Sandhill cranes and spectators head to Nebraska’s Platte River
Want to view one of the world’s great migrations — the event anthropologist and primatologist Jane Goodall calls one of the world’s top 10 animal migration spectacles — which she reportedly goes to observe nearly every year?
The migration of sandhill cranes takes place in late March and early April when more than half a million sandhill cranes — 80 percent of the species’ world population — stop on a 75-mile stretch of the Platte River near Kearney, Nebraska. The cranes stay for three to four weeks to fatten up on leftover grains in the cornfields during their journey from Texas, New Mexico and Arizona to as far afield as Alaska and Siberia. I joined viewers from all 50 states and dozens of countries for this unique event — joining in a kind of human migration — to this stretch of the Platte River.
The gray and tan cranes are 2 1/2 feet to 4 feet tall with a wingspan of 5 1/2 feet to 7 1/2 feet, and have large black bills with a distinctive patch of red on their heads, with white cheeks. The name “sandhill” is said to refer to their migration stopover at the edge of Nebraska’s sandhills. The river there is shallow with sandbars slightly submerged by spring rains and is the ideal place for the cranes to rest at night, protected from predators. Since the Platte River narrows in this area, the cranes are funneled into this corridor, making their mass take-off at dawn and return at sunset all the more dramatic.
We began this viewing ritual with a brief pre-dawn introduction at the Audubon Society’s Rowe Sanctuary in Gibbon, near Kearney. Next, a large group of us cautiously headed off in the dark to one of three blinds — bird viewing areas each about the size of an RV but more rustic with big viewing windows at different heights. Our guide walked slowly to our blind so we wouldn’t stumble in the dark, and she pointed a red flashlight to the ground to slightly illuminate our way. Once inside the blind, we covered the lights on our cameras with black tape, so as not to disturb the sleeping cranes. Wearing many layers of clothing in the 30-degree weather, we settled in to wait and whisper for the next two hours. It was surprisingly cozy inside, and our tour leader provided coffee and snacks.
Soon there were hints of pink in the eastern sky and the distinct bugling sounds of many thousands of sandhill cranes as they rose along with the sun. My anticipation was growing even as my hands were freezing — I wasn’t wearing my gloves because I didn’t want to miss a photo opportunity. Gradually, it was light enough to see the thousands of cranes lined up on sandbars as they began flapping their wings and taking off in small groups. Suddenly in one dramatic moment, a multitude of cranes exploded into the sky in a mass departure.
During the day, the sandhill cranes could be seen feeding in the nearby cornfields and wetlands before they headed back to the sandbars in the river for the night. In the late afternoon, we went back to the blind to wait for sunset and the return of the majestic birds. They came in groups and we could hear the din of their bugling before we saw them. Soon their numbers grew and they were highlighted against another rosy sky.
After two nights in Kearney, we headed off to Grand Island, named after the nearby island that French fur trappers found in the Platte River. The next day we were up and out the door around 5 a.m. for an introductory talk at the Crane Trust in Wood River. For the next two hours in the blind, we were closer than before to roughly 9,000 cranes standing on the sandbars, though the air was somewhat hazy and the clouds obscured the sunrise. Eventually it was dawn and the cranes took off a few at a time, never in a huge mass, apparently due to the weather. I took fewer photos, and instead, chose to watch the cranes through binoculars.
After the trip, my traveling companions and I felt like we had witnessed an amazing and ancient event in Mother Nature, with the arrival and departure of thousands of sandhill cranes. I felt like I had participated in a great ritual with people from all over the world, and I understood how Goodall could repeatedly attend this event, which she calls one of the world’s great animal migrations.
Pamela O’Meara can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org or at 651-748-7818.
Prairie chickens: dancing in the lek
Hours before sunrise, rancher Angus Garey picked us up at our hotel and drove us to his 640-acre ranch in what seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. Our destination was a blind in an old horse trailer where we were to witness the mating dance of the normally elusive greater prairie chickens near McCook, Nebraska.
A lek — Swedish for party ground or hangout — is a small area on the high ground of a ranch to which male greater prairie chickens return each year for their mating games to establish territories and dominance.
There may be six to eight males in the lek and 15 to 20 in the surrounding tall buffalo grass. They square off, ears pointing straight up and may lose a few feathers as they fly up to spar with each other. It’s a lot of work for them, and all to “impress the girls,” said Garey, who had given us a PowerPoint presentation the previous night about these interesting birds and their mating habits.
He said greater prairie chickens are related to grouse but are a separate species. The males in the tall grass outside the lek may challenge the alpha males inside the lek if they are feeling especially vigorous, Garey said. But if a predator like a red-tail hawk flies overhead, the prairie chickens will spread out and keep silent for a while.
Then a hen will walk through the roosters “like Raquel Welch walking through a boy’s gym class. She’s nonchalant but is picking one that catches her eye,” he explained. The female chooses her mate, though the actual mating takes place away from the lek. Most prairie chickens do their courtship activities just before sunrise and for an hour or two after, Garey added.
The temperature was 45 degrees and there was a breeze so the black curtains over the windows in the blind were blowing. It was so early we saw thousands of huge stars dotting the sky, always an amazing sight for a city dweller. Then, gradually, the sky lightened and the prairie chickens started their three-part booming sounds with the big orange air sacks on the sides of their heads filling with air. They’d release the air as they jumped and sparred and then backed away, like two tiny boxers in a ring.
We shivered a bit but watched with fascination. Sadly, no females strutted through while we watched. The rising sun gave a golden sheen to the surrounding prairie grasses, and I couldn’t resist taking photos of the grass and another old horse trailer nearby.
Years ago, prairie chickens lived all over the plains in the Midwest, from North Dakota to Texas. Nebraska was a “stronghold” for the greater prairie chickens, Garey said, and 800,000 to 2.5 million birds lived in the area. But as more land was plowed and planted, much of their grassland habitat was destroyed, we were told. Now people come from across the nation to see this unique and rare courtship scene. Garey discovered this lek on his property about two years ago and wants to share it with visitors — for more information go towww.prairiechickendancetours.com.
If you go …
It’s about 529 miles from St. Paul to Grand Island, Nebraska. Take Interstate 35 south to Omaha and then head west on Interstate 80 to Kearney and Grand Island. For McCook, go a little farther west on I-80 to North Platte and go south on Highway 83 or on 283 to Highway 34 and then go west. By air, fly non-stop to Omaha — it only takes about an hour — pick up a rental car and drive west on I-80 to Kearney, Grand Island and to McCook. In McCook, stay at the Chief Motel and dine on good Nebraska beef at the Coppermill Steakhouse and Lounge. In Kearney dine on steak or a wide variety of unique dishes at The Alley Rose and stay over night at the Best Western Plus Mid Nebraska Inn and Suites. Breakfast is included. In Grand Island, stay at the Best Western Plus Grand Island Inn and Suites where breakfast is also included and enjoy dinner at Napoli’s Italian Restaurant.
All photos but one by Pamela O’Meara
For more from Pamela go to her website HERE.