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Bird watching: 500,000 sandhill cranes in Nebraska during spring migration 0

WAYNE NEWTON, Special to QMI Agency

Thousands of sandhill cranes kettle from the Platte River at dawn near Kearney, Neb. WAYNE NEWTON PHOTO

Thousands of sandhill cranes kettle from the Platte River at dawn near Kearney, Neb. WAYNE NEWTON PHOTO

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Jane Goodall doesn't take a cruise in mid-March, so why should I?

The world renowned scientist is in western Nebraska, and so am I, although we missed crossing paths by a few hours. We're there for the same purpose, to witness what National Geographic calls one of the greatest wildlife phenomenon in North America -- the spring migration of the sandhill cranes.

Goodall, who earned fame for her decades of work studying primates in Africa, is leading a group of birders who have paid $5,000 for her expert company and the experience of watching tens of thousands of the large, grey birds wake from their pre-dawn slumber along the Platte River and take off in massive squadrons across the winter sky, scavengers of the acres and acres of nearby Nebraska corn fields.

I've been up since 5 a.m., arriving from nearby Kearney to a packed parking lot at the Rowe Sanctuary and led as silently as possible to a blind, where there is no conversation above a whisper and no complaining about the -10 C temperature, even from the group of Floridians, who wisely stocked up beforehand at the giant Cabella's sporting goods store in Kearney.

Sunrise brings feeding time and a cacophony of calls and coos from the thousands of birds on the flat, slow-flowing river. Suddenly, as if directed by an air traffic controller, groups of hundreds of cranes start taking off in V-shaped formations until all are gone, only to return to the river at dusk.

It's breathtaking and, for a first-time birdwatcher such as myself, surreal.

From late February through to April, an estimated 500,000 sandhill cranes will stop and linger on the Platte River as part of their spring migration along North America's Central Flyway from areas such as Texas to their summer homes in Canada's Prairie provinces, Northern Ontario, the Arctic and Alaska.

The birds stay for two or three weeks, fattening up before continuing their journey. Nightly, there are about 70,000 cranes at the Rowe Sanctuary.

The cranes, mostly grey but some reddish brown, stand more than a metre tall with wingspans approaching 2 metres.

The spring migration has attracted serious and casual birders from every state and several countries, including Canada.

"It's not just a gathering of birds, it's also a gathering of people," said Nebraska-based conservation photographer Michael Forsberg, whose photos of sandhill cranes grace the walls of the Museum of Nebraska Art (MONA).

Located in a former U.S. post office built in 1911, MONA is one of Kearney's surprising treasures and one of several spots birders will go to warm up and experience Nebraskan culture and hospitality between dawn and dusk.

Admission is free and the collection includes more than 5,000 works either by Nebraskan artists or featuring scenes from the state. There are works by John James Audubon and Robert Henri, who lived in nearby Cozad where his controversial family is remembered with a museum.

Also not to be missed is the Great Platte River Road Archway, a stunning interactive museum spanning Interstate 80. It tells the story of transportation and communication in Nebraska, from Pony Express, which ran through the state, the hand-pulled wagons used on the Mormon Trail to the Lincoln Highway tourist camps which popped up in the state at the dawn of automobile travel.

NEED TO KNOW

Major airlines fly to Omaha. Kearney (pronounced "car-knee") is a three-hour drive west.

LEARN MORE

-- See rowesanctuary.org, visitkearney.org or janegoodall.org/travel.

 

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