Ecotourism in Nebraska: Part 1, Sandhill Cranes Migration

| 4/3/2017 1:58:00 PM


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.

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