Well at last, spring is finally here and "none-too-soon" for me. This time of year always reminds me of a trip that Mrs. LZ and I took several years ago to central Nebraska. Although this was only a one time visit for us, and quite a thrill for any amature ornithologist (or maybe just bird-watcher) this little adventure happens at this percise time every year and has for literally thousands and thousands of years. It is what is known fondly as the annual migration of the Sandhill cranes.
In order to view this world's largest concentration of Sandhill cranes from observation blinds on the banks of the Platte River in South Central Nebraska, it is necessary to get up very early when these birds are most active. There are trips conducted every year during March and early April, when over a half a million Sandhill cranes along with hundreds of thousands of ducks and geese converge on the Platte River there. One such opportunity is taken from a place called Rowe Sanctuary.
The Rowe Sanctuary is about the most famous and is located right in the heart of this magnificent Sandhill crane staging area where the birds can be viewed in huge gatherings on their nighttime roosts. Trips to our observation blinds are timed to provide the best opportunities to see this spectacle. Group sizes are limited to maintain the quality and uniqueness of the experience.
If you can look at a map of North and South America and try and imagine it was overlaid with the outline of an hour glass, and then imagine these birds flying from the most further most eastern and western points of Mexico and even South America, then making the center of the hour glass overlap a much smaller area between Grand Island and Kearney Nebraska, before it spreads out again at it top up in Canada and Alaska, then you can visualize this yearly path at its smallest and most concentrated amount of birds.
A typical field trip to see the birds, begins and ends with a walk of between 1/4-1/2 mile over level terrain. Morning trips start before dawn as the blinds must be approached under the cover of darkness to prevent spooking the cranes. In the evening, tours arrive at the blinds before the sun sets to view the Sandhill cranes as they return to the river and stay until dark. Benches are available for resting, but the blinds are not heated.
The field trips from Rowe take place every morning and evening from early March through early April. Although they take "walk-ins" when space is available, they also encourage you to call after the first of the year to make your reservations.
The birds themselves are just awesome to watch as they conduct their little mating ritual dances. Cranes are among the oldest living birds on the planet. Fossil records place Sandhill Cranes in Nebraska more than nine million years ago, long before there was a Platte River, which, by comparison, is only a youthful 10,000 years of age. The landscape then was savanna-like and its inhabitants were more like that of modern East Africa; varieties of rhinos, camels, and elephants long since extinct. Yet cranes survived and watched as American bison, pronghorn, and wapiti evolved on the prairies. Humans now dominate the landscape having replaced the bison with cattle and the prairie with corn and concrete. This startling transition occurred in less than 150 years, a mere blink of an eye in geologic time!
Witnessing the gathering of half a million cranes under a blazon Nebraska sunset stirred our senses and sparked our imagination like very few experiences could. What better way to rejuvenate your spirit than with the sights and sounds of such a spectacle with a cold March wind slapping your cheeks? "Why do they stage here along the Platte?", "Where are they going", and "Where do they come from?" are but a few of the many questions visitors ask.
At dawn, (which was our favorite time to watch them) the cranes leave the river and head to the fields to feed. They usually range within five miles of the river. The cornfields provide the cranes with a source of energy, while meadows and alfalfa fields provide essential proteins and minerals. They also serve an important social function as loafing and courtship areas. Another viewing place that we visited while there was the Crane Meadows Nature Center, which was on Alda Road in Wood River, NE.
At dusk, the cranes gather along the broad, shallow reaches of the Platte River to roost for the night. They prefer to stand in water about six inches deep, taking on the configuration of submerged sandbars. Densities of more than 12,000 cranes per half mile of river can occur. During inclement weather they seek out the narrower, more protected stretches of the river. At this time of year occasionally, the river freezes, and the birds must roost in the fields adjacent to the river, huddled together for warmth and protection.
There were times when we looked up in the sky and it was almost like one of the “end of the world” movies where the locusts come to attack the fields and the sky is actually darkened by their sheer numbers. Only instead of being the size of a locust, they are about the size of a flamingo and look very much like a whooping crane only gray rather than white. As I got close enough with my camera (even with the telephoto lens) these things would all take off together in one giant exodus. (No pun on my previous locust reference either). As you can see from most of the closer photos I’ve taken here, the cranes have a red patch on their heads. I was hoping that there was some way to distinguish the males from the females, but alas, I couldn’t figure it out. But it's OK, becuase I am sure that they can!
These Sandhill Cranes are have a height of 3-4 feet, a wingspan of 6 feet, they weigh from 8-12 pounds and fly at a speed of 38 miles per hour. They are also diurnal or daytime migrants and use thermals to their advantage. They will ride the thermal higher and higher up to an altitude of a couple of thousand feet, then they will glide northward in wavering lines losing altitude as they go until they reach the next thermal, spiraling upwards to repeat the process. This method of migration is energy efficient, more so than the power-flapping flight of other species such as geese. On a good day, cranes can travel up to 500 miles although 200 to 300 miles is more typical. In the late afternoon, they seek a wetland of some type to roost for the night and depart the next morning weather permitting, until they reach their destination. This stop for them is a halfway point and they rest up for the rest of their trip.
I am not saying that everyone needs to make this adventuresome trip, but if you love watching birds (as LZ does) then, I am sure that you will never see a site like this again in your life. I was also amazed that these huge birds seemed to be afraid of humans, but as you can see from a couple of my shots, they didn't seem to mind grazing in the harvested corn fields right next to the cattle. Their flight was amazing to watch, and even though I tried to catch its grace and beauty, it just can't all be captured on any media as far as I am concerned.
For those of you out there who are Christians, I want to wish you all and your families a very Blessed Easter! Like the picture of the sun at sunrise at the top of my blog template, the Son of man has risen and has risen indeed. "He is not here; for he is risen, as He said..."
Matthew 28:6"I never for a day gave up listening to the songs of our birds, or watching their peculiar habits, or delineating them in the best way I could."
~ John James Audubon