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Ecotourism in Nebraska: Part 1, Sandhill Cranes Migration

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It's an aerial spectacle like no other, with over half a million Sandhill Cranes converging on the Platte River valley in Central Nebraska on their epic journey northward every spring, from late February to early April.

Jane Goodall calls the arrival of the Sandhill Cranes here one of the world's ten greatest wildlife migrations.  We call it mesmerizing and transformative, unparalleled in our thirty years of travel around the world.  If you have a bucket list, this needs to be near the top -- even if you're not necessarily a birder or hardcore wildlife enthusiast.  For those whose only Nebraska experience involves whizzing through on Interstate 80, start planning your detour trip off the main drag to bond with these birds.

This is the first of a series of posts covering some ecotourism adventures we enjoyed in Nebraska, a "fly over" state perhaps more frequently known for its massive fields of corn and home to William “Buffalo Bill” Cody — buffalo hunter, soldier and showman of America’s Old West.  While Nebraska farmers do, in fact, have millions of acres planted in corn -- and Wild Bill seems to comes to life at his ranch, now a state historic park in North Platte -- we found an unexpected abundance of ecotravel that uniquely immersed us into nature and paid dividends to the conservation efforts underway, helping preserve exactly what we can to see for generations to come.  Beyond the Sandhill Crane migration, we witnessed up close the intricate prairie chicken mating ritual from a blind, plied the braided currents of the Platte River in kayaks and biked through prairie on fat tire bikes.

Sandhill Cranes’ Roosting Hotspot

“This spot is the largest bird roost in the world,” shares Chuck Cooper, President and CEO of the Crane Trust, a non-profit dedicated to preserving this migratory bird habitat along the Platte River.  “We call it 'habitat,' but three hundred years ago you just called it [land that would become] Nebraska.  We had to come up with a name for it because there is so little left.  No matter how many birds come in during your viewing, you’ll still see more birds in one place than anywhere else in the world.”

And see birds you will, from thousands to potentially tens of thousands.  Wave after wave, the cranes stop in this single Nebraska spot for a short few weeks every spring, just as they have for millions of years as they fly north from Mexico to their summer nesting grounds as far north as Siberia.  Cranes are among the oldest living birds on Earth.  With the shallow river waters offering protection from predators and a buffet of spent grain in the nearby crop fields giving nourishment, Nebraska imparts the perfect resting spot.  It’s estimated that more than 80-percent of the world’s population of Sandhill Cranes converge here.  Hundreds of other bird species, including eagles, ducks and geese, can also be seen.

Only about an hour's drive apart, the two best places to view the spectacle are at the Crane Trust, near Grand Island, and the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary, outside Kearney.  Prime viewing will be at sunrise or sunset.  While each spot has a visitor center, it's their blinds that you'll want to snuggle into in order to witness the birds arriving to roost at night or as they depart in the early morning.  The blinds are as close as you’ll ever get to being one of the flock without getting wet.  The strategically placed and camouflaged covered shelters have viewing slats or openings, allowing our group of twenty to watch or take photos, undetected by the birds.

Crane Trust Near Grand Island

The sheer breadth of the scene unfolds as you peer from the blind where you witness either the arrival of the Sandhill Cranes as the come in to roost for the night or at pre-dawn as they slowly wake up and prepare to lift off for the day.  Their rowdy clatter captivated us. The Sandhill Cranes’ calls can be heard over two miles away as the birds connect with their mate and other family members, or dance around while searching for a possible lifelong partner.  With an impressive height of up to four feet and six-foot wingspan, the Sandhill Crane possesses the ideal evolutionary combination for the thousands of migratory miles they fly every year.

Classy comfort meets cranes when you upgrade to the Crane Trust’s all-inclusive VIP Experience, giving you premiere access to their toasty heated blinds, lodging on-site in their cozy Legacy Cottages (each with private bathroom), dinner and breakfast, plus a wine reception.  Open your window at night in the cottage and listen to the distant chatter of cranes or calls from coyotes as you drift off to sleep. 

“The sun will crack the horizon in sixty seconds,” whispers our personal guide in the blinds, Ben Dumas, Excursion Manager for the Crane Trust. Looking like a layer cake with bands of orange and blue from the sun and clouds, the sky filled with thousands of cranes already airborne in V-formations as far as the eye could see.

In the morning, the scene typically crescendos to a series of blissful moments when the birds suddenly take to flight en masse, perhaps spooked by a bald eagle landing along the river bank, as in our case. Thousands upon thousands of them lift off.  Their squawking rings out as they circle about while others depart from the river, heading to feeding grounds in nearby corn fields.

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Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary

At the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary, you’ll be led to and from the blinds in reverent silence, meandering along a gravel trail the cuts through a tall grass prairie. Seasoned volunteers come from as far away as Alaska to share their passion for these cranes, guiding our way to the blind with red flashlights.  The Rowe Sanctuary is a 1,150-acre refuge in the Platte River valley that serves as a welcomed resting spot for these birds. The volunteers and staff at Rowe believe conservation and land stewardship grow when we experience nature’s splendor.

We discovered during our final evening perch at Rowe Sanctuary that it only takes one to get the show underway.  One crane, that is.  As we gathered in anticipation for the cranes’ evening roost under cloudy skies, the shallow river bed sits open, awaiting potential evening guests.  We peer forward when one crane lands on a nearby sand bar, in anticipation.  Then another lands, followed by ten more.  Then a hundred or two birds descend, right in front  of our blind and less than a hundred feet away.  Their calls riotous.

“This is like Christmas for us,” we recall Bill Taddicken, Director of Rowe Sanctuary, saying before we set out that night.  Now we understand. It’s the gift that keeps on giving as darkness falls and the cranes settle in for the night.

Lisa Kivirist is the author of Soil Sisters and founder of the Rural Women’s Project of the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service. She is also Senior Fellow, Endowed Chair in Agricultural Systems at the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Minnesota. With her husband John D. Ivanko, she has co-authored Rural Renaissance, Homemade for Sale, the award-winning ECOpreneuring and Farmstead Chef along with operating Inn Serendipity B&B and Farm, completely powered by the wind and sun. As a writer, Kivirist contributes to Mother Earth News, most recently, “9 Strategies for Self-Sufficient Living”. They live on a farm in southwestern Wisconsin with their son Liam, millions of ladybugs and a 10 kW Bergey wind turbine.


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