The Moeller farm on Mormon Island, Neb., lies right in the path of the central flyway, a great avian migratory route that runs from central Mexico to eastern Siberia. Through it each spring pass 560,000 sandhill cranes, 9 million ducks and geese, more than 500 bald eagles, 104 piping plovers, 110 least terns and 96 of the world's remaining population of 171 whooping cranes. Few bird watchers are lucky enough to spot the latter along their 2,500-mile flight from the Gulf Coast of Texas to Canada's Northwest Territories. They are secretive, and they travel in small groups. But no one in the area along Nebraska's Platte River can avoid encountering the whooper's brethren, the sandhills, which tarry for weeks in concentrations of 20,000 per mile.
The gathering of sandhill cranes on and around the Moeller farm is one of nature's most spectacular rites of spring. "It is," writes Ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson, "the largest concentration of any species of crane anywhere in the world." In the lifting darkness that precedes sunrise, the sandhills roosting in the shallows might be mistaken for carvings on a stone frieze. Soon the frieze begins to ripple with motion as the cranes stretch their wings and, voices rising, take off in small groups of 20 and 30. For over an hour, the river casts out lines of great gray birds. They soar over winter-brown pasture and goldencorn stubble--giant kites on invisible strings. But sandhill cranes cannot pass for paper birds very long. The racket they make gives them away.
Listening to the sandhills is much like hearing unfamiliar and cacophonous music. Cranes cannot be said to sing. Rather, they are a whole orchestra that can reproduce at one and the same time the sound of geese honking, frogs croaking, cats purring, whistles blowing, castanets clicking, trumpets blaring, flutes trilling and even the roaring cheers of a fully packed football stadium. "As soon as you hear it," nods Don Howell, a retired telephone company man from nearby Grand Island, "you just know they're cranes."
The annual chorus is a familiar sound to Pat and Larry Moeller. "It's eerie," says Pat. "A couple of weeks ago, there were so many they filled the sky, and there was not a one that didn't have its mouth open." The Moellers live in a white farmhouse on 400 acres of land that used to belong to Larry's father and uncle, and before that his grandfather, and before that his great grandfather. Next year, however, title to the property will pass to a local conservation group called the Platte River Whooping Crane Maintenance Trust. "It's kind of sad to see it go," says Larry of the sale of the family homestead. "But my dad and uncle are both retiring, and I guess they wanted a little cash in their pockets." For as long as he can remember, Larry Moeller has associated the cranes with the coming of spring. This year the first pairs landed on Feb. 1, declaring an end to winter almost two weeks early. Ever since, the Moellers have become bird-watcher watchers. Led by a guide from the trust, cars and campers with license plates from all over the country parade daily by the farmhouse looking for cranes. At dawn and at dusk, the visitors gather in a large blind built of concrete blocks and sunk into a riverside berm like a war-zone bunker. In crane country it is people who are the interlopers.