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by Stan Tekiela
May 7, 2018
A magnificent natural event happens each spring along a very special river in South Central Nebraska. The Platte River starts out as two smaller branches, the northern branch originating in the mountains of Wyoming and the southern branch in the mountains of Colorado. Separately, these tributaries carry snowmelt from last winter’s storms, high up in the Rocky Mountains. On their own they are magnificent rivers but when they join together in western Nebraska to form “The Platte River” they become a river of life. A life force that supports millions.
For at least ten thousand years, this river has hosted millions of migrating birds each spring. Back then the river was super wide and shallow. Well, it still is, just not like it was before. Early pioneers described the river as a mile wide and an inch deep. Today it’s nowhere near a mile wide. It is lucky if it’s a quarter mile wide in most places. But this is exactly why all of these birds stopped along this river. It provided food and the shallow water of the river provides a safe place to spend the night.
Each spring, along a 60-90 mile stretch of the Platte River, over a half a million Sandhill Cranes and several million Snow Geese gather as they migrate northward to breeding grounds well north of Nebraska. The river serves as a resting and staging place. A place to eat, relax and fatten up in preparation for the long journey ahead. During the day the cranes and geese are in the surrounding country side feeding. At night the birds roost in the shallow water which provides a level of safety from land base predators such as coyote, bobcat and fox.
For the past 30 years I have made my own migration of sorts, to the banks of the Platte River to commune with nature. To see, hear and feel millions of winged wonders as they move within the environment and do what they have been doing for thousands of years. Witnessing this really brings me a sense of primal fulfillment.
This year (2018) I lead a group of intrepid birders and photographers to experience the migration. But this experience was slightly different. In the last two years (2016-17) there were record setting numbers of Sandhill Cranes. An astonishing 400,000 cranes were roosting along the river while I was there with my groups. I’ve never seen it with so many cranes. It was crazy. But something was missing and it didn’t feel right. There were no Snow Geese to be found!
Normally, several million Snow Geese, would share the river with the cranes and countless ducks. But the last two years there were none. The cranes were amazing but the full experience was diminished by the lack geese.
That was not the case this year. Over 4 days we saw more Snow Geese than we could count. Individual flocks were numbering over 10,000. Often we could see what looked like dark clouds on the horizon which of course were tens of thousands of Snow Geese flying. Seeing all of these geese was amazing but hearing them was even more thrilling. As you can imagine, a gathering of thousands of geese would be loud.
Snow Geese come in two color plumages which are called morphs. I know the word morph seems like it means they change color but this is not true. They are one color their entire life, never changing. There is the white morph, which is pure white except for the black wing tips, and the gray or blue morph which have blue-ish gray plumage except for the white head, neck and tail. Both color phases have pink bills and orange to red legs and feet.
The Snow Geese are migrating along the central flyway on their way northward to Canada and Alaska with a few jumping over the Bering Straits and making their way to Siberia after spending the winter in south Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and Mexico.
Seeing and hearing this number of migrating birds is an amazing natural experience and until you are standing there with a cloud of geese or cranes filling all of your senses, it’s hard to explain. Hope you get a chance to see it yourself. Until next time…
Stan Tekiela is an author / naturalist and wildlife photographer who travels the U.S. to study and document wildlife. He can be followed on www.facebook.com and twitter.com. He can be contacted via his web page at www.naturesmart.com.
The nationally syndicated NatureSmart Column appears in over 25 cities spanning 7 states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania. It is a bi-weekly column circulated to over 750,000 readers.
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