Born in Newfoundland, Doreen grew up in southern Michigan and Wisconsin. In 2004, her husband’s career led them to south-central Nebraska. There, Doreen earned a Master’s degree in English at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, and began to study and write about the Platte River. She volunteered at the Audubon Rowe Sanctuary in a variety of ways that informed her writing – setting bird houses, counting butterflies, noting various birds. Now back home in Wisconsin, she is at work on a history of Platte River conservation.
Her research on the Platte River and the Sandhill Cranes describes her relationship with the ways nature surrounds her. This is best realized in her This River Beneath the Sky – about the Platte River in Nebraska. As well her research and writing take her to Aldo Leopold and his impact on environmental studies and environmental ethics.
When Doreen is not writing or exploring the nearest river, forest, or wetland, she sometimes uses the other side of her brain to tune and repair pianos.
Their voices arrive first. A distant, soft-edged trill rolls toward the quiet, gray river. Soon, a flock of birds, flying in a lazy V formation, materializes in the southern sky. As it flies closer, as the voices grow louder and sharper, each gray bird becomes distinct, its neck outstretched, legs trailing behind. I raise my binoculars and watch the slow sweep of wings, the upward flick of wingtips. After ten months’ absence and a daylong flight, two hundred sandhill cranes are announcing their return to the Platte River. Their voices rise in pitch and intensity as they approach, as if they were elated to be here at last. Or perhaps it is only I who am elated. The flock skims across the channel, toward the north-bank meadow. The V collapses as the birds cup their wings in six-foot arcs that tip, glide, and tip again, while cranes fall like pattering rain.
This is how spring arrives at the Platte – not with the flip of a calendar page, but from little clouds blown in on a southerly wind. The first sprinkles began weeks ago, but by early March every day ends in a steady shower of cranes.
A second bugling flock glides into view, then a third. Then more. And more. Flocks coming in from the south are new arrivals. Others approach from north and west, from cornfields where they have been feeding since morning. They drift down to the meadow, smooth as smoke; just before they drop out of sight behind the streamside brush, the pale undersides of their wings flash golden in the late-afternoon light.
The sun sinks lower in the sky; all around, black tendrils appear to be rising from the horizon, interweaving, drifting nearer, converging on the river. Flocks of Canada geese and white-fronted geese trade back and forth above me, in search of an evening roost. Meanwhile, cranes continue pouring by the hundreds into the north meadow. Now come the snow geese – three hundred, four hundred, a thousand – in a glittering web that unravels across the sky. Bugles, honks, and squeaks blend in a steady, low-level din that washes across the river. Each passing flock sounds like a wind gust that swells to a roar as it approaches and then fades away.
Twisting clouds of cranes begin to rise from the meadow. They swirl for several seconds and fill the air with piercing bugles. The cranes spill down in waves, landing first on sandbars and then wading into the water to make way for those who follow.
A great roar rises downstream, and within moments the sky is churning with dark and white geese, up above, all around, swarming toward the sunset. Above the wading cranes, a fluttering gray and white blizzard of ten thousand geese piles up, hundreds of feet in the air. An invisible floor slides out from under them, and they drop down, filling the river, obscuring the water.
The last sliver of the sun dips below the earth’s rim; above it, stacked bands of orange and blue are strewn with black flecks – each fleck a bird, flying toward this river. The flecks stretch on and on, disappearing in the distance. In the thickening darkness, trumpeting, flapping silhouettes rain down onto the river all around the blind. All around one solitary human. Gradually the fluttering storm abates. Minutes pass; the voices grow calm. And finally, we are all still.
Thus is the Platte River valley transformed once a year from a region of cultivated fields and docile livestock into a land that’s wild with birds. Spring migration actually begins in February, with waterfowl – geese and ducks – arriving from wintering grounds, primarily in Texas and Mexico and along the Gulf Coast. Individual ducks and geese may stop over on the Platte or in the Rainwater Basin wetlands south of the river, for only a few days each. But as the first birds depart, more and more arrive, swelling their numbers through early March. All told, the waterfowl number in the millions. Meanwhile, the number of sandhill cranes rises throughout March, with individual birds stopping here for three or four weeks. Waterfowl and cranes alike are here for the same reason – this is the place that offers water in which to roost and a bountiful food source on which to fatten up before continuing north to the breeding grounds. In no other place along the Central flyway can migrating waterbirds find a quantity of habitat that so precisely satisfies their needs. And in no other place on earth can a person sit beside a river and see this many sandhill cranes.
Written by Terry Lee Schifferns, poet, and Chuck Peek
*Reproduced from "This River Beneath the Sky: A Year on the Platte" by Doreen Pfost by permission of the University of Nebraska Press, Copyright 2016 by the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
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