The Great Crane Migration

By Carole Jacobs

We’re at the Crane Trust Nature & Visitor Center in Wood River, Nebraska, to witness the annual spring migration of the Sandhill cranes, hailed by ethologist Jane Goodall as one of the top ten animal migrations on earth.

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Each March, 80 percent of the world’s more than half-million cranes wing their way to this remote, 80-mile bottleneck of the Central Platte River, a winding thread of riparian habitat in what was tallgrass prairie but is now a sea of corn, following their 5,000-mile-roundtrip millennia-old route from Mexico, Texas and New Mexico to Canada and Siberia.

Approaching in the sky from a distance, the birds look like wisps of smoke as they swoop and swerve in an ever-changing aerial ballet. Whether stepping singly across a wet meadow or filling the sky by the hundreds and thousands, these 4-foot-tall birds with a six-foot wing span group together in large numbers, breeding in open wetlands and prairies and displaying to each other with exuberant dances that retain a gangly grace.

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As the sun rises over the Platte, they rise from the river as if on cue and take to the sky in great winged flocks, disperse to nearby corn fields for the day to scavenge.  The Crane Trust, as well as the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary near Kearney, Nebraska, are two of the best places on earth to witness the birds and their migratory and mating practices up close, and I feel very fortunate to be visiting both of them during peak crane week.

If you build it they will come

One of the world’s most ancient birds, Sandhill crane have been winging the heavens for millions of years. Unfortunately, as North America’s prairie land was gobbled up by western expansion and farming, so was the crane’s natural habitat, and their numbers plummeted dramatically. . Since 1978, the Trust, which manages about 10,000 acres of wild grasslands and wet meadows in the Big Bend region of the river,  has been working tirelessly to protect and maintain the cranes’ critical habitat, and their numbers have shot back up to about a half million.

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To encourage bird and nature lovers of all persuasions to visit and support the cause, the Trust operates the swank Wild Rose Ranch, located on 4,500 continuous acres of native grassland prairie and wet meadows and housing the headquarters office, research laboratory, guest bunkhouse, Legacy Cabins, meeting/dining facilities, private crane-viewing blinds, and an outdoor deck and observation platform with breathtaking views of the tallgrass prairie and Platte River waterway. You can nab a room in a bunk or cabin or come for the day and watch the birds in blinds. The bar3-bone structures have no insulation, heating, lighting or indoor plumbing, and are equipped only with wooden benches and slit windows for viewing. The long, low, plywood structures blend in so seamlessly with the river landscape that we didn’t see them until we were practically upon them.

The previous night over dinner, the Trust had warned us that early morning temps in the blinds could be “brisk,” Nebraska speak for a brutal 20s and 30s. Our best chance of surviving our two hours in the blinds was to layer with a vengeance. I’m a California girl, so I not only layered two sets of down parkas and ski pants but I lined my bed with stick-on hand warmers and then fell backwards into them, hoping some of them would stick.

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As we set out in the pitch dark for the blind, the guide reiterated the importance of maintaining total and complete silence.  In the dead still, I could almost hear my hand warmers squeaking against each other hamsters, so I let the group pass and walked in alone. The clear night air had telescoped distances so that 20 miles looked like two. Lights twinkled on the distant horizon and a wilderness of grass met sky to remind me how small I really was.
 

Into the Frigidaire

By 6:30 am, we had arrived at the blind and claimed our prospective benches and windows. There wouldn’t be much to see until the sun rose, so I took a cat nap, waking with a jolt to the cacophony of thousands of cranes emitting a plaintive, prehistoric-sounding Garrooo.

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As the sun began to rise, I saw the river banks were paved with them for as far as the eye could see; hundreds slept upright in the frigid water, a bracelet of ice around their ankles. Smaller juveniles were batting their wings at and over each other in mock displays of prepubescent strength and baby cranes paddled around parents like they were in a ducky pond and emitted hollow, high-pitched coos...

 And more cranes were still coming, diving into the river like paratroopers, wings cupped and legs dangling. The Trust counts a section of birds by plane, then makes an educated guess as to how many cranes are crossing into their reserve. In general, the crane population is booming and some 500,000 cranes visited the reserve on one night in mid-March alone.

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By about 7 am most of the cranes had fled the river for the day. The watercolor sky streaked pink and purple as we hiked back across the fields to the dining room, where we feasted on cheesy omelets, hashed browns, bacon, bison sausage, yogurt and berries, oatmeal, pancakes, French toast juices, and strong, hot coffee.

By the next day, the damp had camped inside my lungs, my payback for a careless, breakneck month of nonstop work and travel. As I lie in bed motionless, I envisioned the cranes soaring over Alaska’s Kodiak Island, around Upper Cook Inlet and resting at the Stikine River Delta. With their unerring pacing and perfect eat-fly-love balance, they had the reserves to cover 200-300 miles a day whereas I could barely walk a foot.

I was out of breath and out of whack, but with the cranes as my totems, I was certain I could find my way back to moderation, strength and wisdom.

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Info Crane Trust & Nature Preserve, www.cranetrust.org; Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary, www.rowe.audubon.org.  As well as prime viewing ops, the centers offer year-round recreation like guided photo and nature safaris, fat tire biking, kayaking, and two-person blinds where you can stay all night in your sleeping bag, Don’t miss the Crane Trust’s Total Solar Eclipse Event August 21.

Beyond the Birdies

To round out your visit, carve out some time to explore some of Nebraska’s hidden treasures.

  1. Blast from the past Drive a portion of Lincoln Highway, the nation’s first interstate, Miles of highway are frozen in the past with old ‘camps’ and gas stations, funky motels and cabin courts, and classic diners. Drop by the 1937 Kensinger Service & Supply in Grand Island, which is still pumping gas.
  2. Horses, horses, horses Drop by the Pony Express Station Museum in Gothenburg, where riders refueled/restocked before galloping westward. The short-lived venture lasted just a year and went belly-up with the completion of the first transcontinental telegraph in 1861.
  3. Get up close to a masterpiece Visit the Museum of Nebraska Art in Kearney, where you can get close enough to Picassos and Monets to see the brush strokes. Don’t miss the stunning Photo Ark exhibit by National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore, a local who has dedicated his life to photographing endangered species.
  4. Try the beef: Nebraska is king when it comes to steak so sample some of the state’s dozens of steak houses. Don’t be put off by the funky/shabby exteriors of some of these joints. Even the homeliest hole-in-the-wall dishes up primo porterhouse, filet mignon and prime rib with all the fixings.
  5. The Coolest Town in Nebraska: McCook is classic laid-back Nebraska so spend a few hours soaking up the vibes. You’ll love the locals -- most admit to keeping “a couple cows” (translation: they have a 50,000-acre ranch with thousands of cattle). If you ever wanted to watch the mating dance of the prairie chicken (these critters have nothing on the cranes and resemble short, squat cartoon characters) Calamus Outfitters will transport you in their claptrap school bus to an undistinguished patch of prairie, where the chickens strut out at dawn and start bickering. Back in town, grab breakfast at Sehnert's Bakery, a combo bakery/deli and nightclub. The homemade cream horns are sinful and consider returning at night for live music, homemade pizza and cold brews.
  6. You’re in the army now Fort Robinson was an active military post from 1874 to 1948, and the location of the assassination of Crazy Horse. Today, the post has been converted into a beautiful state park where you can lodge in former officers’ quarters, enjoy hearty mess meals at Fort Robinson Restaurant, go on nightly steak cookouts, see plays at the Post Playhouse and take jeep rides into the mountains to hunt for bighorn sheep.
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