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Sandhill crane migration is a sight to behold

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By Sylvia Brockner

Actually it was not bitter cold or the storm could have been much worse than it actually was. This is the week that I always call crane week for almost every year my husband Bill and I used to go to Nebraska at this time to see the sandhill crane migration.

I had planned to go again this year and be a co-leader with Kathanne Lynch for an Evergreen Audubon trip, but apparently few Auduboners realized what a very special trip this is, and no one signed up to go. Or maybe they were just afraid of spring blizzards on the plains. My loss, I’m sorry to say.

If you have never gone on this trip, one of the many Evergreen Audubon-scheduled trips, plan now to go on the next one or just go on your own. There are endless accommodations along the Interstate 80 tourist route, and sometime during the last two weeks of March is the best time to go.

At that time the bulk of the sandhill crane population has left its wintering grounds along the Gulf of Mexico and all of the southern states. As they fly north, the Platte River Valley becomes a gathering place where they all stop, rest and feed before they go father north. This staging area covers the Platte Valley between Grand Island west to North Platte, with a few even extending beyond on both ends.

We only went as far east as Grand Island one year because we found the topography of the valley and the fact that most of the area had restricted entrance made it more difficult to see the cranes. It is a much longer drive, and we could see more cranes between North Platte and Kearney.

Just west of the city of North Platte is the flat farm fields between the north and south forks of the Platte River, one can see thousands of sandhill cranes by just driving the farm roads. Most of the farmers are friendly, and they like to see the big birds, too.

But if you feel that you must walk in some place, it is only common courtesy to ask permission. I have never been turned down, but farmers take a very dim view of trespassers, and rightly so.

Sandhill cranes are very skittish. They will usually fly if they see people walking toward them, however they are used to seeing cars and farm tractors on the road, and will usually stay put if you stay in the car. It usually makes the best blind.

Since the cranes roost on the river sandbars at night and spend their days resting and feeding in the stubble fields, the sunset and sunrise flights are spectacular and can usually be seen from any of the road bridges that cross the Platte.

Cranes are large dignified birds that seem to prefer to walk away from you rather than fly. But they do fly and the long skeins of birds in flight can be seen in the sky almost anytime during the daylight hours. They have a deep guttural call, which is unforgettable.

By the last of March, the bulk of the sandhill crane population is in the Platte River Valley staging area. It is estimated that 50,000 to 100,000 birds can be seen at that time. We are always amazed to see what we have estimated as 50,000 cranes on our trips to Nebraska.

This large migration of so many large birds is one of the Seven Wonders of the natural world. Every birder should see it. It gives you an idea of what it must have been like in the past before man began messing up our planet.

Unfortunately, it may not last. If man puts more dams along the Platte and there is not enough water for their night roosts or if the stubble fields contain less grain due to more efficient equipment, it is possible that they will move on earlier without the big buildup and of course their Canadian breeding range may well come under the gun of development. We cannot foresee what the future will bring, but our track records hasn’t been very good.

This is a wonderful trip to take after a long winter for it breathes spring at every twist of the road. Many other birds are beginning their migration at this time, and we often saw fields full of robins and killdeer. Many hawks and kestrels are going north at this time and almost every body of water, from roadside ditches to small ponds and reservoirs, are full of waterfowl.

This area is far enough east that we almost always found a cardinal in some shrubby valley or in town at someone’s feeder, and of course meadowlaks and bluebirds were almost always seen along the way. Most years we had fine warm spring weather, but on a few occasions we had cold rain and once in about 20 trips, we hit a snowstorm. This was the kind of blizzard we had last week, and we simply got off the road in Ogallala and holed up in a motel for the rest of the day and night. The next morning was blue and clear, and we drove home on roads that were either just wet or totally dry.