Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Sandhill Cranes in Nebraska

We enjoyed the Sandhill Cranes at Monte Vista NWR so much, that we decided we needed to travel to Nebraska to see the greatest concentration of them in the world. There is an 80 mile wide migration "flyway" located roughly between Kearney and Grand Island through which 80% of the world's population of Sandhills travel in March and early April. This means up to 600,000 cranes enjoy the safety of the Platte River at night, while fueling up mostly on corn in the neighboring farm fields.

The weather was great for viewing and we saw temperatures well into the 70's. Monday evening we arrived in time to see the birds arriving from roadside viewing platforms near the Rowe Sanctuary and Audubon Center. As the full moon rose, wave after wave of birds filled the skies in layers, from directly overhead to as far out on the horizon as you could see. The magnitude of their numbers was inescapable as their calls surrounded us with sound.

We spent the night up near Grand Island so that Tuesday morning we were closer to the Nebraska Nature and Visitor's Center, where we had scheduled a 6AM Crane Tour. After a brief and informative orientation, our friendly and knowledgeable guide escorted us on a short drive to the viewing blind parking area. A 10 minute walk in the dark got us to the blinds, modified truck boxes which were a little noisy in the morning breeze off the river. At first the birds were mostly still, chatting quietly amongst themselves. As the sun rose, it was fantastic to see them waking up and start their "dancing" with crescendoing calls heard up and down the river. We stayed until 9AM by which time most of the birds had flown off, enjoying our own conversations with other folks in the blind.

After a late breakfast, we drove around the local farmlands to watch the birds feeding in the fields. All along the route we would see them "loafing" as well as flying overhead here and there. We ended up at the Rowe Sanctuary viewing blind in the afternoon, where we enjoyed watching shorebirds and spotted a Belted Kingfisher fishing. Afterward, we listened to their Crane 101 program and visited with volunteers at the Center.

The visitor centers and viewing blinds at both the Nebraska Nature and Visitor's Center (http://nebraskanature.org) and the Rowe Sanctuary (http://www.rowesanctuary.org/) were very good and even if you don't want to pay for a blind tour, they are worth a stop to gather information and view their displays. When we go back, we will be sure to check out the Cranes from Hike/Bike Bridge located at Fort Kearny State Recreational Area. A small fee to park and a 300 yard walk is all you need do to access this old railroad bridge over the braided Platte. Even though the peak viewing for 2010 has passed, there is still very good Crane viewing in early April. And the Prairie Chicken leks are just getting started!

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