Sandhill cranes provide a beautiful sight in Nebraska

Carol Timblin

More than 500,000 sandhill cranes migrate through Nebraska on the Central Flyway.

Nebraska is known for its golden prairies, brilliant sunsets, and friendly people. Did you know the state also hosts the largest migration of sandhill cranes in the world?

More than 500,000 of the birds fly through the Central Platte River Valley, a part of the Central Flyway (one of four major flyways in the United States) every spring. The valley is a resting area for millions of ducks, geese, sandhill cranes, pelicans, and other species during their annual migrations, as well as a major habitat for native prairie chickens. Ethologist Jane Goodall rates the area as one of the top 10 places to see animal migrations in the world.

In March, several fellow travel journalists and I witnessed the migration spectacle and also saw the native prairie chickens in action.

We spent the first night of our journey in McComb, where we enjoyed some fabulous Nebraska beef and rested for the unusual event we were about to see the next day. Dressed in layers to keep warm, we traveled by van from our motel to the bird-watching blind that’s located on private property early the next morning. We walked quietly along the path to the blind and were in our stations before the sun rose at 7:46am.

Over the next two hours, without heat and bathroom access, our voices limited to whispers and the flashes and noise devices on our cameras off, we watched the chickens do their mating dance around the “leks.” (Leks are local areas where males meet every spring, from March through early May, to vie for the affection of the hens.) During the mating ritual, as explained by our guides from Prairie Chicken Tours, the males make noises, ruffle their feathers, and leap a few inches off the ground facing their opponents until the dominant ones are determined.

More than 500,000 sandhill cranes migrate through Nebraska on the Central Flyway.
More than 500,000 sandhill cranes migrate through Nebraska on the Central Flyway.

Taking a break from bird-watching the rest of the day, we traveled to Kearney, where we would see the sandhill crane migration the next day. Along the way, we stopped to see remnants of the original Lincoln Highway, the Gothenburg Historical Museum and Pony Express Station, and the Great Platte River Road Archway, which spans I-80 and tells the local history and settlement of the West through visual and sound displays.

After resting in Kearney that night, we arose early the next day, departing for the Iain Nicholson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary in Gibbon. The sanctuary includes 1,300 acres of river habitat, wetlands, woodlands, and mixed grass prairie.

Dressed again in layers for warmth, we were in the blind before sunrise, around 6:30am, waiting for the show. Seeing and hearing the migration that occurred over the next two hours proved to be an incredible experience.

Just before dawn, the birds began to awaken and make noises, and then small groups began to fly toward the morning sky, their bodies like black dots filling the sky and their voices stirring the air with a cacophony of sounds. The mass migration continued until each flock of birds had flown away to the surrounding cornfields to feast on leftovers from the past growing season.

Before sunset that day, we returned to Rowe Sanctuary for the return of the cranes. This time, we were allowed to talk during the first 45 minutes of the birds’ flight, but had to quiet down after they had settled on the sandbars for the night.

The next day, we saw the early morning exodus of the birds at the Crane Trust property along the Platte River. Later, we visited its Nature and Visitor Center at Wood River, which provides detailed information about the birds and their habits via displays, films, and educational talks.

The trust was established in 1978 as a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to the protection and maintenance for the critical habitat for whooping cranes, sandhill cranes, and other migratory birds in the Big Bend Region of the Platte River Valley. It offers Crane Safaris, an eco-tourism program which includes three days of crane viewing and other activities on Crane Trust lands and two nights in the Legacy Cabins on site.

A few travel journalists in our group went to the Harlan Reservoir near Alma to see the white pelicans and other birds also in migration. The American white pelican is the largest of eight species; adults weigh 10 to 20 pounds and have a wingspan of 9 feet. Thousands of pelicans pass through Nebraska in late winter and early spring and revisit the area in the fall. They live primarily on fish, frogs, and aquatic invertebrates. A few hundred pelicans spend the summer in the area, but none breed there.

We visited a number of other attractions in Nebraska, including the Willa Cather State Historical Site in Red Cloud (Cather was the author of O Pioneers! and My Antonia, about life on the Great Plains), the Heritage Museum in Hastings (birthplace of Kool-Aid), actor Henry Fonda’s home at the Stuhr Museum in Grand Island, and Fonner Park and State Fair Grounds (also in Grand Island), where you can learn all about state-of-the-art farming in Nebraska.

Every stop was interesting and informative, but the highlights of the trip were, without a doubt, witnessing the prairie chickens’ mating dance and the sandhill crane migration.

 

National Park Service news

As NPS centennial celebrations wind down, we can look toward to seeing the online gallery called Open Parks Network that features more than 100,000 high-resolution images in the public domain. Many of the images show locations in the southeastern United States. The website is the result of a six-year collaboration between Clemson University and the National Park Service.

“We have been struck by the relationship people inherently have with parks as stewards, visitors, investors, or previous inhabitants,” says Rachel Whittmann, metadata architect at Clemson University Libraries.

There’s still plenty of time to celebrate the 100th birthday of the National Park Service, including Yosemite National Park in California. Karen Foreman, who manages Tuolumne County’s visitor centers, advises visitors to see the iconic views of Yosemite from the Valley Floor first, but to arrive early to avoid crowds and traffic. For a quiet hike in the wilderness, she recommends Tuolumne Meadows. She also provides several tips for visiting the park:

Plan your visit in advance and secure the help of local guides, such as Yosemite Family Adventures, YExplore, or O.A.R.S. rafting adventures.

Stay overnight, preferably outside the park where lodging is plentiful and more affordable.

Eat local in Tuolumne County, where big city chefs have affordable leases and appreciative patrons.

Instead of driving yourself, take YARTS, the Yosemite Area Regional Transit System, offering daily transportation to the Yosemite National Park’s valley floor and connecting to a free shuttle. The cost includes children younger than 12 free with a paying adult, and park admission.

Bring the family.

She recommends stopping at one of three visitor centers: the Chinese Camp Visitor Center on Highway 120, the main visitor center in downtown Sonora, and the newest visitor center on Highway 120 Groveland.

 

Other travel news

Three elevators in the Empire State Building now feature one-of-a-kind mini-shows with sound that are displayed on the ceiling of the elevator cars on the ascent and descent from the 86th floor observatory.

The ascent shows transports visitors back in time to the construction of the building, spotlighting workers, machinery, and materials in a fanciful depiction of the construction process. The descent show showcases different features of the art deco masterpiece lobby, with floating features that form the iconic mural that adorns the Fifth Avenue entrance.

Friends of The Preservation Society of Charleston welcome visitors inside the interiors of the city’s most historic homes during the 40th Fall Tour of Homes, Oct. 6–30.

 

Carol Timblin welcomes travel news at ctimblin@gmail.com.

 

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