Sandhill Cranes on Nebraska’s Platte River

SANDHILL CRANES on Nebraska’s Platte River

Cindy Ross

IAIN NICHOLSON AUDUBON CENTER

at ROWE SANCTUARY

The woman had an unusual glow in her eyes as she returned from the Platte Riverside…a look of enrapture, the kind he had seen painted on the faces of saints in the Catholic churches.

Phil Mesner of Victoria, British Columbia remembers observing this woman on his first visit to the Rowe Audubon Center for sandhill cranes. She had just witnessed over a ½ million sandhill cranes lifting off at first light in search of food.

“I had seen that look only once before in a person- when my daughter gave birth to her twins. It touched me, brought tears to my eyes. All babies are a miracle and so are these sandhill cranes. Whatever that woman experienced on the riverside, I wanted it too,” and so began Phil’s 14-year love affair as a sandhill crane volunteer.

The cranes funnel onto the Platte along the Central Flyway, from points south. Imagine a half a million elegant, prehistoric-looking birds flying, gathering, bugleing and dancing their mating dance. Words cannot describe the sheer volume of their numbers, with their 5-6 foot wingspan. But it is the sound that knocks you on your feet- the intensity and volume of their musical voices. Their calls can be heard 2-3 miles away, made possible by their exceptionally long trachea (windpipe). The extra length resonates much like the tubing in a trombone and helps project the vocalizations.

The cranes are overwhelming. The experience takes your breath away, forces tears into your eyes. It is indeed one of the greatest spectacles of the natural world. In the past 6 years, folks from 50 countries have come to witness the sandhill crane migration, knowing full well that this happens no where else on earth.

Some fans cannot get enough, a brief visit is far too fleeting. Volunteers come from all over the country and Canada to the Kearney area every March to spend multiple weeks immersed in the cranes, helping out to insure that their future remains a reality.

Close to eighty volunteers travel from points in North America to work between 1-6 weeks at Rowe, explains Keanna Leonard, Education Director. They hail from as far away as Maine, Washington state, California, British Columbia.  Thirty of the volunteers guide groups of crane lovers (after taking classes to learn how to be guides). Volunteers keep the gate and even clean toilets, a job even Margie Nicholson has no problem chipping in with.

Margery and her husband, Iain from California were so enchanted by the cranes that when her husband died, she dedicated a chunk of change into creating the Iain Nicholson Audubon Center in his honor.

“There’s nothing she won’t do,” reports Leonard.

The center is famous for its guided blind tours, scheduled every daybreak and sunset while the cranes are migrating. A typical field trip begins and ends with a ¼-1/2 mile walk to the blind. In the mornings, it is held under the cover of darkness to prevent spooking. In the evening, you depart before sunset and view the cranes as they come in, waiting until it is dark enough to exit without disturbing them. The tours last approximately two hours.

There are 2-3 blinds available for guests that fit 20-25 people. The blinds look like long wooden boxes with many holes facing the river to observe and photograph through. For 6 weeks during migration, tours are booked solid.

MORNING AT ROWE

Two sandbars in front of the blind are packed solid with cranes. The far shore is lined a dozen thick. And as many as possible are actually standing in the water. This is their favorite roosting position- 6 inches of shallow, slow-moving water which is surrounded by deep water. It keeps predators away.

The cranes’ voice, the music of their bulging is constant. We listen for a change in pitch, an increase in intensity which signals that they are beginning to lift off. The birds aren’t just thinking of going out to the surrounding area for a meal, they are thinking of heading north. It’s time.

People move around the inside the blind, peer out of the holes, look up and down the river, and watch the east where the sunrise is painting color into the sky. We whisper in hushed voices, as if in a church. I settle at a corner window and rest my head, bend my ears outward to amplify the sound. It sounds like a crowd cheering. I could never get tired of their voice.

There used to be 200 available river miles that were suitable for roosting, but now they are down to 40-50. Organizations like Audubon and the Crane Trust, who operates other viewing sites, plow and till and work the land to create prime habitat for the cranes to roost. They must be very careful how they manage the cranes for they have stopped coming everywhere except for this stretch. There are high power lines overhead that they can fly into and die very quickly. The birds are very skittish and scare easily.

Volunteer Breezy Clark hails all the way from Maine. “I’ve been a birder since I was a little kid. When I wasn’t outdoors with my binoculars, I was tearing apart National Geographic magazines creating collages.”

“I love the family feeling here. Everyone gets different jobs, many bunk in a community house.”

“The camaraderie here is unbelievable”, comments Phil…. “they volunteers are such a happy and supportive group of people.”

Another volunteer, Rob Walsh from Olympia, Washington says, “It’s just too thrilling. When I talk to people about cranes, it gives me goosebumps. You can’t come here and just do this once.”

 

CRANE TRUST

RESIDENCY PROGRAM

 

After our morning blind session, we head to the Crane Trust, where we meet a group of Pawnee Native students from Oklaholma, who are here for a weeklong workshop and to volunteer for the cranes.

We sit in on an identification workshop, led by director, Karine Gil. We learn that sandhill cranes have been around for 60 million years, are the oldest living bird species, and are virtually unchanged for the last 9 million years. The oldest recorded fossil is Nebraska is 10 million years old. Primitive cultures have always thought the world of cranes. Tens of thousands of native people witnessed their migration for over 45-60 million years. They have been part of the Pawnee indigenous culture for thousands of years as they have conducted ceremonies surrounding cranes. The students here today have come back to their homeland in Nebraska to learn science, history, and connect to the cranes and their ancestral homeland.

One important goal is learning to differentiate between the sandhill crane and the larger whooping crane, an endangered species which also uses the Platte River as a stop over in their northern migration. They are studied and tracked extensively here at Crane Trust, thanks to the work of Gil and the monitoring program she set up. A private residency is offered for groups and every year, Alice Hepgecoke, a resident writer/professor from the University of Nebraska brings a different group here. This year it is these four Pawness students, led by Dr. James Riding In, from the Pawnee Nation College.

Unlike the sandhill cranes, the whooping cranes stop over in Nebraska for only a few days or a few hours. Even the farmers respect them and work with the Crane Trust to report sightings, for they know what a rare gift they are. The 5 feet high bird with a wingspan of 7 ½ feet, their white feathers and wing tips edged in black, are a sight to behold. Pawnee Zach ____ was fortunate to spot the first one of the 2011 season.

The whooping crane population has gone from a dwindling 14 in 1941 to a whopping 279. It is figured that 30 years of descendents are resulting from one pair. They fly in 4 generations together…20 descendents from one female thanks to the radio bands and tracking their return over the last twelve years.

These Pawnee are not the only indigenous group to serve here at Crane Trust. “It is imperative that they be included and invited as they are “the source,” she explains. The Pawnee students hope to start a sandhill crane watch program on their reservation. They also hope to make this an annual pilgrimage as they will put together a DVD of their photos, voices, and quotes to encourage more students to come.

Dr. Riding Here shares his motivation, “We are trying to fight against saying to their grandkids, ‘You should have seen the buffalo, passenger pigeons and sandhill cranes.”

 

NEBRASKA NATURE CENTER

Our next stop is the Nebraska Nature Center, a gorgeous new visitor center and property located a stone’s throw from I-80, and thirty miles east of Rowe. The Nature Center leases 240-acres to the Crane Trust, whom has set up blinds and also leads tours. The center itself conducts morning and evening footbridge tours but since the birds arrive here first, before moving west upstream, they are presently all entertaining Rowe’s visitors. When the cranes are here, the center’s director, Dan Glomski, has his own workforce of volunteers who dedicate their time to ensuring the cranes are here for future generations.

The Center is a private organization funded by two state, one federal and one private supporters. It had a humble beginning in a doublewide trailer but their new facility now houses some of the best crane, bird and wildlife art in the country. There have 5-6 miles of trails on the surrounding property to tempt visitors to pry themselves out of their vehicles and walk amidst one of the last remaining examples of the American Prairie.

When we reach a dip in the land, Dan informs us that it was a former channel of the Platte River ages ago. When we arrive at the bridge, he explains how the present Platte is now managed for the sandhill cranes. The islands and surrounding banks are graded and prepared, tilled with a tractor and even sprayed with insecticides. Fortunately, these procedures did not have to be executed, because of the extensive ice jams acting like scouring  glaciers, cleaning the river and sandbars free of frangipani, an invasive grass. Sandhill cranes need open sandbars and banks in which to roost safely and confidently.

IN THE FIELD

Before heading back to Rowe to witness an evening blind tour (which is completely different than the morning experience), we take a drive out into the fertile farmlands surrounding the Platte.

On any given day, 90% of the cranes can be found within a 3-8 mile radius of the river, traveling an average of 6 miles per day. They load up on essential nutrients and calories to sustain them for the final push ahead, to give birth and raise their young. They build up fat reserves, adding at least 18-20% to their body weight.

The cranes eat waste corn found on the ground in the surrounding fields, which makes up 80% of their diet. They also find worms, insect larvae, snails and other invertebrates found in the wet meadows adjacent to the river. The Platte River Basin is the only ecosystem along the migration route that meets all their requirements for roosting, resting and restoring themselves.

Predators include power and transmission lines, coyotes, bobcats, domestic dog, great horned owls and eagles. We don’t want to add insensitive humans to that list. Disturbances during their critical stay in Nebraska can cause the birds to leave in poor condition, jeopardizing reproductive success when they arrive on their northern nesting grounds.

When the cranes come into an area to feed, they drop their feet as if they are coming in for a landing, like a parachuter, with their great 5-6 foot wingspan. Besides eating, the cranes do a lot of dancing. They are considered the most accomplished dancers in the animal kingdom. Their dance includes head bobbing, bowing, arching, jumping, (as high as 5 feet), wing flapping, running and twig tossing. The cranes leap into the air, kick up their feet, turn in the air like a tour-jete’ in ballet, and they do minuets, rotating gracefully with extended wings. Many African tribes have incorporated some of these moves into their ceremonies.

Rivals dance to access one another and dancing facilitates pair bonding. But dancing is not solely reserved for mating purposes. Pre-adult cranes practice dancing for years before they select a mate. Parents educate their young chicks by dancing with them. Dancing can simply be a display of high-spiritedness, play, or even joy. A red patch on their head that is actually bare skin, changes in shape and size depending on their mood.

Cranes are very skittish and will take flight at any disturbance. Its best to not approach cranes on foot while they are in the fields and we use our car as a blind.

The cranes are waiting until the last light to fly back to the river. We’ll head them off and get set up at Rowe to watch the evening show.

ROWE AT PM

Volunteer guide Donna Royer of New Mexico whispers to me, “Look as far up the river as you can see, there are more and more waves of cranes. It gets me every time.”

They come in great waves, the sky peppered with tens of thousands of birds.  Watching and waiting for them consumes hours but the time flies by. It is enough to just be quiet and listen to their chatter and watch them. The experience completely fills you up and you lose all track of time.

It is March 23rd and Donna says the cranes will be thinking of leaving soon. The best time for viewing generally, is mid to late March. They are gone by April 15. The cranes will spread out like an hourglass and head north, shooting for points in the Arctic, Siberia, and Canada where they will raise their young. Like the cranes, the volunteers will also have to leave, and it is always a bittersweet time for them.

“A chord was struck deep inside me,” shares volunteer Phil, “just like a whole bunch of other people who gather together here every Spring to help the sandhill cranes. We are “craniacs,” he laughs.

Then adds… “Like great art, great music, such beauty in nature transports you. It is something very mystical.” What more of a reason do we need to come to central Nebraska this spring to witness this remarkable gift of nature?

2 thoughts on “Sandhill Cranes on Nebraska’s Platte River

  1. Without a doubt one of the most moving experiences of my life took place while standing on a walkway in the marshes of the Bosque de Apache with Teri in the midst of 35,000 ducks, geese, sandhill cranes with a gorgeous red and orange hued sunrise coming up over the blue mountain silhouette on the eastern horizon. It was an ascension of glory, – birds in motion everywhere around us starting from a quiet awakening and mounting into deafening echo of the dawn of creation. So perfect, especially for birder like us. Then it was over, except for all the moments I relive it inside my heart and soul.

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