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Crane Watching in Central Nebraska: A Beginning Birdwatcher’s Guide

Sandhill crane Brad Mellema

Photo by Brad Mellema

Being vegetarian, the saying “the early bird gets the worm” has never held much allure. But on my first trip to Nebraska, I found that the early bird gets, well, birds. And that’s what I was there for.

Every March, approximately 80 percent of the world’s Sandhill cranes stop off at the Platte River in central Nebraska. There they feed on corn waste, fattening up before continuing on their journey to Canada, Alaska or Siberia. Between early March and mid-April, approximately half a million cranes roost and scavenge along an 80-mile stretch of the Platte.

sandhills Brad Mellema

Every year, thousands of Sandhill cranes visit Nebraska’s Platte River Valley. photos by Brad Mellema.

While I’m a great animal lover, I know little of birds. So this birdwatching business was all new to me. Here’s what I learned from three days of watching birds in Nebraska.
Where to Go

I watched cranes in two places: Kearney and Grand Island. Kearney bills itself as “the Sandhill crane capital of the world,” but Grand Island seemed to have just as many. Both cities are pretty near the center of the state. You can fly into Omaha, rent a car and drive a few hours west. Or fly into Denver and drive a few hours east. The Central Nebraska Regional Airport at Grand Island offers direct flights to and from Phoenix, Vegas and Dallas.

sunrise Platte River

Birdwatchers see the sun rise over the Platte. Photo Teresa Bergen.

Once you get to crane country, they’re pretty much all over the place. You can pull over and watch cranes in some stretches of the river at dawn and dusk, or see them snacking in corn fields during the day. The hike/bike trail at the Fort Kearny (yes, the fort is spelled differently than the town) State Recreational Area has a popular public viewing platform. Or you can reserve a spot in a blind for close-up viewing of major roosting spots.

 

 

Sandhill cranes by Bradphotos by Brad Mellema

The bird blinds enable you to get pretty close to the cranes. photos by Brad Mellema

What Happens in the Blind


I spent a morning and evening in a blind at the Audubon Society’s Rowe Sanctuary in Kearney, and another morning and evening in blinds at the Crane Trust near Grand Island. Both days started early. My birdwatching group arrived well before sunrise so that we could attend orientation and get situated in the blind before the birds woke up. Rowe and the Crane Trust both had big, brightly lit rooms and passionately devoted guides who schooled us in blind etiquette. Rules included being quiet, no use of flashes on cameras, and no looking at phones or other devices that could reflect our faces in the dark and scare the birds. The guards, I mean guides, meant business. Infractions of rules equaled ejection from blinds.

sandhill crane photo Brad Mellema

The birds come to enjoy the water and the food from farm fields. Photo by Bran Mellema.

However, the guides were the ones most likely to break the rule about being quiet. Most of them are volunteers, and are excited to share their love and knowledge of the cranes.

The cranes are amazing. We could hear them calling to each other before we saw them. As the sun rose, early morning light revealed tens of thousands of cranes standing on the sandbars. Some still slept on one leg, head tucked into their hind feathers. Others danced, flapped, trilled and squawked. It was worth the early hour and the 30 degree weather to see them wake, stretch and fly off into the cornfields in family groups.

Practical Tips
This huge crane migration is on many a birdwatcher’s bucket list. While it’s a spiritual experience for many, a few practical tips are in order.

• Rowe has an outhouse. The Crane Trust doesn’t. It’s early, but skip the coffee.

• You’re close, but not that close. Binoculars make a huge difference. And if you want to take pictures, bring the strongest telephoto lens possible.

• If you’re visiting a blind, you’re pretty much stuck there until the cranes fly off. Bring trail mix or other snacks. And be sure to wear plenty of layers. I highly recommend hand warmers to tuck inside your gloves or mittens.

sandhill cranes Platte River

It’s early, really early, but skip the coffee.

Prairie Chickens
Crane season is also prairie chicken season in central Nebraska. This is the time the usually low-profile birds leave the tall grass and strut their stuff to attract mates. The problem for birdwatchers is that this interesting display takes place as far from civilization as the birds can get. But several enterprising folks offer tours to watch the birds.

Angus Garey, a rancher near McCook, Nebraska, discovered the lek – Swedish for “party ground” – where his resident prairie chickens dance each spring. He converted some cattle trailers into blinds and now shares his prairie chickens with limited numbers of tourists.

Sandhill crane by Brad Mellema

A long lens is really helpful for photographing the birds. Photo by Brad Mellema.

I spent a magical early morning in Mr. Garey’s blind. He drove us out to the remote lek while stars still hung in the sky. We sat still and quiet in the darkness, waiting. And then we heard it: the three-note booming of the male prairie chickens. When the sun came up, we saw that the booming is accompanied by inflated orange air sacs in the neck, raised feathers on the head, and a funny little dance. It’s worth the $100 Mr. Garey charges (which includes orientation the evening before and breakfast after the viewing) to witness something rarely seen by humans.

What Do Veg Folks Eat in Central Nebraska?
All this birdwatching and early rising can work up an appetite. But what’s a vegetarian to do in central Nebraska? As one of my hosts boasted, Nebraska produces one in three hamburgers and steaks served across the country. The state also seems to be the capital of iceberg lettuce. Bring lots of KIND bars and such.

Here are a few suggestions for eating out in crane territory:

sadad at Chocolate Bar

Even vegetarians can find something delicious to eat in Nebraska. Photo TB.

The Chocolate Bar, Grand Island, has Portobello mushroom and vegan pesto combinations on the menu, including a salad, sandwich and wrap. Also, top quality coffee and espresso drinks.

Azteca Market, Grand Island, can make you a vegan burrito. The owners advised vegans should call ahead: 308-382-2131.

Subway. Fresh spinach and other delicious vegetables. – by Teresa Bergen, RFT Vegan/Vegetarian Editor



Teresa Bergen, RFT Vegan/Vegetarian Editor

Teresa Bergen, a freelance journalist who lives in Portland, Oregon, has been a vegetarian for more than 30 years. Her travel articles have appeared in India Currents, Yogi Times, The Circumference, Examiner.com and the Catholic Travel Guide. She’s the author of Vegetarian Asia Travel Guide. In addition to being a vegetarian and a journalist, Teresa is a yoga and group exercise instructor and personal trainer. She's also realfoodtraver.com's Vegan/Vegetarian Editor.