Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

Sandy Griswold. February 10, 1900. [Sandhill Crane Hunting on the Sprawling Platte.] Omaha Sunday World-Herald 35(133): 18. Has a sketch of three flying cranes for the starting paragraph.

Forest Field and Stream.

Incredible as it may seem to the young sportsman of today, there is no mistake about it, a quarter of a century ago Nebraska was one of the most favored feeding and resting grounds for the sandhill crane there was in the whole country. Just a short ways northeast of Rogers, out on the Platte, lies quite an extensive half open valley and half billowy prairie, which was formerly thickly covered with the curly buffalo grass, with clumps of hybrid acacia and splashes of moccasin flowers merging into reeds and rushes as you approached the river. This stretch of country was a great stamping and picking ground for the sandhills all through the dreary month of October, and well into gloomy November, when the air became biting and started the birds on toward their winter homes in the balmier south.

It was to the ground Hardin and I made our way late one October afternoon on the occasion mentioned, in my article last Sunday, determined to make a kill on cranes. We jumped a big string of the slate colored birds from a gentle swell-side on our arrival, and realizing by the droppings and the closely cropped buffalo tendrils and long-toed tracks in the dusty paths that this would be as likely a spot to make our blind as we could find in a day's search, we set to work.

It took us a good hour and a half, but in that time we had succeeded in digging two ample pits, carted away all the freshly upturned earth, hidden our implements of toil amidst the nearby moccasins and settled ourselves for the evening flight. All the time we were at work we had seen bunches of uneasy cranes both to the north and south of us, and heard their unearthly notes almost continually as they clove the hazy space warily far without our range of vision.

The sun's slanting rays were pinking the closely-plucked grass and striking the wall of distant reeds like golden rain, when, over the northwest horizon, heralded by their far-reaching and peculiar tremolo, we descried a huge flock of cranes, which in a long line of bluish gray against the rufous background of the distant prairie, were sweeping toward us.

John and I thought we were to commence doing business right away, but when the great birds settled on the level plain a half mile away our chagrin and disappointment will be appreciated by all the old-timers, who have endured the same experience often and again in the early days along the sprawling Platte.

"They are on to us," remarked Hardin, "but mark! There comes another flock!"

And sure enough, just above the horizon, off to the northwest, another long string of bluish objects dotted the background sky. They were drifting leisurely, it looked at such a distance, yet with almost incredible speed, down toward us, and in a few moments after first becoming visible, they swooped lower and came on, apparently just skimming the yellowing tops of the tall prairie grass. As their oblong shapes became more clearly defined against the sombre background and those wild notes rang clearer and more searchingly, John and I grasped our guns with firmer grip and waited, and, in my impatience, half raised and brought my piece almost to shoulder.

"They are a mile away!"

That was John's laconic announcement as he noted my uneasiness, and he uttered it without once removing his keen grey eyes from the onmarching, feathered line.

No other of all our varied assortment of game birds has one thousandth part of the ostentatious display and impressive ceremony about them as marks the deportment of the sandhill crane; and when, instead of sailing directly down to their stamping grounds, on which Hardin and I were crouching in our pits, and for which they had undoubtedly been making, this flock swept round the whole celestial amphitheater in long reaches of spiral flight, uttering their thrilling guttural notes of suspicion and warning, and finally let themselves gracefully down amongst their cackling companions on the distant level plain. I am sadly afraid that I indulged in some flowery exclamations that are not frequently used in polite society.

But we were left to lament but a few moments, for, making dark splotches against the long piercing shafts of ruby and topaz light, that were shooting from the western horizon up toward the purpling zenith, we beheld another line of approaching sandhills. And then followed another spasm of hopes and fears and feverish excitement, but John and I kept well down and waited. The flock was bearing directly down upon us, and I knew if we could resist the temptation to twist our necks, or to get into a better position, and would remain perfectly death-like until we heard the broad wings winnowing in the air above us, we would surely get a shot.

Few moment's in the sportsman's career are more blood-tingling than those spent in such a position, with a wild chorus trilled by half a hundred throats growing nearer and clearer every second and the knowledge, that if you had but crooked an elbow or batted an eye, they would be off in the gathering shades like apparitions of the air, makes it the extreme climacteric in one's day's afield.

With every resounding tone John and I gripped our guns the tighter, crouched lower and listened intently for the sound of wings which we intuitively understood was to be the signal for our rising to our feet and commencing our bloody work.

The youthful tyro, whose experience has been confined to a fruitless night or morning after ducks at Cutoff or Manawa, or to doves along the country roadside, and mayhap a snipe and a quail or two, may think that it was an easy matter for us to contain ourselves when those startling tones were piercing the evening air and reverberating along the lonely slope-side not a hundred yards away, but let him wait until he finds himself in the same ecstatic predicament to paraphrase the word, and he will, I warrant you, change his mind.

With a suddenness that fairly caused our hearts to cease their beating, we caught the soft fanning of the air above our heads, and then, like frightful jumping-jacks in a box, we leaped to our feet and banged away. I saw one of the great birds whirl to the earth in a huddle of long legs, neck and outspread wings at my first barrel, and my whole being was aglow with exquisite triumph, and I was so excited that I made a clean miss with my second-under-shot a mark that looked to my bulging optics like a flying freight car, so close upon me was the bird!

John was more experienced at this sort of shooting than I was, and he kept his nerve with him, and of course dropped a crane with each barrel.

While that was not the first sandhill crane I ever killed, I shall never forget the supreme thrills I felt that October evening as I jumped from my cramped position in that sandy pit out on the Rogers prairie! The caste of actors that thronged that twilight stage was worth a year of life to behold. Three dozen birds, all larger than Canada geese, pouring a very storm of the most penetrating sounds that ever rolled from feathered throat, went wheeling and sheering and wildly gyrating against the orange of the western background sky, with the dying rays of the sun flashing from black pointreled beaks and beating wings, and the fiery flash of our guns, and the crash of their mingled reports, the smoke, the whirling dead, the arrowy shafts of slicing sunshine, and all of the purpling surroundings combined in making a scene that was at once forever graven on the tablets of my memory.

Alas, the days that are no more! Ruthless time plies his fleeting pinions, and already the sandhill crane is with many of my old comrades, but a memory of the past. But what a tender memory it is. As many a day I hunted this great bird, and felt rewarded for many hardships simply by the sight of him sweeping in the empyrean from feeding field to stamping ground and hearing the thrilling music of his far-reaching tremolo, so now I must hunt but in memory's field alone.

Next Sunday I will endeavor to conclude the story of our days at Rogers among the sandhills, and then give you a reminiscence with the sandhill's cousin, the whooping crane, a bird now almost, if not quite, extinct.