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Watching World’s Largest Sandhill Crane Migration is Epic Birding in Nebraska

Every spring over a million sandhill cranes swoop down on Central Nebraska. It’s the world’s largest sandhill crane migration and one of the last great animal migrations on earth. The nearly 150-mile stretch of Grand Island-Kearney-North Platte is called the Nebraska Flyway as cranes travel north from their winter homes in places like Texas and funnel through to their breeding grounds in Canada and Alaska. They stop here to fuel up and rest before embarking on the rest of the northward trip. They start showing up mid-February and some are there until mid-April. The number peaks in March. While I was there the weekly count was 534,900. There are two prime viewing areas – Crane Trust and Rowe Sanctuary Audubon – and I got to visit both. The sandhill cranes take center stage in the spring, but you can also see prairie chickens, whooping cranes, bald eagles, owls, hawks, and pelicans.

Before I dive into three days in the Central Platte River Valley, let me share some fun facts about sandhill cranes. Among the world’s oldest living birds, cranes have been around since at least the Eocene Epoch, which ended about 34,000 years ago. They can fly 30-50 mph. They fly an average of 350 miles a day, but can travel up to 500 miles. Their wingspan is 6 feet and and adult crane stands 3-4 feet tall.

Arrival: Sunset at Crane Trust

My first night’s stay was at Crane Trust near Grand Island. The serenity of the landscape and stillness of the Platte River running through the property makes it easy to see why cranes flock here. On my way in I saw tons of cranes in empty cornfields. That’s part of what makes the Central Platte River Valley so attractive to the birds. They feast on waste grain left over from the fall harvest during the day and sleep in the safety of the sandbars in the Platte River at night. The stillness of the Platte River running through the property makes it easy to see why cranes flock here. On my way in I saw tons of cranes in empty cornfields. That’s part of what makes the Central Platte River Valley so attractive to the birds. They feast on waste grain left over from the fall harvest during the day and sleep in the safety of the sandbars in the Platte River at night.

I stayed in the Hastings College cottage. It’s one of three cottages on property. I had my own bedroom and bathroom, but loved the common space of my cottage with three other rooms. Two have queen size beds. Mine room was one of those. The other two rooms have bunk beds. After quickly settling in, the group I was with met for an early bird special dinner at 4:45 p.m. because we were going on a sunset viewing tour.

We did a short hike about an hour before sunset to the VIP blinds, which are heated. As each of us clamored for our shot spots, I noticed the location is perfect for viewing the birds flying in and swirling over the river before nestling in on a cozy sandbar. We settled in and waited, peering out from the blind frequently to see if birds were starting to move in. In the distance I noticed movement in what I’ll call a cirrus crane cloud because it looked like a cloud, but was really birds. Over the next 30-40 minutes I watched as move waves of cranes moved closer to the river until finally some started to land in front of us. As soon as some landed, others quickly followed as the late day sunlight started ticking away. It was magical, even mesmerizing and hypnotic, watching the graceful giants glide down to multiple sandbars. The trill sounds got louder and louder as the sun dipped below the horizon. We stayed for about 30 minutes after sunset, then tiptoed out silently as to not disturb the cranes.

Day 1: Cranes from Sunrise to Sunset from Grand Island to Kearney

The next morning we were up early for a sunrise viewing tour. About 30 minutes before sunrise, we walked in silence to the blinds. In the darkness you could hear the sandhill cranes in the river. They were closer than they were the evening before. As the sliver of light on the horizon increased with the sun rising, the cranes’ trilling got louder and louder. I thought they would take off in one big mass exodus, but instead they flew off in small waves or just a few at time. They’re morning personalities of stretching, moving around, and dancing are funny to watch.

After our morning viewing we grabbed breakfast then went to see some of the bison on property. They have over 120 bison in a conservation herd. Then we headed into Grand Island to walk around it’s historic downtown. For lunch we popped into Kinkaider Brewing Company where I went for the Dan Wiser battered fish and chips. The taproom is in a historic building. It was originally the Mickelson Theater opening as a motion picture theater in 1908. Grand Island jeweler Fred H Mickelson and his son James operated the theater until a fire cause significant damage in 1921. In the late 1920s it housed a Safeway grocery store, and several restaurants in the 1930s, and in the late 1940s it was home to a cigar store and pool hall.

We spent a couple of hours at the Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer. I was not expecting to find such an incredible museum in a small Nebraska town. This would be the first of several surprise cultural stops during my trip. The Stuhr Museum building was designed by Edward Durrell Stone, who designed the Kennedy Center and other famous buildings. He ad a desire to build something on the open prairie and in 1967 the museum founders wooed him to design the Stuhr an international architectural style. The main gallery features a rotating collection that starts in the first floor gallery as you enter. “Wings over the Platte” featuring works by Jude Martindale is fitting for the sandhill crane migration. Her works accent the water feature in this area too. My favorite was one titled “Showing Off” of a life-size crane with wings spread wide.It is a living history museum covering a time period of 1860-1930. There are 106 historic buildings brought from historic communities, including the birth home of actor Henry Fond. There are over 147,000 pieces in the museum’s collection.

It was a lovely day so we walked through the arboretum were ducks quacked as we crossed the bridge over the pond. Railroad Town was closed but it was still fun to wander around this town depicting life in a railroad town in 1891. It kind of felt like walking through a ghost town. Railroad Town comes alive April through October when you can walk into some of the buildings.

We drove about an hour to Kearney, where you drive under the famous Archway on Interstate 80. After checking into the Best Western Plus, we headed into Kearney’s quaint downtown for an early dinner at Alley Rose. I paired a freshly squeezed margarita with the almond crusted salmon on a bed of mashed potatoes and topped with sautéed veggies.

We had to eat at early bird special time in order to make out sunset view tour at the Iain Nicholson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary. We walked from the visitor center with our guides Suzanna, Patty and Joe, all volunteers. They led us to a blind in a bulge in the river at 6:45pm. With the sun directly setting in front of us, we squinted as we got settled in our chosen viewing spots. Then we waited for the sun to set around 7:43 pm. As the trills, coos, and peeps increased, so did the clicks from camera shutters. We were so close to the sandhill cranes settling in on sandbars in the river that you really didn’t even need binoculars. As darkness took over, we exited as quietly as we could and were back at our cars at 8:30pm.

Day 2 Kearney Archway to Golden Spike Tower

Day 2 was a no birds day. Instead we explored some of the sites in Kearney and North Platte. The Great Platte River Road Archway Monument is so much more than just the archway you drive under on Interstate 80 as you pass Kearney. It is worth a stop. An escalator takes you up to the 22 exhibits spanning 180 years of American History including the covered wagons of the Mormon and Oregon Trails, Pony Express, railroad, and the first transcontinental highway, the Lincoln Highway known as “Main Street of America.” I also enjoyed walking through the sculpture garden titled “We Stayed” on hearty Plains people.

Next stop was at Classic Car Collection. There are over 210 vehicles from Model Ts to muscle cars in this collection started by an elderly man in Omaha who wanted to keep his personal collection of 136 classic cars together. Some of the highlights are a 1969 AMX drag racing car called Pete’s Patriot, a replica of a 1950s gas station, and a 60s and 70s drive-in theater. The most expensive is a 1938 Rolls Royce chauffeured limousine custom built for the 17th Earl of Derby. I especially liked two cars specially designed to appeal to women. The 1956 Dodge Custom Royal Lancer La Femme is lavender and off white. The 1960 Plymouth Barracuda Mod Top with flowers on the vinyl top and interior and carried into the interior. There is one car you can sit in. The 1923 Ford Model T Touring, 3-door makes for a cute picture.

Last stop in Kearney was for some fresh air along the Fort Kearney Hike-Bike Trail built along an old railroad. It was a lovely day for a walk and to enjoy the view of the Platte River from a bridge. We grabbed a quick bite at Cunningham’s on the Lake before driving 1.5 hours to North Platte.

We made it to North Platte in time to go to the Golden Spike Tower and Visitor Center. I really enjoyed exploring the 8th and 7th floors with a volunteer named. Mick. He worked for Union Pacific for 42 years as an engineer. He was full of stories and knowledge. I laughed when he told me he lied about his age so he could start working at age 15. From the tower you get a bird’s eye view of Bailey Yard, the largest rail classification yard in the world. I’m not a train nut but found it fascinating to watch what seems like an orchestrated dance as the trains moved through and cars are moved from one line to another or one locomotive to another. It’s loud too, especially squealing retards which slow a car down to 4 miles per hour as it goes over the hump from west to east because of a six-foot drop. I was also really interested in the North Platte Canteen around and during World War II. I did ask Mick if weather ever stopped his trains. He told me only once because of a blizzard.

After a full day, it was nice to have a casual dinner of cheese curds and pizza at Pals Brewing Company. Before retreating to Tru by Hilton North Platte, we walked over to Peg Leg Brewery for one more beer.

Day 3: Prairie Chickens, Cranes, and Barnyard Fun in North Platte

It was an early wakeup call to head out with Dusty Trails at 5:15am to see prairie chickens. The lek, or dancing ring and where prairie chickens go to mate, we went to is on private ranchland and about a 45-minute bus ride. Dusty called it a progression backwards from interstate to two lane road to gravel to dirt to single track and then open field. A prairie chicken is similar to a short-tailed grouse. It was a cold and rainy morning and that delayed the action in the lek. Once the rain stopped and shortly after sunrise, we started hearing woos in the distance. That signaled males to start flying in from surrounding pastures to practice their mating dance. When two feathers go straight up like horns the chest puffing is on as males try to demonstrate who’s the best. They also have a red part of their neck that they puff out. It’s like they’re showing off in a bar and waiting for the chicks to come by. Starting in mid-April the females go bar hopping. They fly and land in perimeter and walk in. They act oblivious to the males’ dances and attempts to woo them, until one does. Dusty’s dog Ann slept through most of the action.

For lunch we went to Espresso Shop. A hot tea was delightful on a windy and cool day, so was my veggie panini. For a sweet treat, we popped in Double Dips Ice Creamery. Instead of ice cream, I opted for a yummy peanut butter and chocolate chip cookie.

We went back out with Dusty Trails on a crane bus tour in the afternoon making stops to see cranes in empty corn fields. I enjoyed learning the meaning of some of their dance moves such as the straight leg high step as a display of threat, a jump towards a partner or in the wind is a courtship move, and the stab, grab. and wave is for fun. As cranes flew overhead, it reminded me of an Etch-a-sketch design changing in the sky.

We made a stop at the Nebraska Game & Parks Buffalo Bill’s Scout Rest Ranch to visit Dusty’s petting zoo including the biggest Holstein steer I’ve ever seen, a turkey that flirted and cornered me, and some adorably curious goats.

The day ended with dinner at Cedar Room. It’s a wonderful upscale dining spot in the Canteen District of downtown North Platte. After splitting appetizers of calamari and charcuterie board, I decided to eat light and ordered the Cedar Room wedge (minus bacon) and side of loaded mashed potatoes. It was a delicious end to three fun days in Central Nebraska.

For more of Jennifer’s adventures in the Plains, check out post Places You Need to Visit on the Plains for Outdoor Adventure.

3 thoughts on “Watching World’s Largest Sandhill Crane Migration is Epic Birding in Nebraska

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