I Almost Got Frostbite On My Birthday

Sandhill Cranes Over the Platte River, Nebraska: Evening Light, Winging Home

Pastel, Sandhill Cranes Over the Platte River: Evening Light, Winging Home

I celebrated my 50th birthday by shivering in a duck blind in Nebraska in the 10 degree weather before dawn.  I couldn’t feel my fingers or toes.  I remember looking at my sister Jane – This was her idea of a birthday trip?!!

Jane’s bucket list is all about seeing “The Earth’s Ten Great Animal Migrations.”  This includes whales, wildebeests, monarch butterflies and – the reason why I was freezing in Nebraska – Sandhill Cranes.

Sandhill Crane In Flight, drawing in charcoal, art by Ann Litrel

Sandhill Crane In Flight, a wingspan of six feet

The Sandhill Crane migration through the Great Plains was timed perfectly just before my birthday, Jane assured me. A half million birds flying together, resting each night in the wetlands of Nebraska’s Platte River, was reputedly a Natural Wonder, a sight not to be missed.  And so in March we flew to Omaha, drove across Nebraska to the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary on the Platte River. And we woke before dawn in freezing weather just to see a bunch of birds.

And even though it annoyed me for just a moment to be shivering next to my earnest sister with that wide eyed joy on her face, I must confess: watching the Sand Hill Cranes was absolutely magical.

A half million cranes rose up with a resounding cry at dawn, in a shadowy explosion of wings against the sky. Prehistoric creatures with giant wing spans six feet across, they flew in widening circles over the water, wheeling and returning for many minutes, calling to each other in low haunting trills so distinctive I shall never forget them. They scattered to feed in the surrounding fields, fueling their flight to the Arctic. Some would fly as far as Siberia, we learned, where they would nest, and raise their young, returning in the fall to their winter homes in the south.

I came back to Georgia inspired by my Nature Encounter – the cranes, the lonely wetlands, the arching skies.  I began painting.  Visitors to my studio were intrigued.  Several started planning their own trip next spring to Nebraska right on the spot.

Then came the buzz kill. My friend Jan Parrish arrived with her golf buddy, Joey Peeples, both wearing wide smiles as they listened to my adventure about braving the freezing wetlands.

“You know,” Jan told me, “you can see the cranes right here in Georgia.”

“Yeah,” Joey chimed in.  “We see them every spring when we’re out golfing.”

I didn’t believe them until Joey proceeded to imitate the exact warbling cry I had heard from the cranes in Nebraska.

We enjoyed a good laugh. I consulted the internet when I got home. Sure enough, an eastern population of Sandhills – distinct from the Great Plains group – does indeed fly right over Woodstock, migrating north from Florida to Canada.

And one quiet morning last spring as I sipped my early morning coffee, I heard the cries of the migrating cranes, far overhead. I looked outside and saw them flying high over my own backyard, these beautiful winged creatures moving forward in life on their long journey home.

And their song brought tears to my eyes.

Sandhill Cranes on Platte River at Night