everyone in the back was still sleeping. But she was pointing at the sky, eyes wide, glancing back to the road every few seconds. I leaned forward, peering up into the part of sky that was darker than the horizon, until I finally saw the reason for my interruption of slumber.

Barely visible, there were shapes that I first mistook for wispy clouds or fog. The longer I looked, the more I realized these shapes were moving, bobbing, and flowing. My gaze moved further out, where the forms were better illuminated against the lighter color of sky and it dawned on me that the entire aerial space above us was taken up by thousands of Sandhill cranes during their spring migration. My jaw dropped as the heavens continued to lighten and I saw more and more cranes, impossibly taking up the sky to my left, to my right, in the rearview mirrors and ahead of us. They speckled the sky with their numbers, creating a veil-like effect between us and the infinity above, moving in the same eastward direction.

We were both absolutely speechless. Never before had I witnessed such an event of migration on this scale, and it made me ponder the wonder of it all. I felt small and insignificant. How can humans consider themselves so superior, I thought, when these creatures needed no thought to travel thousands of miles on their own with only instinct as their guide? To see these graceful animals travel toward their destination with such purpose and certainty made me feel as though I was suddenly lost in the universe, that I had been placed in a current accidentally and had been drifting about aimlessly through life, while other living beings had been living solely on a primordial and instinctual knowledge, aware of their role in the world. I became small and vulnerable in those moments, as I watched the sun rise and illuminate the birds and fully witnessed the extent of their numbers above us. I was merely a visitor on this planet and I knew then that this was their world.

That morning I observed an event that would remain with me for the rest of my life. I witnessed more than just a migration. It was a testament to the endurance, majesty, and awe of wildlife. They live on an entirely other level of comprehension than we as humans do, and it is important to understand and remember this fact. Their days are filled with uncertainty, suffering, pain, fear, birth, hunger, the warmth of the sun, the chill of the air, the wetness of rain, the threat of predation, the hope for survival, and the promise of death. These things are law – not choices as they are in our world (with the exception of death). This spoke to me more than any course I had taken, book I had read, or speaker I listened to while in college. The sight itself taught more than words ever could. It was this fleeting, shared experience with the beings above me that lent an emotion so raw and full of perspective – insight into another world so different from my own.

And as if the moment required even more depth to hold meaning in my life, it wouldn’t be more than a year later when I would discover that a deceased cousin of mine, Charles Frith, was a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and he worked on issues with the Platte River in the 70’s and 80’s, thus becoming involved with Sandhill crane studies. It appears that this fleeting moment in my life perhaps wasn’t just a product of serendipity, but maybe something more… as if the passion for wildlife and natural resources is within DNA deep in my family line. The thought alone draws me closer to the affirmation that this is what I am supposed to do. Maybe something had drawn me to this place at this exact time, every moment in my life leading up to this, as if to settle in stone my decision to become involved in the wildlife field.

Perhaps that occasion of seeing the migration was exactly what was supposed to happen. I think it is a rare thing to irrevocably decide on your career based on a single fleeting moment, but when it does happen, it is undeniably beautiful and fortunate. I would hope that anyone who is in search of what they are truly meant to do in life has a moment similar to mine, one that grounds the soul and sets the mind with the proof that they are on the right track in life. Call it fate, kismet, fortune, or maybe just luck – but this force works through our lives, bringing us closer to what we are meant to do with our time on this planet.

Picture credit: Emma Brinley Buckley

“You weren’t born to just pay bills and die.” ~ anonymous

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