Kearney, Nebraska is the center of where the magic happens. Every year for about six weeks, 80% of the world’s population of Sandhill Cranes stop along the Platte River to rest and fatten up for their trek north. I was determined to see this wonder of the natural world and my trip planning focused on being in Kearney by April 6 for the last night of evening viewing offered by the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary. On the advice of my Kansas City pal, I reserved an evening viewing and a viewing for the following morning. It was SPECTACULAR!!!
I arrived at the Sanctuary, checked in and with 12 others including guides we drove to our blind across the river. We taped the flash of our cameras and were instructed that no lights should be used, no cell phones, no illuminated watches, etc so as to not scare the cranes. The sandhill cranes were a bit late this year and so, even though this was the last night viewing was offered, I was still in the height of the season. These pre-historic looking birds feed on the grain of the wetland near the Platte River, which can be up to a half-mile wide and a foot deep. After bulking up, the cranes leave for Northern Canada, Alaska and Siberia flying as far as 450 miles per day.
Sitting quietly in our blind well before sunset, we watched and waited for the cranes. Gradually the empty horizon had cranes arriving in twos and threes, landing up and down river from the blind. Before 20 minutes had past the twos and threes became groups of 20 or more. From almost every direction the cranes arrived at the river for the night, for protection and mating. Often while on the Platte mates are found; the dancing, flapping of wings and head bobbing are continual. We saw some of it in the evening, but it was during the morning viewing that the cranes were most active. I watched the sunset over the prairie and looked back at the thousands of cranes that had arrived and were on the riverbed. Twice in the evening, the birds were spooked and often took off in flight by the thousands. What a sight; the noise of cranes calling and the flapping of wings, the twilight darkened by their bodies.
My morning viewing began in the dark. I arrived at 5:45am and with a larger group walked to a nearby blind. It was too dark to see the cranes, but their noise could probably be heard for miles. I sat peacefully on a bench, with a hot tea in hand, and enjoyed listening to the cranes as the day began. There was no discernible sunrise that morning, but slowly it was evident that there were ten thousand+ cranes on the river. It was an entertaining sight as they were active in their mating dances. As time drew on, the cranes began to leave for a day of eating on the surrounding fields. Witnessing this routine yet wondrous sight was a bit like being dipped in a youtube video; I have watched video clips of the natural world(and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom back in the day) but this was a full-frontal assault on my senses. It was spectacular and made me wonder if birding isn’t in my future; birders go to a lot of amazing places and they have lots of cool gear and gadgets. I do so love a hobby with where I can buy gear and gadgets.