Drawing Nebraska’s Sandhill Cranes

Platte River, Grand Island, Nebraska. Sandhill cranes coming in for the night.
Platte River, Grand Island, Nebraska. Sandhill cranes coming in for the night.

I’m on a big push right now to finish up my Trinidad and Tobago plates, along with other projects enough to cause sleep deprivation. Much, much more to do, but it’s time for a short break and a quick post which will last as long as it takes me to eat a sliced apple.

Sandhills landing and taking off.
Sandhills landing and taking off.

Last weekend was a trip up north to Nebraskaland to visit family and give ourselves the gift of one day on the Platte River for one of nature’s great wildlife spectacles. Sandhill cranes foraged in the stubble during the day and we drove backroads bordering them, pulling over to watch the flocks bend to pick up dried kernals and whatnot they were gleaning from the black wet soil.

Sandhills working the cornstalks and stubblefields.
Sandhills working the cornstalks and stubblefields.

Their calls- a crooning purr- were constant and tender. Birds would fly in and croon as they landed like hang-gliders, gawky legs back and necks stuck forward. The cranes on the ground would look up and purr back. They were spooky birds: our presence put them on alert, even inside the car. Getting out meant the flock would rise and fly away. We were quiet as could be.

A few quiet minutes at Martin's Reach, waiting for sunset.
A few minutes at Martin's Reach, waiting for sunset.
Drawn through the fieldscope: Sandhill cranes landing on the river; drinking; agressive posture at the bottom left.
Drawn through the fieldscope: Sandhill cranes landing on the river; drinking; agressive posture at the bottom left.

The big show started at dusk. We joined a group with binoculars and scopes and huge cameras standing on a bridge over the river. The cranes were descending in flocks and squadrons on either side of the bridge, settling into cold water up to their ankles (the Platte is wide and shallow), jousting for good positions for the night. Safety in numbers is the Sandhill’s’s motto. The sun was setting. The crooning swelled to a roar as tens of thousands of cranes bunched together; perhaps a hundred thousand cranes or more. Their numbers increased as the sky darkened. We stayed until we couldn’t see and were getting cold. The cranes still arrived. The sky was almost dark but their airborne silhouettes were visible above us, crooning and purring against the twilight until the stars came out.

Sandhill cranes at rest on the river.
Sandhill cranes at rest on the river.

I’m done with my apple.

10 thoughts on “Drawing Nebraska’s Sandhill Cranes

  1. Ken Januski says:

    Wonderful sketches. There really is something special about birds sketched from life. You almost feel like you’re there.

    We’ve only seen Sandhill Cranes a few times, the most exciting while driving on a road near the Wisconsin/Illinois border a year ago. They are so primordial looking. I almost drove the car off the road as they flew over the car and landed 100 yards in front of us. Fortunately there weren’t any semis barreling down behind us as I did so.

    We’d love to be able so see them in Nebraskaland.

  2. Deborah says:

    This is so compelling, I felt like I was right there with you…..especially when you described the assemblage at sunset.
    I have featured a bird in my self portrait, which you can peek at on my blog, if you care to. I would be honored if you would. Thanks

  3. Pam says:

    Jealous green! Oh to have this op! The winter colors shocked me when I first saw the post. We are green in SC now. Sometimes I loose track that winter is still happening. It’s the migrating birds that helped me get through March and April when living in western NY. This spectacle would lure me to Nebraska. Thanks for making the trip and capturing it live. So much better than photographs 🙂

  4. Nina says:

    I love that last picture–the restful tones, with just the accent of red on faces–so lovely.
    Simply beautiful. Captured the essence of the birds.

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