Yampa Valley Crane Festival origins


Greater Sandhill Cranes. Photo courtesy of Abby Jensen, www.jensen-photography.com.

Published Oct. 9, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle: “Cranes are a “gateway bird”

[Yampa Valley Crane Festival story begins with snow]

By Barb Gorges

I visited the Yampa Valley Crane Festival in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, with my husband, Mark, in early September.

Steamboat is known for world-class skiing, but how does that relate to the festival centered around the greater sandhill crane?

It starts with a couple of skiers. Nancy Merrill, a native of Chicago, and her husband started skiing Steamboat in the late ’80s. They became fulltime residents by 2001.

Merrill was already “birdy,” as she describes it, by that point. She was even a member of the International Crane Foundation, an organization headquartered in Baraboo, Wisconsin, only three hours from Chicago.

She and her husband wanted to do something for birds in general when they moved to Colorado. They consulted with The Nature Conservancy to see if there was any property TNC would like them to buy and put into a conservation easement. As it turns out, there was a ranch next door to TNC’s own Carpenter Ranch property, on the Yampa River.

The previous owner left behind a list of birds seen on the property, but it wasn’t until she moved in that Merrill discovered the amount of crane activity, previously unknown, including cranes spending the night in that stretch of the river during migration stop overs—which we observed during the festival.

Cheyenne folks are more familiar with the other subspecies, the lesser sandhill crane, which funnels through central Nebraska in March. It winters in southwestern U.S. and Mexico and breeds in Alaska and Siberia. It averages 41 inches tall.

Greater sandhill cranes, by contrast, stand 46 inches tall, winter in southern New Mexico and breed in the Rockies, including Colorado, and on up through western Wyoming to British Columbia. Many come through the Yampa Valley in the fall, fattening up on waste grain in the fields for a few weeks.

In 2012 there was a proposal for a limited crane hunting season in Colorado. Only 14 states, including Wyoming, have seasons. The lack of hunting in 36 states could be due to the cranes’ charisma and their almost human characteristics in the way they live in family groups for 10 months after hatching their young. Mates stick together year after year, performing elaborate courtship dances.

Plus, they are slow to reproduce and we have memories of their dramatic population decline in the early 20th century.

Merrill and her friends from the Steamboat birding club were not going to let hunting happen if they could help it. Organized as the Colorado Crane Conservation Coalition, they were successful and decided to continue with educating people about the cranes.

Out of the blue, Merrill got a call from George Archibald, founder of the International Crane Foundation, congratulating the CCCC on their work and offering to come and speak, thus instigating the first Yampa Valley Crane Festival in 2012.

Merrill became an ICF board member and consequently has developed contacts resulting in many interesting speakers over the festival’s five years thus far. This year included Nyambayar Batbayar, director of the Wildlife Science and Conservation Center of Mongolia and an associate of ICF, and Barry Hartup, ICF veterinarian for whooping cranes.

Festival participants are maybe 40 percent local and 60 percent from out of the valley, from as far away as British Columbia. Merrill said they advertised in Bird Watchers Digest, a national magazine, and through Colorado Public Radio.

It is a small, friendly festival, with a mission to educate. The talks, held at the public library, are all free. A minimal amount charged for taking a shuttle bus at sunrise to see the cranes insures people will show up. [Eighty people thought rising early was worthwhile Friday morning alone.]

This year’s activities for children were wildly successful, from learning to call like a crane to a visit from Heather Henson, Jim Henson’s daughter, who has designed a wonderful, larger-than-life whooping crane puppet.

There was also a wine and cheese reception at a local gallery featuring crane art and a barbecue put on by the Routt County Cattlewomen. Life-size wooden cut-outs of cranes decorated by local artists were auctioned off.

We opted for the nature hike on Thunderhead Mountain at the Steamboat ski area. Gondola passes good for the whole day had been donated. This was just an example of how the crane festival benefits from a wide variety of supporters providing in-kind services and grants. Steamboat Springs is well-organized for tourism and luckily, crane viewing is best during the shoulder season, between general summer tourism and ski season.

Meanwhile, the CCCC has a new goal. Over the years, grain farming has dropped off, providing less waste grain for cranes. Now farmers and landowners are being encouraged financially to plant for the big birds. It means agriculture, cranes and tourism are supporting each other.

Merrill thinks of the cranes as an ambassador species, gateway to becoming concerned about nature, “The cranes do the work for us, we just harness them.”

Winter is prime time for New Mexico refuge


Sandhill Crane

Sandhill Cranes are one of the attractions at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Published Jan. 6, 2000, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Refuge offers whopping-good time.”

2015 Update: Apparently, Whooping Cranes no longer visit the refuge regularly.

By Barb Gorges

Holiday visits with family can easily become a never-ending cycle of cooking, eating and cleaning up. That’s why, several weeks before heading to my mother’s in Albuquerque for Christmas, I planted the idea of a side trip to Bosque (BOSS-key) del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.

My intentions were to get us out of the house, find some grist for this column and avoid the after Christmas sales.

I’ve been to “The Woods of the Apache” several times, driving south along the Rio Grande a little past Socorro, New Mexico. The refuge is best known for its wintering flocks of snow geese, sandhill cranes and   whooping cranes.

It was originally set up in 1939 for the then-endangered sandhills.

The endangered whoopers have been raised in captivity and trained to migrate to the refuge with the sandhills for the winter.

Seeing whoopers is great, but there are 377 bird species on the refuge checklist, and some, like the roadrunner, are equally exotic to us Northerners.

We decided to arrive at the refuge a few hours before sunset, when the geese and cranes start returning for the night from feeding in nearby fields.

The refuge includes 57,000 acres. Nine miles of valley include a series of farmed fields, marshes, ponds and woody margins. The Chihuahuan desert uplands on either side are official wilderness.

Examining the ponds, we saw waterfowl common to the Bosque: pintails, northern shovelers, buffleheads, coots and even a few mallards.

As we drove up to the visitor center, my sister Beth wondered if a friend still worked for the refuge. In fact, Daniel Perry was working that day and kindly marked out his favorite trails on our copy of the refuge map, as well as the location of the morning’s sighting of the two wintering whooping cranes.

At the back of the visitor center a big viewing window with a microphone that brought in the sounds of strutting Gambel’s quail.

The busy white-crowned sparrows looked the same as the ones we get in Cheyenne.

In his backyard a few miles away, Daniel said, he gets pyrrhuloxia, the southwestern version of a cardinal, and black-throated sparrows.

We poked along the 15-mile auto tour loop, playing leapfrog. People passing us as we pulled over to look at birds would themselves be pulled over by the time we continued on. One car with Albany County, Wyoming, plates turned out to be a couple from Laramie who’d recently relocated to Albuquerque.

Just about the time the Chupadera Mountains turned purple in the waning light, we came to the observation deck Daniel recommended.

Thoughtfully equipped by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with both a powerful scope and a Port-a-Potty, it seemed perfect. But no birds were right there.

Beth, Jeffrey and I hiked down the road to investigate a small flock of snow geese, including a few “blue geese,” a color phase. A few sandhills accompanied them.

By the time we returned to the deck, Mark and Bryan had two white birds in the scope. It must have been a strong scope, because I couldn’t see anything white out there with my naked eye.

Were these snow geese or whoopers? Both are pure white with black-tipped wings that don’t show unless they fly.

Of course, with a way to compare size, identification would be obvious. Snow geese are about 2 feet high and both sandhill cranes and whoopers stand about 5 feet tall.

When we could make out sandhills standing next to the white birds, we knew we’d found the whooping cranes.

As I looked through the scope, they flapped their huge and wonderfully flexible wings. Just like in the movies. We all got a good look before they moved deeper into the brush.

There were no other people with whom to share the moment. A steady line of cars lumbered past in the dusk behind us, like elephants, headlights to tail lights. It’s doubtful anyone else not on the deck would have had the angle needed to see the whooping cranes.

We were not entirely alone, however. Occasional sandhills making their “craa-k” calls, flapped just a few yards over our heads. For one evening, we were privileged to be in the right place at just the right time.

Conservation note: Whooping crane reintroduction has not been very successful because the whoopers imprint too well on the sandhills and haven’t been procreating in the wild. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has decided to put all its crane eggs into the eastern flock instead.

Refuge visitors, as well as locals who enjoy the economic prosperity brought by crane watchers, are petitioning the service to change its mind—and re-evaluate its propagation methods.

Planning a Trip to Bosque del Apache

Check for updates at http://www.fws.gov/refuge/bosque_del_apache.

Location: About 17 miles south of Socorro, New Mexico. On I-25, follow signs at Exit 139.

Hours: One hour before sunrise to one hour after sunset. Visitor center open year round, 8-4 p.m.

Fees: To drive the tour loop–$5.

Seasons: November through mid-February is the peak for bald eagles, cranes, snow geese, other waterfowl and bird watchers. Migration and nesting seasons cover the rest of the year and are also worth visiting.

Nebraska spring crane festival for the birds


Sandhill Cranes

Thousands of Sandhill Cranes outside Kearney, Neb., can be seen feeding and flying. Photo by Barb Gorges

Published April 18, 2010, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Nebraska spring festival is for the birds.”

2014 Update: The name of the festival has been changed to Audubon’s Nebraska Crane Festival, scheduled in late March in Kearney. See www.nebraskacranefestival.org.

By Barb Gorges

If a late winter-early spring trip to Belize, Mexico, the Everglades, southern Arizona or Hawaii, destinations of our friends, wasn’t on Mark’s and my calendar this year, I thought why not central Nebraska instead?

At an elevation nearly 4000 feet lower than Cheyenne, spring would be farther along.

We packed our snow gear anyway and headed for Kearney for the first weekend of spring and the 40th Annual Rivers and Wildlife Celebration.

I have always thought this was a weekend to avoid when planning a trip to view the spring migration of sandhill cranes. But having become increasingly intrigued with the idea of attending a birding festival, we paid the registration fee and signed up for one of the pre-conference, daylong field trips.

We didn’t sign up for the crane-viewing blinds. That just seemed futile with the number of people coming for the conference. Plus, we’ve done it before.

It was 70 degrees Thursday afternoon when we arrived in Kearney at the conference hotel. On the way out to Rowe Audubon Sanctuary, 12 miles further east, we stopped to admire a field full of cranes, as thick as cows in a feed lot, quietly dozing or picking up the odd bit of food. They seemed to be anticipating their evening performance.

Rowe’s educational displays provide the background to appreciate the Platte River, its history and the unique phenomenon of 600,000 sandhill cranes stopping over on their way to northern breeding grounds.

Forty years ago, the cranes could barely find the scoured river sandbars they need to roost on at night to avoid predators. The controlled flow of the Platte didn’t give it the flooding needed to keep it clean.

Ron Klataske, working for Audubon, inspired the troops during those early years and the original spring meetings were rallies for river protection. At lunch Ron, now director of Audubon of Kansas, reviewed the progress made.

A lobbying workshop featuring a panel of Nebraska lawmakers was scheduled Saturday afternoon, but Mark and I, after a morning learning about sandhill crane behavior and the state of whooping crane research, opted for a walk out to the river on the Ft. Kearny State Recreation Area’s Hike and Bike Trail.

An old railroad bridge spans a perfect treeless, crane-roosting stretch of the river, but we were too early for the evening performance of incoming cranes.

Instead, we’d paid to attend the banquet. At our table we met folks from New York and Nebraska, a few of the 150 people from 22 states registered for the weekend.

I was looking forward to the after dinner speaker and Pulitzer Prize finalist Scott Weidensaul. I’ve enjoyed several of his two dozen books about birds and natural history.

It turns out he is good at speaking, too, with great photos. His theme was from his book, “Return to Wild America,” in which he retraces Roger Tory Peterson’s 1953 trip across North America and notes the changes.

Sandhill Crane model

At Rowe Audubon Sanctuary, a life-size, painted, cut-out of a Sandhill Crane gives a sense of their size. Photo by Barb Gorges

The family of the previous evening’s speaker, Nebraska photographer Michael Forsberg, was around all weekend selling his incredible photographs and his new book, “Great Plains: America’s Lingering Wild.” He gave us a look behind the scenes of the professional wildlife photographer’s life. Not only do you need to know your camera, you need to know your wildlife, more than a few landowners, and how to set up a camera trap or figure out other ways not to disrupt your subjects’ lives while shooting them.

Chris Wood came out all the way from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York, to encourage us at breakfast Saturday to record our bird observations in eBird. More about that in a future column.

But how was the birding, you ask. Fine.

For $25 apiece, we rode a 20-passenger shuttle bus all day Friday with huge windows and Kent Skaggs from Rowe Sanctuary at the wheel. He knows every road and bird. [Hefty sack lunches were provided, plus plenty of interesting passengers, as well as enough potty stops at small towns.] It was cold and snowy and downright raw when we clambered out for stops to explore the Rainwater Basin Wetland Management District south of Kearney, but other stops required only cozy armchair birding from the bus.

The highlights included greater prairie chicken, Lapland longspur, eastern meadowlark, and a rare glaucous gull. The other birds were all species we see regularly around Cheyenne, except for the flock of eastern bluebirds we saw Saturday afternoon—a great way to mark the first day of spring.

We’ll see what famous name in birdwatching or conservation is invited next year and maybe even risk registration roulette and sign up for a sunrise or sunset in the crane viewing blinds, too. Everyone needs a little inspiration after a long winter.

River attracts cranes

Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes. Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published April 3, 2003, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “River attracts cranes, cranes attract admirers.”

2014 Update: Visit Rowe Audubon Sanctuary, www.rowe.audubon.org, and the Crane Trust Nature and Visitors Center, www.cranetrust.org, whether or not you arrive in time for crane migration or reserve a spot in their blinds.

By Barb Gorges

The morning sun was about to wash the Platte River in gold and rose-colored light. The shallow water gleamed silver wherever it wasn’t full of thousands of sandhill cranes agitating for liftoff. Their craa-acking calls filled the air.

It’s a spectacle that can be witnessed every year in March and early April along an 80-mile stretch of the Platte in central Nebraska. Mass gatherings of the 500,000 cranes don’t happen on any other river between the cranes’ main wintering grounds in southern Texas and New Mexico and their breeding grounds which can be as far north as Alaska and eastern Siberia.

Every evening the cranes leave the fields and wetlands where they’ve been feasting on waste corn, invertebrates, worms and snails. In squadrons they arrive at the river to stand together, resting in the wide and shallow channels to avoid predators such as coyotes.

Before sunrise, small groups of the leggy 3- to 4-foot tall gray birds begin to fly out to the fields, their bodies streamlined and the flapping of their six foot wingspans propelling them at a majestic speed.

Sometimes, with a roar of wings and a clamoring of voices, a whole section of river seems to lift off in response to some seen or unseen disruption.

A couple weeks ago, members and friends of the Audubon chapter in Cheyenne watched cranes from behind a screen of tall weeds on the river bank a respectful distance away. Some of us wondered who the first non-natives were to remark on this natural extravaganza.

We agreed it wouldn’t have been the wagon train pioneers in the 1840s. They didn’t even leave Missouri until April each year. Early trappers on their seasonal peregrinations may not have arrived at the right stretch of river at the right time either.

But by 1974, the crane phenomenon was well enough known that the National Audubon Society, with funds from Lillian Annette Rowe, bought 2 ½ miles of river channel to establish a bird sanctuary.

Dams along the Platte have almost eliminated the spring flooding that controlled vegetation growth, so Rowe Sanctuary staff and volunteers use mechanical means to maintain the wide channels and open sandbars the cranes prefer. The river through the sanctuary looks bulldozed because it is.

There’s been a lot of progress since my first visit several years ago. And in the year since my last visit, the effort to build a visitor center was begun and completed, producing the second largest straw bale-constructed building in the U.S.

What was once a natural event known only to locals and bird watchers is now a well-advertised tourist attraction. Crane viewing opportunities, either free or for a fee, are marked on a special map available from local businesses from Kearney to Grand Island. Passengers from a tour bus filled Rowe Sanctuary’s gift shop by the time we arrived.

I’m not sure how I feel about commercializing bird watching opportunities. On one hand, some of us would rather discover nature on our own—not an easy task when you need to know somebody who knows somebody who will allow you to find a crane viewing spot on their property.

Instead of interpretive signs at eye-level, we must, as the early settlers did, bring our previous experience and our future research to bear on our ability to understand what we’ve seen. It’s called learning by discovery.

On the other hand, a non-profit organization like Rowe Sanctuary is funding its conservation efforts by charging for observation blind reservations and by selling the best selection of crane-related items to be found.

People often don’t value an experience unless they pay for it. The more people who come to value cranes, the better chance necessary habitat management will be supported politically and financially.

As long as people promoting eco-tourism keep the welfare of the wildlife and natural resources their first priority, they will be assured of having the basis for their business continue indefinitely.

In that respect, eco-tourism benefits from good stewardship in the same way as other uses of renewable resources such as timbering, grazing, farming, hunting and fishing.

Whatever we think of the politics of river and wildlife management, there is still the soul-pleasing aspect of sharing the sunrise with thousands of birds who have figured out how to travel hundreds of miles on nothing but waste corn and creepy-crawlies. Don’t ever underestimate a bird-brain.

Flocking to see crane migration

Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published April 4, 2002, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Birders flock to observe crane migration.”

2014 Update: Visit Rowe Audubon Sanctuary, www.rowe.audubon.org, and the Crane Trust Nature and Visitors Center, www.cranetrust.org, whether or not you arrive in time for crane migration or reserve a spot in their blinds. See the Kearney, Neb., visitor’s bureau for information also, http://visitkearney.org.

By Barb Gorges

Common wisdom has it birds fly north in the spring and people on spring break either head south to warm up or head west to ski. More than a dozen Cheyenne bird watchers recently headed east instead to see a bit of the sandhill crane migration.

Lots of birds migrate, but few are as dramatic about it as the sandhill cranes. They come from their various wintering grounds in New Mexico and Texas to a 100-mile stretch of the Platte River where they all lay over, eat waste grain and fatten up for the rest of their trip and the breeding season. Some continue north as far as Alaska and Siberia.

In March and early April it isn’t hard to find sandhills between North Platte and Grand Island, Neb., even at 75 miles per hour. Cranes, their nearly four-foot lengths bent double to feed, show as gray lumps moving through old cornstalks.

An individual crane is a graceful, elegant bird to study, small flocks are interesting, but the spectacular part comes at twilight. Thousands of cranes gather in the shallow reaches of the river to spend the night.

They like best where the river has been scoured clean of vegetation so no predators can hide. Before all the dams, the river scoured itself with frequent floods. Now crane conservationists take heavy equipment to the brush.

Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon president Art Anderson organized our 300 mile expedition east. Friends of his have blinds just downriver from the Rowe Sanctuary run by Audubon Nebraska near Gibbon, where Mark and I had visited eight or nine years before.

In that time Kearney, Neb., has become the crane capital: more motels, crane information at the rest area and messages on business marquees welcoming crane watchers. I didn’t stop to shop, but undoubtedly there’s crane stuff for sale.

At the sanctuary a whole building is now dedicated to crane souvenirs and several people were available to answer questions. I overheard visitors discussing the likely location of a lone whooping crane.

There was a happy delay when we arrived at the gate to our destination. Right alongside the long dirt driveway was a flock of sandhills—and the whooper.

There are few whooping cranes worldwide, a few hundred, but at least they are easy to pick out because they stand taller than the sandhills and they gleam bright white. We set up spotting scopes and studied the whooper’s bright yellow eye and red and black facial markings. The evening breeze was ruffling its plumy feathers.

By show time we were ensconced in a really swank duck blind. Line after line of sandhills came in from upriver. Some from nearby fields flew right over our heads, close enough we saw their bills open as they made their creaky calls to each other. In near dark their slow wingbeats and the way their long legs extend well past their bodies make them easy to sort out from ducks and geese, small flocks of which were flapping furiously in staccato counterpoint.

A lot of the cranes headed for the big flock around the bend from us. The noise of those thousands of voices reminded me of the roar of fans at Oakie Blanchard Stadium I can hear from my house on a fall evening.

When we left, tardy geese were still coming in, crossing in front of the nearly full moon as if to recreate the artwork hanging in a hunting lodge.

The other show is when the cranes lift off around sunrise. However, the next morning a stolid sky, promising precipitation, squelched the exact moment of dawn. As the day brightened by imperceptible degrees, I became aware that the gray-colored sandbar was really a mass of cranes.

Though we’d pried ourselves out of our sleeping bags before 6 a.m., the cranes in front of the blind were reluctant risers. A lot of other cranes passed by, enticing a few strings to lift off and peel away, but most appeared to still have their heads under their wings.

Finally we gave up and went indoors where a picture window gave us a view of a really nice bird feeding station. There were gobs of goldfinches, several cardinals, nuthatches, chickadees, downy woodpeckers, juncos and, drumroll please: a pair of red-bellied woodpeckers. So now I don’t have to wait until I see the one that’s been reported in Cheyenne in order to add this species to my life list.

The red-bellieds and the whooper were the perfect souvenirs of my chance to escape routine for a couple days outside in a different landscape—my chance to take a spring break.

Visit Sandhill Crane migration

Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes, courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Published Feb. 9, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “The great migration: Head east this spring to meet the famous sandhill cranes”

By Barb Gorges
One of the great annual events of the natural world, especially for North America, happens just down the road from Cheyenne every spring. Yet it isn’t as well-known, much less well-attended, by Wyomingites as it is by people from all over the country, even the world.

I’m talking about the spring migration of sandhill cranes.

Yes, there are millions of migrating birds, but most don’t stand nearly 4 feet tall in flocks of thousands, out in the open, making such a racket that they can’t be missed.

More than 500,000 birds, representing 80 percent of the entire sandhill population, come in for a landing along a stretch of the Platte River, between wintering in New Mexico and Texas and breeding in Canada and Alaska.

The peak time for Nebraska is the month of March into the first week in April, about when I get my annual spring urge to travel.

Driving Interstate 80 five hours east (and don’t forget to account for the lost hour entering the Central time zone[j1]), to an elevation 4,000 feet lower is to meet spring a couple weeks early. Central Nebraska has a Midwestern flavor with birds to match, so it’s even more like getting out of Dodge for a vacation.

When Mark and I first went to see the cranes, our boys were younger than 12, too young to be allowed in the blinds at the Rowe Audubon Sanctuary. Can you imagine how quickly the cranes would leave if small children staged a temper tantrum, echoing through the plywood construction? So we left them with a friend in Kearney for a few hours. We’ve been back a couple times since.

I love the openness. The only trees are in the river valley. But those trees are exactly what the cranes don’t want.

So the Rowe Audubon Sanctuary, since its establishment in 1974, has worked diligently to remove trees from its stretch of the river, leaving unvegetated sandbars for the cranes to roost on at night, with no place for predators to skulk unseen. Damming the river upstream has eliminated spring floods that would normally clear the channels regularly.

The blinds at Rowe, near Gibbon, 20 minutes from Kearney, and at The Crane Trust Nature and Visitors Center further east, near Grand Island, allow people to view cranes at sunrise and sunset.

While the cranes (even the occasional whooping crane) are scattered in the local fields and wetlands feeding on corn and invertebrates all day, great for photo ops, it’s the blinds that allow you to see the concentration of birds where they roost for the night.

If you want to get closer, sign up to stay overnight in the special photographers’ blinds – no heat or light allowed – and pay $200-$300 for the privilege.

It is a privilege to watch these magnificent birds from the blinds, but it may not seem like it if you don’t bring your warmest boots and layers of clothing. That’s the downside of being further east – the cold is damp.

Once you enter the blind, at 5 p.m. (6 p.m. after daylight saving time starts March 9), you aren’t allowed to leave for two to three hours, until it’s dark enough to sneak away. Alternatively, if you enter at 5 a.m., 6 a.m. DST, you must wait until after the birds have left. The blinds do have adjacent chemical toilets now, but the guides discourage their use.

Not only do you want to wear dark clothes to keep from spooking the birds, but regular flashlights are not allowed and bright LCD screens are frowned on.

And for heaven sake, leave your flash at home and make sure you deactivate the flash on your point and shoot or smart phone. If your flash triggers a mass bird departure, everyone in the blind, up to 31 other people, will hate you, because there won’t be a second chance to see sandhills that morning or evening.

Blaine McCartney, a photographer at the WTE, reccommends a 400mm lens to get close enough to the birds, along with a monopod.  Though everyone gets their own little window, there isn’t really room for tripods.

Judy Myer, a Cheyenne photographer, went on a shoot with the Fort Collins camera club last year. The club members used the Rowe blinds one morning and the Crane Trust blinds in the evening.

“The evening viewing was dark, but we could hear them,” she said. “Is one place better than the other? I can’t really answer that except to say I wouldn’t do (those blinds) again in the evening.”

Instead, she said, she would head to the bridge at the trust, where, for $15, you can watch the cranes fly overhead in the evening to their roosts.

But it goes to show everyone’s experience can be different. I’m not familiar with The Crane Trust blinds. We’ve had pretty good luck at Rowe, and it’s closer.

The Trust exists because of the settlement in 1978 of a lawsuit contending that the Grey Rocks Dam, built on the North Platte in Wyoming, had a negative impact on whooping cranes and other wildlife in Nebraska downstream on the Platte. Like Rowe, they do a lot of work to clear vegetation from the river channels and offer educational opportunities.

Yes, it’s half a day’s drive each way. Yes, it can be cold.

But no nature film can take the place of being surrounded by a crowd of birds continuing a ritual that’s tens of thousands, maybe millions of years old, that’s partly instinctual and partly learned from their parents.

Their calling fills your ears with a roar you never forget.

To visit or make blind reservations
Rowe Audubon Sanctuary
Located at 44450 Elm Island Road, near Gibbon, Neb. Visit http://www.rowe.audubon.org for details and rules. Call 308-468-5282 weekdays 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Central time. Reservations are available March 1-April 6. Cost is $25 per person and must be paid in advance. Reservations are refundable up to seven days in advance, with a 5 percent charge.

The Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary, 44450 Elm Island Road., Gibbon, Neb., is free. From Feb. 15 to April 15, it’s open daily 8 a.m.-5:30 p.m.

Crane Trust Nature and Visitors Center
The visitor center, at 6611 Whooping Crane Drive, Wood River, Neb., is free and open March [j6]1-April 7, 8 a.m.-6 p.m. daily. Normally, it is open Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Reservations are $25 a person and are available March 1-30. Another option is to view cranes from their bridge ($15) as they fly overhead in the evening to their roosts. Visit http://www.cranetrust.org or call 308-382-1820.

Crane festivals
Festivals are held all along the cranes’ Central Flyway migration route, and on their breeding and wintering grounds. The biggest (with the most cranes) is Audubon’s Nebraska Crane Festival (formerly Rivers and Wildlife Celebration), scheduled March 20-23 in Kearney, which includes speakers, kid activities, field trips, vendors, etc. See http://www.nebraskacranefestival.org.

Other Central Flyway crane festivals:
Whooping Crane Festival, Port Aransas, Texas, Feb. 20-23.
Monte Vista Crane Festival, Monte Vista, Colo., March 7-9.
Crane Watch Festival, Kearney, Neb., (includes Audubon’s Nebraska Crane Festival), March 21-30.
Tanana Valley Sandhill Crane Festival, Fairbanks, Alaska, August 22-25.
Yampa Valley Crane Festival, Hayden, Colo., September.
Festival of the Cranes, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico, November.

Other crane festivals:
Othello Sandhill Crane Festival, Othello, Wash., March 28-30.
Sandhill Crane and Art Festival, Calhoun Co., Michigan, Oct. 11-12.
Sandhill Crane Festival, Lodi, Calif., November
Tennessee Crane Festival, Birchwood, Tenn., mid-January 2015.