We hear the birds long before we can see them, a chorus of chirrups and gabbles and honks and whistles emanating from the velvety pre-dawn darkness as we gingerly navigate a muddy, rutted path out to the viewing blinds. It sounds like a wind ensemble tuning up, like spring peepers on steroids. Cranes have long, coiled tracheas – like the pipes of a French horn – that enable them to produce a bewildering variety of rolling melodious notes.
And there are lots of cranes here, lesser sandhill cranes, roosting in the shallows of the Platte River in southeast Nebraska. A perfect half moon overhead grows ever fainter as the sky begins to brighten and I realize that the long, low, crenelated reef I’d taken for the far shore of the river is actually alive: thousands of big dusky birds shifting about on their long legs, running, hopping, dancing, lifting and hovering and settling back down. As the sun climbs ever higher their color changes, becoming richer and deeper, more rose and gold. They become distinguishable as individuals, each with a bright crimson crown, like the red bindi on the foreheads of Hindu women. But still they are so numerous as to be uncountable, and they seem, like termites or honeybees, almost not to be individuals at all but interconnected parts of a single huge organism. Strangely, this intense mingling and socializing happens only here, mid-migration, as they make their way north. At their winter breeding grounds In Texas or New Mexico, and their summer nesting sites as far north as Siberia, the birds prefer a more solitary existence.
There is a school of thought in contemporary cuisine that emphasizes “honoring the ingredients,” sourcing the finest raw materials and then preparing them minimally, interfering as as little as possible, doing only what's needed to let their natural beauty shine through. I’ve come here to the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center to try to persuade them to hire us to help them create a new nature center, but standing in this freezing damp blind, in the crepuscular half-light of early morning, I am absolutely transfixed, and it's hard not to wonder how we could ever improve on this experience.