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.
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.