So for two to three hours every afternoon, Speranza escapes. She logs on to the Crane Cam, a live webcam hosted by Explore.org at the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary on the Platte River in central Nebraska, 5,000 miles away, where the sunrise rarely disappoints and the sandhill cranes are now at the tail end of one of the world’s greatest migrations.
“When I see the sky full of cranes, automatically my heart and mind get filled with joy,” she writes. “Listening to their calls, observing their elegant silhouette, admiring how gracefully they move by dancing — all these things give a lot of energy to my own internal battery.”
Although foot traffic at sanctuaries, refuges and other outdoor recreation areas has suffered, if not vanished altogether, in the wake of covid-19, many of those featuring live webcams are welcoming a new audience online. Since the coronavirus pandemic began, Explore.org, which hosts 167 cameras worldwide, has experienced an 80 to 85 percent increase in traffic across its entire platform compared to the same time last year.
“Animal and nature cams allow anyone who is stressed in this strange time to reconnect with the natural world in the purest of environments, ” says Explore.org founder Charles Annenberg Weingarten.
Every spring, between February and April, roughly 600,000 sandhill cranes (more than 80 percent of the world’s population) lay over on the Platte River as they migrate north, feasting on leftover grain in the surrounding farmland. In turn, nearly 50,000 tourists flock to see them, injecting an estimated $14 million into the area’s economy.
“People come with an expectation, and almost every one of them say they had no idea how incredible it was going to be,” says Bill Taddicken, director of the Rowe Sanctuary. “The sound is 80 percent of the entire experience. A single crane can be heard for over a mile, and you put sixty, seventy, eighty thousand birds all talking at the same time? I’ve seen people standing at the windows of the blinds with tears running down their face.”
As they have for millions of years, the cranes have returned again this spring, piercing the dewy calm each morning with their constant prattle, preening themselves in the safety of the river. But the Rowe Sanctuary closed to the public on March 16, in the midst of its busiest season, waving goodbye to roughly $300,000, or nearly a third of its annual budget.
The sanctuary isn’t scheduled to reopen until June 30, well after the cranes have migrated farther north. But the crane cam — operating on various platforms since 2004 — allowed would-be visitors the opportunity to witness the spectacle, in real time, quarantined or not, from the safety of their own homes. Installed on the grassy banks of the Platte, often catching whitetail deer and other critters, too, the crane cam is manually operated during sunrise and sunset, and generally tops out at around 350 viewers at a time, many of whom take advantage of the chat function on Explore.org. Like Speranza, they capture images and GIFs throughout the day and share them with simple captions — “Holy cranes!”—for others to appraise.
Speranza is hardly the only one tuning in to the migration for a little relief. Were it not for the pandemic, writer and journalist Megan Mayhew Berman, based in Vermont, would be out traveling on assignment. Instead, she, too, is stuck at home, and on more than one occasion, she has found herself fixed to the crane cam, what she recently called her “coping mechanism” on Twitter.
“There have been nights when my partner and children ask, ‘Are you still watching?’ And I am,” she says. “I’ve watched the birds during glorious sunsets and rainy evenings when they turn in early. I’ve watched them wake up and begin calling. In a world where everything feels destabilized, watching birds return to their usual and necessary patterns feels like a win.”
Paul Pearson, a sales rep at Thermo Fisher Scientific, has logged roughly 20 hours with the crane cam this year. To celebrate his birthday weekend, he and his wife Heather typically drive to the sanctuary in person from their home in Logan, Iowa. The same weekend they finally canceled this year’s reservation, Thermo Fisher received an Emergency Use Authorization from the FDA for its newly developed test kits for covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
“One day I’m bummed that I can’t go see the cranes, wondering what work will look like with the universities and labs shutting down for at least a month, and then less than a week later everything in my work world is focused on covid-19 testing,” he says. “Some long days of calls and emails have ended up with me eating dinner in front of the crane cam.”
Despite growing up nearby, I’ve never been to Rowe Sanctuary, but my wife and I have been sheltering in place in our Chicago apartment for nearly a month now, and on a recent Friday night, feeling the chills of cabin fever, we crashed on the couch with a few stiff cocktails and tuned in.
A brilliant orange sun spilled through the cottonwood trees, and the river — interrupted by grassy islands and hidden sandbars — reflected the show like a broken mirror. In the beginning, we could only hear the cranes, calling to their lifelong mates and family members in that clownish, primitive warble. Then the camera turned. Above the trees, a dotted line emerged, as if the sky could be torn open like a 1099. The warble grew louder and the dots multiplied, each one moving closer and closer still, sprouting wings and necks and finally, just before landing, two chopstick legs dangling in the wind. One by one, they roosted in the middle of the river, their feet submerged, while more and more cranes, arriving in waves, crowded out the frame, as if Hitchcock had delegated “The Birds” to Terrence Malick instead, the whole show growing more surreal, more impressionistic all the time.
Before we knew it, we’d spent an hour with the crane cam, our drinks untouched, nary a word spoken between us.
Still, there is no substitute for the real thing. Just ask Hobbes Logan. First his dog died. Then the pandemic hijacked the headlines and his equipment rental company in Omaha lost every order for the next several months.
“I was hitting a bit of a rough patch, but at least I was keeping it on the road,” he says. “And then suddenly there wasn’t any road at all.”
Thankfully, several years before, he’d sold a disaster recovery plan to Grand Island, a small city near the Platte River and now the epicenter of Nebraska’s covid-19 outbreak. “In this one regard I feel like the guy who owns a glass repair shop after a hailstorm,” he says. And it was on the way home from his delivery of 16 sanitized laptop computers that Logan pulled over to read a historical marker on the edge of town and stumbled upon his moment of Zen.
At first, he says, the sound was so all-encompassing he didn’t notice it. Then so palpable he couldn’t ignore it. Twenty-five yards ahead, feasting in a field of corn stubble, he spotted them, ancient and gray, their bright-red crowns ablaze in the afternoon sun. He thought of the ice sheet that once covered the whole state, the Platte River that once spanned the whole valley, the dinosaurs that once roamed where he now stood. And these prattling cranes, the oldest living bird species, witness to it all.
“It’s funny, but I thought about the Stradivarius violins for some reason, particularly this one violinist who had a Stradivarius stolen from him,” he says, recalling a “Moth Radio Hour” story he’d once heard. “When it was later returned, he realized that this thing was going to outlive him, had already outlived him by a long shot, and that changed his perspective. No longer was he the main story with the violin briefly passing through, but the violin was the main story and he was a side character.”