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The thrill of sandhill cranes
Plan now to witness Nebraska's spectacular bird migration next spring
For 15 years I spent a couple weeks each summer in Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park. One of the highlights of my time there was to go on early morning bird walks hosted by a park ranger. I learned about habitats and birdcalls and, when I was lucky, experienced the thrill of spotting a rare breed. The time spent with “birders” was both enjoyable and relaxing so when I heard of the spectacular sandhill crane migration in Nebraska I had to see it for myself. Last March I booked a flight to Omaha and drove three hours to Kearney (visitkearney.org), a small town near the Platte River where as many as a half a million of the large birds stop over on their annual migration.
Canadians don’t need any prompting to understand the wisdom of going south in the winter and like all good “snowbirds,” what goes south, must return north. Now picture a vast flock of cranes on the way to their northern home. For five weeks every March, as winter draws to a close, the banks of the Platte River become their resting and feeding place enroute to northern nesting grounds. Every year hundreds of birders, naturalists and the occasional curious Canadian doctor, flock there to experience America’s greatest migration.
Imagine being a sandhill crane, one of the oldest bird species on earth. You are a big grey bird, 90 to 120 centimetres tall and weigh about 4.5 to 5.5 kilos with a spectacular wing span of 1.65 to 2.29 metres. You have a red patch of skin on your head that gets engorged and turns redder during sexual excitement or anger. At the end of each summer, you fly south to bask in the sun in Mexico, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Florida. On the way back north, you look forward to an early spring stay on the Platte River where you gorge on the big buffet of corn left over from the previous year’s harvest. You fatten yourself up, gain about 20 percent of your weight, then fly on to northern Canada, Hudson’s Bay, and possibly even Alaska and Siberia.
At the end of your travels, as a couple you have 90 days to build a nest, copulate, hatch eggs and teach your chicks to fly before it’s time to head south again.
In Nebraska, on the northward journey, the crane stopover lasts about six weeks from the end of February to first week of April. The Rowe Sanctuary (rowe.audubon.org) managed by the Audubon Society is the place to see the cranes in their hundreds of thousands. The best time for viewing is dawn and dusk.
At 5am, I bundled up to face the freezing morning air and headed to the 1000-hectare property. From the parking lot, the cacophony coming from the river tells you the birds are in residence. My group stood behind a wooden blind with viewing windows to wait for the sun. The whole show takes a couple of hours so make sure you bundle up as you would for a full-on Canadian winter. Down parkas, warm hats, gloves and scarves are de rigueur. And don’t forget your binoculars, a camera with a long lens and, if you’re smart, a thermos of your favourite hot beverage.
You gaze out at the dark river and sandbars. The cranes use the sandbars of the shallow Platte River to discourage nighttime predators. Many stand knee deep in the water perhaps 20 metres from shore, thousands of them, a curious sight. Then, as the sun appears on the horizon, they rise on their massive wings in groups a dozen or two at a time lifting slowly into the dawn. It’s inspiring; you shiver with the wonder of it — and the early morning chill. They feed in the cornfields all day and then, as sunset gathers, they return to the protection of the river and bed down for the night. (Corn makes up about 90 percent of the their diet. Their feeding does a service to local farmers by cleaning up any left over waste from the fall harvest.)
We stayed until the last few had departed and then headed off with plans to come back before sunset to watch the cranes land on the river for the night.
Pelicans and other past times
Most of us drove an hour to the North Shore Marina at Harlan County Reservoir (harlantourism.org/activities_trails/birding.php) in Republican City to see another wonderful birding site home to hundreds of pelicans. The American white pelican weighs about 4.5 to 9 kilos and have wingspans of about 1.75 metres. After breakfast we were taken out by boat onto the lake to see the large white birds in action, a wonderful sight. During our time on the water, we also spotted Canadian geese, bald eagles, gulls, cormorants and ducks.
The next day, after seeing the cranes again at sunrise, we drove to Grand Island and visited the Crane Trust Nature and Visitor Center (cranetrust.org). The Crane Trust is a private non-profit established to protect and restore the cranes’ habitat. The biggest challenge is to preserve the fresh water, 70 percent of which gets diverted for farming and industry before it ever reaches the protected areas.
Seeing the cranes and pelicans is reason enough to trek down to the River Platte, but it’s not the only reason. You’ll also want to call in at the Prairie Heritage Stuhr Museum (stuhrmuseum.org) in Grand Isle, an acclaimed living history museum. Their mission is to translate the past for the people of the future. Joe Black, the museum’s executive director, showed us around and vividly told the story of the towns, settlements and communities that populated rural Nebraska between 1860 and 1929.
We learned of the roughly 10,000 members of the Pawnee Nation that were living in Nebraska before the Europeans arrived. With the settlers, came disease and the slaughter of millions of buffalo, which put an end to the Pawnee Nation’s primary food source and, with it, their way of life. In the end, the few hundred remaining Pawnee were force-marched to Kentucky where they were given land for a reservation.
The Stuhr houses over 150,000 artifacts in more than 100 historic structures. There’s even a restored railroad town from the end of the 19th century complete with a flourmill, blacksmith shop and sheriff’s office.
Crane watching is confined to a couple of hours at dawn and dusk so it’s best to plan some other activities. During the crane season, there are a lot of scheduled tourist goings-on in Kearney, Grand Island and Hastings.
In addition to the Stuhr, I recommend a visit to the Great Platte River Road Archway (archway.org) at Kearney, an impressive structure that tells the story of early settlers in a very entertaining and educational way. The Museum of Nebraska Art in Kearney and the Hastings Museum of Natural and Cultural History are also worth a visit. And if that’s not quite enough, you can also head over to the Heartland Public Shooting Park (see the sidebar, Dr Mel shoots guns!).
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