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

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.