by James Bates
11 May is International Migratory Bird Day
When Phil arrived at the viewing platform there were maybe twenty people. Half an hour later, as the sun was sinking low in the western sky, there were over a hundred with more arriving by the minute, all excited to see one of the greatest spectacles of the bird world: the nightly flight of sandhill cranes to their roosting spots along the Platte River in central Nebraska.
Phil watched in awe as huge flocks of cranes boiled out of the stubble corn fields north and south of the Platte where they'd been feeding all day and made their way to the river. They were big yet gracefully birds with six foot wing spans, the tips of which barely moved as they skimmed the tops of riverside cottonwood trees before dropping low and coasting to a landing on one of the many sand bars scattered up and down the river. There they would spend the night, safe from roving coyotes and the occasional bobcat. In the morning they would rise in unison and head back to the fields to feed. At any one time between mid February and the end of March there were as many as three-hundred thousand sandhill cranes in the area, half a million all total during migration. People came from near and far to view them.
Count Phil among those coming from afar. He'd spent the day making the nine hour drive from his hometown in Long Lake, Minnesota, and he was happy he had, but there was more to it than seeing the cranes. He'd also made the drive to help alleviate some of the loneliness he'd been feeling. Divorced now for just over a year, his ex had taken their two kids (along with her boyfriend) to Cancun for spring break. They shared custody but this was the longest he'd ever been separated from ten year Jason and six year Sara, and he'd been unprepared for how lonely he felt. He'd come to Nebraska to see the crane migration, sure, something he'd always wanted to do, but as stunning as it was he still missed his kids. A lot.
Toward sunset the crowd of crane watchers in the viewing area swelled to over five hundred and for Phil it got to be a little too much. He shouldered his backpack and walked along the riverbank to nearby Alda Bridge where there were fewer people. The river was a quarter of a mile wide at this point and he savored the relative calm before stepping onto the bridge. The sun hung poised on the horizon and the sky was on fire in blazing orange. The rattling, prehistoric voices of the cranes drifted through the ever deepening twilight. The air was clear and clean and the river murmured in poetic harmony with night time falling over the land. It was like being in another world and Phil loved it.
Groups of three to twenty cranes coasted over his head as he walked along the wide concrete bridge. Some were so close he could hear their wing beats and see the amber irises of their eyes. The only people around were couples wanting to be alone and families with young children and babies. He was walking by just such a couple when he couldn't help but overhear the frazzled voice of the mother.
"Frank, could you do something with your son? Frank Junior is driving me nuts."
"He's just excited to see the birds. I'll take him for a walk, maybe that will help."
"Well, do something. Emily's getting fussy," the mother said, bouncing a small bundle wrapped in a blanket. "We might have to leave soon."
"Okay. I won't be gone long," Frank said. "Come along Frankie." He took his son, an eight year old boy it looked liked, by the hand. "Let's go check out the other side of the bridge."
They fell in a few steps behind Phil.
"Dad, where do all these birds come from?" Phil heard the young boy ask.
"I think they come from South America," the father said. "I'm not sure."
"I like them," Frankie said. "They're cool."
Phil smiled. He liked hearing the exchange between the father and son. For eighteen years he'd taught tenth grade biology at Long Lake High School. He liked kids, liked being around them. He was also a dad who missed his own children and felt drawn to this young father and his boy.
He turned and smiled by way of greeting, "Nice night," he said to the father.
"It sure is," he smiled back. "Great night to be out."
"It is," Phil responded, slowing down so he was walking next to them. "Do you guys live around here?"
"We do." He pointed behind them. "Five miles that way. Over across the highway in Wood River."
Locals, then. "Cool," Phil said.
They started talking, talking and walking all the way to the end of the bridge where they turned around and came back. Phil told them about the cranes, how they migrated to the Platte River from Mexico and Texas, and that they were stopping over in the area to feed and rest before continuing their journey to their nesting territory in northern Canada and Alaska. He talked about his job teaching tenth grade biology. The dad talked about working for the highway department and his wife working at the local grocery store. They'd lived in the area their entire lives but this was the first time they'd taken their young family to see the cranes.
"By the way, I'm Frank. That's my wife Kathy and daughter Emily," he pointing up ahead. "And this here is Frank Junior. He likes to be called Frankie."
"Nice to meet you, Frank. Frankie," Phil said. He introduced himself and he and Frank shook. When he extended his hand to the young boy Frankie chose not to shake. That was all right with Phil and he put his hand down.
"Frankie, come on," his dad encouraged. "Be polite."
Reluctantly, Frankie put out his hand and they shook. When he let go his eyes brightened. He looked at his dad and then at Phil, a wide smile forming. In his palm was a bright and shining quarter. "Wow! How'd you do that, mister? he asked.
"Magic," Phil said, laughing.
"Can you show me, mister? How do it, I mean?"
Phil made eye contact with Frank to see if it was okay. He didn't want the father to think he was a weirdo pervert or anything. Frank nodded, yes, and Phil showed Frankie how the trick was done.
By the time they got back to Kathy the twilight had deepened and there was just enough light to see.
Frank introduced Phil. "He's from Minnesota and he's a teacher. He taught Frankie a magic trick."
Phil chuckled. "Hi. I teach biology. Magic is just a hobby."
Even though she was distracted with her daughter, Kathy was gracious. "Nice to meet you Phil," she said, bouncing her little girl.
With the last light fading and night settling in, Phil took a flashlight from his backpack and used it to light the way back to where Frank and Kathy's car was parked. They chatted a few minutes and then said their goodbyes. When Phil shook little Frankie's hand he came away with a tiny matchbox car. He was impressed, "Looks like you've got the makings of a real magician here," he told Frank. Then he smiled at Frankie, "Good job." Frankie beamed.
Phil stood in the dark watching the young family drive away and then used his flashlight to walk to his car. All the other crane watchers had left and the peace and quiet was breath-taking. There was a light breeze from the south, bringing with it the pungent aroma of moist, fertile farmland. It smelled heavenly. Nearby, he could hear the nighttime sounds of the cranes on the river, quietly talking back and forth, their voices sometimes rising in volume calling out and alerting others to possible danger, a coyote perhaps.
The proximity of the cranes had a calming effect on him. He thought about the family he'd met, Frank and Kathy and Frankie Junior. Even baby Emily. Nice people. Salt of the earth. He was glad he'd spent time with them. He thought about the cranes resting nearby preparing in a few days to fly nearly two thousand miles north to their nesting territories, a feat in and of itself. As he gazed into the darkness, he could feel the immensity of the big land around him stretching horizon to horizon with stars filling the sky to overflowing, unlike anything he'd ever seen; constellations spinning in an never ending cosmic dance; verdant fields waiting to be tilled and planted with this year's crop. Let his ex have Cancun, he'd take Nebraska in the spring anytime.
He got into the backseat and wrapped up in his sleeping bag. He'd sleep here tonight so he could watch the cranes rise from their roosts at dawn. Then he'd head home. As he closed his eyes he knew for sure he'd be back next year. He'd be back but he wouldn't be alone. He had a sudden, passionate desire to share the experience of seeing the cranes and this country with his children, a father's innate feeling it was the right thing to do. Maybe they'd even make it a yearly event and come down together every spring. Just like the cranes, he and his kids could make their own migration to the Platte River. He had a feeling Jason and Sara would love it. He knew he would, being here with his kids, the three of them together like they were supposed to be. Having the cranes around would just make it that much better. In fact, then it'd be perfect.
About the author
Jim lives in a small town twenty miles west of Minneapolis, Minnesota and he has made the nine hour drive to Nebraska to see the sandhill crane migration many times. His stories have appeared in CafeLit, The Writers' Cafe Magazine, A Million Ways, Cabinet of Heed, Paragraph Planet and Mused - The BellaOnline Literary Review. You can also check out his blog to see more: www.theviewfromlonglake.wordpress.com.