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U.S.A. -- NEBRASKA: Sandhill Cranes

13 - 16 March 1997

by Norm and Fran Saunders

We were both in agreement: even though this hadn't been a terribly severe winter, it was just hanging on altogether too long!  We needed a short vacation, a getaway, something to clear the cobwebs and get us through these last few weeks of March.  As I thought about it I remembered stories that Marty Chestem had told us of her trips each year to the big Audubon Society Convention, where she saw lots and lots of Sandhill Cranes.

So I said to Fran, somewhat hesitantly, I'll admit, "How about Nebraska?" And so, in a very short space of time, we went from tentatively looking for a Spring Break to a long weekend in the heartland of Tall Grass Prairie Country, to see the phenomenon of the Sandhill Cranes along the Platte River Basin and of the massing squadrons of waterfowl in Nebraska's Rainwater Basin District.

Most of the crane activity seems to be focused along a 50-mile strip of the Platte River, running between Grand Island and Kearney (pronounced Carney).  On Thursday we spent the morning flying and the early afternoon driving from Lincoln to our motel in Grand Island.  We were torn about where to stay, in Grand Island or in Kearney.  The latter is the site of a major branch of the University of Nebraska and a gorgeous old Midwestern town in its own right.  Kearney is the locale for the annual Audubon Convention, as well, and sports a wide array of hotels and motels in every price range, as well as many excellent restaurants.  On the downside, Kearney is another 60 miles further west (Grand Island was a 90-mile drive from the airport in Lincoln), so we decided to stay in a Holiday Inn just off the Grand Island exit from I-80.  As it turned out, most of the crane activity seemed to be here rather than further west, so it was a fortuitous decision.

There are two nature centers in this area, both must-visits.  Crane Meadows Nature Center at Alda, about 6 miles west of Grand Island, was the older of the two but perhaps the one less well known.  The other is the Rowe Sanctuary, a property of National Audubon situated a few miles southeast of Kearney.  Friday we spent doing an auto-tour of the farmlands surrounding the Platte near Kearney, compliments of the Rowe Sanctuary.  While we didn't see as many Sandhill Cranes as we had anticipated, we were still seeing flocks of over 1,000 birds in field after field.  The auto tour route also turned up our first Harris' Sparrows of the trip and superb looks at both Western Meadowlarks and a Northern Shrike.  We come from a state where Meadowlarks have been all but extirpated in many locales, so to see fields filled with hundreds of these beautiful songsters was pleasure indeed!  The Northern Shrike we chased down a 200-yard hedgerow along the road until the bird finally gave up running from us and perched out in the open for several minutes, allowing us to tick off all the field marks that differentiate this bird from the Loggerhead, the Shrike species we're the most familiar with.

Friday evening we were booked into the crane blind maintained by the Crane Meadows Nature Center.  While we waited in the spacious blind for the sun to set and for the cranes to begin arriving at their roosting sites in the middle of the Platte (the Platte is said to be "a mile wide and 6 inches deep") we were treated to views of an adult and a juvenile Bald Eagle hunting along the river, a Northern Harrier hunting over the prairie beside the river, and deer slowly moving across the prairie to drink from the Platte.

The biggest news of the day for us though was that a single Whooping Crane had shown up the previous Monday, the earliest ever recorded date for this species' arrival along the crane migration area.  You can appreciate our excitement as we rode up and down the dusty back roads of the area, scanning flock after flock of feeding Sandhill Cranes, looking for the tell-tale tower of white feathers.  You can also imagine our disappointment at not finding the bird this day.

Saturday we set aside to look more carefully for the Whooping Crane and we viewed at least a dozen different spots where the bird had been seen the past few days, all to no avail.  Finally we took a break for lunch at a lovely coffee shop in old downtown Grand Island then went back once again to stop at the Crane Meadows Nature Center.  This time they sent us off in a slightly different direction and, hurrah!, there was that magnificent bird (one of only 158 left in the wild, we were told) feeding in the middle of an enormous flock of about 7-8,000 Sandhill Cranes.  If such an event had happened here, along the Mid-Atlantic Coast, there would be no trouble at all locating the bird because the nearby roadsides would be lined wall-to-wall with birders and scopes and cars.  In Nebraska there were a lot of birders also out looking for the Whooper, but this enormous country simply swallowed them up.  I think we actually saw and chatted with only about 3-4 birders in the 4 days we were actively looking for birds here, and yet there were enormous numbers of birders wandering around the area!

Sunday, our last day, we set aside the morning to take a leisurely driving tour of the Eastern Rainwater Basin area, situated between Lincoln and Grand Island and south of I-80.  In this area the seemingly never-ending winds have scooped out occasional depressions in the ground, none very deep, which hold snow-melt and rainwater runoff from the winter.  These wetlands don't stay wet very long, but they're normally wet when it matters--when the Central Flyway waterfowl are massing and moving north to their Canadian nesting grounds.  An unfortunate Arctic Express the day after we arrived left most of the ponds frozen solid, but the few that were wet, were filled to the brim with 20 different species of waterfowl.  The primary species noted were Snow, Canada, and Greater White-fronted Geese, Mallard, Northern Pintail, and Green-winged Teal.  What a breathtaking sight to see entire flocks of Greater White-fronteds!  And to see flocks of Snow Geese where the blue phase birds outnumbered the white ones!

We were a bit disappointed that we saw no shorebirds, but the mudflats were also frozen solid.  Maybe next Spring?

How should you dress if you go there?  Well, the day before we arrived it was sunny and calm with the temperature in the 60's.  The Thursday we arrived it was raining hard, the temps were dropping into the low 30's and the wind was blowing very hard out of the northwest.  On Friday we awoke to a temperature of -10 degrees F, accompanied by winds topping out at 50 mph, giving us wind chills of at least 30-40 degrees below zero--the most breath-taking cold we've ever experienced!  Saturday it snowed all morning, but the wind abated, making the 25 degree temperatures feel downright balmy.  By Sunday the wind had picked up again but was blowing hard out of the south, so by the time we pulled into the rental car return lot at the Lincoln Municipal Airport, the temperatures had once again climbed into the 60's.  Enough said?

How expensive is it?  Motels run from $25-60 per night.  TWA from BWI to St.  Louis to Lincoln was $195 each, round trip.  A Hertz car was $25 per day.  Food was cheap, good, and plentiful (just stay away from the Holiday Inn in Grand Island dining room--icky).  An evening in the blind at either Rowe Sanctuary or Crane Meadows is $15 per person.  Make reservations WELL in advance!  So, for two people for four days, figure on about $800.  We spent a bit less but our tastes in food are, admittedly, somewhat less than 4-star.


       Crane Meadows Nature Center      Rowe Sanctuary
       9775 S. Alda Road                44450 Elm Island Road
       Wood River, NE  68883            Gibbon, NE   68840
       308-382-1820                     308-468-5282

Web Sites

       Sandhill Cranes - An Introduction
       Info re: Platte River Sandhill Cranes

Birding Guide

              Birding Crane River: Nebraska's Platte
               by Gary R. Lingle, ills. By William S. Whitney and Ernest V. Ochsner
               Harrier Publishing, P.O. Box 5352
               Grand Island, NE  68802-5353

Birds seen (*** denotes a life bird for us):

      Species                      Mar   Mar   Mar   Mar
                                    13    14    15    16
Greater White-fronted Goose         x     x           x
Snow Goose                          x     x     x     x
Ross' Goose                                           x
Canada Goose                        x     x     x     x
Wood Duck                                 x     x
Green-winged Teal                         x     x     x
Mallard                             x     x     x     x
Northern Pintail                          x     x     x
Blue-winged Teal                    x     x
Northern Shoveler                   x
American Wigeon                           x     x
Canvasback                                            x
Redhead                                   x           x
Ring-necked Duck                          x     x
Greater Scaup                                   x
Lesser Scaup                                    x     x
Common Goldeneye                          x     x
Bufflehead                                x           x
Common Merganser                          x     x
Ruddy Duck                                            x
Osprey                                                x
Bald Eagle                                x           x
Northern Harrier                    x     x           x
Red-shouldered Hawk                 x
Swainson's Hawk                                 x
Red-tailed hawk                     x     x     x     x
Rough-legged Hawk                   x
American Kestrel                                x     x
Merlin                                                x
Ring-necked Pheasant                                  x
American Coot                             x
Sandhill Crane                      x     x     x     x
Whooping Crane ***                              x
Killdeer                            x     x     x
Ring-billed Gull                                      x
Herring Gull                                          x
Rock Dove                           x     x     x     x
Red-bellied Woodpecker                    x     x
Downy Woodpecker                          x     x
Hairy Woodpecker                                x
Northern Flicker                          x
Horned Lark                               x
Violet-green Swallow                      x
Blue Jay                                  x     x     x
American Crow                       x           x     x
Black-capped Chickadee              x           x
Red-breasted Nuthatch                           x
White-breasted Nuthatch                         x
American Robin                      x     x     x     x
Northern Shrike ***                       x
European Starling                   x     x     x     x
Eastern Towhee                                  x
American Tree Sparrow                     x     x
Clay-colored Sparrow ***                        x
Song Sparrow                                    x
Harris' Sparrow ***                       x     x
Dark-eyed Junco                           x     x
Red-winged Blackbird                x     x     x     x
Eastern Meadowlark                        x     x     x
Western Meadowlark ***                    x     x     x
Rusty Blackbird                                 x     x
Great-tailed Grackle                                  x
House Finch                               x
American Goldfinch                        x     x
House Sparrow                       x     x     x

Norm & Fran Saunders
Colesville, MD