In corn-stubble fields on both sides of Nebraska’s Highway 30 stood hundreds of tall birds, gray feather dusters on stilts. Some foraged for kernels dropped during last fall’s harvest, still more stood about as if gossiping, while others jumped and flapped in impromptu dances.
I wanted to cheer. I was looking at exactly what I had come to see: migrating Sandhill Cranes staging along the Platte River. It was as exciting last spring as it had been the first time I traveled to Nebraska, 19 years earlier. The thrill was the same, but the experience was different.
I made my first pilgrimage with a birding group in March 1995. Then, when we told a lunchtime waitress we were birdwatchers, she gave us a puzzled smile. “Cranes have been coming twice a year, and we just thought, ‘Well, there are those big, obnoxious birds again,’ ” she said. “And now, lots of people come here to see them.”
The surprise in her voice echoed the reaction we’d seen before: astonishment that people would travel a thousand miles to see those “obnoxious birds.”
‘Are you here for the birds?’
In March 2014, I went back for a week to relive the experience and to see what had changed in the intervening years. On the second trip, when our group entered a restaurant or store, we didn’t have to open our mouths; someone was sure to ask, “Are you here for the birds?”
When we said yes, the questioner would often launch into a proud and personal story about the cranes. Or someone would ask us where we were from, as if we earned points for being from faraway places.
The cranes were the same; the people had changed.
The Audubon Naturalist Society, based in Chevy Chase, Maryland, sponsored both trips. To see the cranes, our group traveled about 1,300 miles from the Washington, D.C., area.
That’s nothing for the cranes. To get to their breeding grounds every spring, they leave their winter homes in the southwestern United States and Mexico and fly north as far as Alaska or even Siberia. That distance can be more than 4,000 miles.
When Sandhills migrate
Sandhill Cranes that migrate through Nebraska are members of the Mid-Continent Population. They spend the winter in southeastern Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and central and northern Mexico and breed in Canada and northwestern Minnesota and as far away as western Alaska and southeastern Asia.
The cranes depart their wintering areas between late February and early March and arrive at the North Platte and Platte River valleys in late February. Numbers peak from mid- to late March.
The birds depart Nebraska from early to mid-April and arrive at nesting areas in Manitoba in late April, in Alaska from early to mid-May, and in Siberia no sooner than early May.
On my first trip, a docent with the Crane Meadows Nature Center told me, “They start coming in on Valentine’s Day, peak on Saint Patrick’s Day, and are gone on Tax Day.” (The nature center, located along the river south of Alda, is now known as the Crane Trust Nature and Visitor Center.) Following their millennia-old route, the cranes stop at the Platte, a winding thread of riparian habitat in what was tallgrass prairie but is now a sea of corn, to rest and build up fat reserves for the next stage of their trip. They even sleep in the Platte. Broad and shallow, the river braids through sandbars and islets, providing safe overnight accommodations.
Last March, as we approached the river valley along I-80 from Lincoln, in the southeastern corner of the state, I worried about the cranes. In the previous two years, serious drought had plagued the Midwest. Land-use and water issues were dominating habitat problems for birds in the West; cranes and other birds were losing suitable habitat as more prairie was plowed under and more water was diverted for irrigation and development. Many of the ponds and prairie potholes that millions of migrating waterfowl and Snow Geese depend on were dry. The Platte, so valuable for wildlife, was being called upon more and more to serve the needs of people. The area had become so dry that we saw few waterfowl. Little whirlwinds lifted cornhusks into mini-tornadoes. Would the cranes be safe?
I needn’t have worried. About four miles from the city of Grand Island, we saw the first great swirling clouds of circling cranes. Then we saw them in the fields and heard the first Garrrooo, the cranes’ hollow gurgling music. Our van filled with smiles and joyful exclamations. The wary birds stayed far from the road, but our scopes brought in their red foreheads, rapier bills, and long, sturdy legs.
Numbers fairly stable
Over the next few days, we traversed the Big Bend, that part of the river between Grand Island and Lexington, farther west, where conditions still favor the cranes. Even here, development and other human actions were more pervasive than on my first trip, but the cranes seemed unaffected. Hal Wierenga, our trip leader, agreed. He’s an ornithological consultant who has led seven trips to the Platte and Nebraska’s Sandhill Country. He told us the crane numbers have stayed fairly stable in the 25 years he’s been coming here. Sandhills are hunted for food in winter in many states, and they don’t breed until they’re four or five years old, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that about half a million birds still migrate through the middle of the continent.
Most wet meadows that once bordered the Platte have been drained for agriculture. Fewer frogs, snails, and small fish are available as protein-rich crane food, but the birds have adapted, gleaning corn left in the fields. New harvesters will be more efficient than the machines in use today, but the state of Nebraska may then pay farmers to leave more corn, as is done in national wildlife refuges. A coalition of the Nature Conservancy, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and Ducks Unlimited is recreating wetlands in the Platte River Valley — a benefit to cranes and waterfowl.
The service monitors the river’s flow. Shortly after my trip, enough water was released from reservoirs to cause a flow of 700 cubic feet per second in the Platte. This would ensure protection of the standing birds at night.
An even less common crane
Whooping Crane isn’t the only rare crane that occasionally travels with Nebraska’s Sandhill Cranes. Common Crane, a Eurasian species, has also been found, and so regularly that it’s now thought to be annual. The state’s last report was in April 2014, when one was discovered in a group of 2,000 Sandhills near Elm Creek, a town between Kearney and Lexington.
Birders reported individual Common Cranes eight months later in west Texas and New Mexico, adding fuel to speculation that Common Cranes spotted in interior North America probably joined populations of Lesser Sandhills on their breeding grounds in northeastern Asia and then accompanied them to and from their wintering areas.
Local interest has increased. At places like the 1,900-acre Lillian Annette Rowe Bird Sanctuary, commonly known as the Rowe Sanctuary, between Grand Island and Kearney, volunteers help the professionals scour the sandbar islands. Ridding the islands of non-native invasives and woody plants saves roosting sites for the cranes.
On both trips, watching cranes come to the river in the evening was a delight. As we stood on a bridge over the Platte south of Alda, cranes in their hundreds hallooed overhead, sailed in graceful curves above us, and drifted down to the safe harbor of the river. Exotic patterns formed like a constantly shifting calligraphy as skein after skein of cranes floated down to the sandbars.
Looking upriver, we gazed at a beautiful sunset enhanced by crane silhouettes. Looking downriver, we watched cranes descend like paratroopers, wings cupped and legs dangling, to join the others on the sandbars and in the shallows. (In “Amazing Birds” in February 2015, Founding Editor Eldon Greij described how cranes and other big birds land so softly.) Feathered islands in the Platte, the birds kept up a constant barrage of sound, something like huge truck tires spinning on distant highways.
While some drivers may be annoyed by crane-watchers clogging their roads, I noticed that many locals now seem more aware of the lucrative business the huge photogenic birds bring their way. Ecotourism isn’t a feature of the African plains only; cranes generate America’s own amazing migration spectacle, drawing thousands of visitors a year. The annual spring onslaught of crane-watchers injects an estimated $11 million into Nebraska’s economy.
In addition to the state’s increased conservation efforts, facilities for observing cranes have been improved greatly since my first visit. The towns along the Platte and the several visitor centers have added to and upgraded their blinds and educational displays.
The beautiful nature and visitor center operated by the Platte River Whooping Crane Maintenance Trust, better known as the Crane Trust, is a good example. Built by Crane Meadows in 2004 and called the Nebraska Nature and Visitor Center between 2009 and 2011, it provides blinds at locations along the river from which we could feast our eyes on Sandhills and hope for an occasional Whooping Crane as well.
Where to find more information about organizations and events mentioned in this article.
CRANE TRUST INC.
6611 W. Whooping Crane Dr., Wood River.
CRANE TRUST NATURE AND VISITOR CENTER
Interstate 80, Exit 305, Alda.
LILLIAN ANNETTE ROWE BIRD SANCTUARY
4450 Elm Island Rd., Gibbon.
AUDUBON’S NEBRASKA CRANE FESTIVAL
Kearney, March 17-20, 2016.
ANNUAL MIDWEST CRANE COUNT
Wisconsin and portions of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, and Minnesota, every year in mid-April.
The Crane Trust was founded in 1978 to preserve land along the Platte to benefit wild Whoopers as they migrate between Texas and Canada. So it’s ironic that Whooping Crane numbers in recent years have been higher along the Loup River, a northern tributary that joins the Platte south of Columbus, because too many people are now in the Platte River Valley.
A talk about the cranes was scheduled, but a local television station was interviewing our speaker, another indication of increased interest in the Platte phenomenon. Instead, Karen Krull Robart, a Crane Trust spokesperson, told us about Bob, a famous Whooping Crane that has traveled with Sandhill Cranes for the last four years. She said she had nicknamed the bird after her brother, who had a tendency to get lost. It’s a shame that the crane is running with the wrong crowd, Robart explained, because he won’t mate successfully.
As sunset approached, we walked down the trail to a new blind with tiered seating, large windows that could be hooked open, and a great view of Sandhill Cranes descending to the river’s sandbars. We were told another blind was downstream, a VIP blind that Jane Goodall, the famous English primatologist, would use the next night. Goodall has made witnessing the migration an annual tradition. “Nebraska is special to me,” she has said. “I’ve traveled far and wide, and coming to Nebraska and seeing and hearing the cranes always restores my soul.” Amen, Dr. Goodall.
Three Crane Trust docents accompanied us. We had to stay in the blind until dark, so our exit wouldn’t alarm the wary cranes. They prefer the least disturbed areas of the river, making observation blinds like this a valuable part of the sanctuary. Braided rivers tend to be deeper at the edges than in the middle, so the cranes are seldom menaced by foxes or bobcats. “But I’ve seen deer walk right through the birds with no problem,” one of the docents said, laughing. At seven o’clock, cranes were already crowding the sandbars in the middle of the river. More drifted down, somehow slotting themselves into the group. The standing birds all faced into the wind.
Many were drinking, tilting their heads back to let the water trickle down their long throats. Some bathed, ducking down into the current, swishing their feathery bustles. Occasionally, a crane lost its footing and was washed, flailing and splashing, a few feet downstream before scrambling up again. Through the open windows, we could hear the continuous calls. Ornithologist Paul Johnsgard, emeritus professor at the University of Nebraska and a long-time student of the crane family, aptly titled one of his books Crane Music (University of Nebraska Press, 1998). Crane music: the wild primeval voices of thousands of cranes.
Searching for Bob
We scanned the cranes in search of Bob the lost Whooping Crane. We knew he would be a bit taller and a lot whiter than the Sandhills, but, sadly, we failed to find him. The setting sun gilded the scene as more and more cranes descended to the river, crowding into their chosen areas. We watched until darkness swallowed river and birds.
Another favorite activity on both trips was observing morning liftoff. The birds seemed in no hurry but lingered in the river as if enjoying the dawn chorus of meadowlarks and cardinals. One day, an eagle flew upstream, causing hundreds of cranes to leap into the air, shouting. Other days, when there was no reason for alarm, small groups would dance a few steps on the sandbar and then take off. Juvenile voices mixed with those of their parents, piccolos among bugles.
At Kearney (pronounced KAR-nee), where a museum and reconstructed buildings commemorated the early Fort Kearny, a docent told us that Bob the Whooping Crane had been sighted by premier Nebraska ornithologist Gary Lingle. This was good news, as Lingle had served for years as the Crane Trust’s avian ecologist and habitat manager. He was also the author of the classic guide Birding Crane River: Nebraska’s Platte (Harrier, 1994). He would know Bob if anyone would. It was a relief to learn that Bob had returned.
After a sojourn north through Nebraska’s Sandhills (where one will never see a Sandhill Crane except in flight), we came back down to the Platte at Lexington. Snow swirled around the vans as we headed to Lincoln for our flights home. Sandhill Cranes were still feeding in fields along the Platte. Through the gauze curtain of blowing snowflakes, the sight of two cranes bowing to each other seemed a mystical promise of continuance.
Cecily Nabors is the coordinator of the Natural History Field Studies program co-sponsored by the Audubon Naturalist Society. A freelance writer, she has published more than 100 stories and articles for adults and children in the Washington Post and other publications. For several years, she wrote the column “Observations” for the Audubon Naturalist News. She lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.
More about cranes
This article was published in our April 2015 issue. Subscribe.