Craning toward Kearney
Sandhill cranes flock to Nebraska each spring
We couldn't see them as we peered through dense predawn darkness, but they were there. Prehistoric-sounding trumpeting filled our ears, but dawn was still a half-hour off. The din gradually ebbed only to ramp up to a new decibel peak, probably in response to an unseen coyote or raccoon stalking along the far riverbank.
A dim glow gradually strengthened on the southeast horizon as dawn approached. Finally we could see the noise source.
Sandhill cranes by the hundreds were standing in shallow water just a couple of hundred feet in front of us. With what seemed like choreographed precision, crane calls heralded from hundreds of long necks as the flock flapped out of the water and headed off for a day of foraging in Nebraska's Platte River Valley.
We were in a blind — actually a huge plywood box — situated along the river at the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center. It's also known as the Rowe Sanctuary and is just southeast of Kearney, Neb.
We had reservations and arrived 90 minutes before dawn. We checked in, enjoyed a brief introduction to cranes and were split into three groups of 30. A volunteer then led the groups out to the blind.
Everyone walked silently so as not to spook roosting cranes. Many were loaded down with binoculars, spotting scopes and cameras. Everyone was dressed warmly with coveralls or layers of pants and coats, thick socks and boots, long johns, hats and mittens. Even on this relatively mild morning, we knew we would chill quickly.
The sandhill crane migration is a natural marvel predictably occurring between March and mid-April only a day's drive from Cedar Rapids. Stork-like cranes stand 3 to 4 feet tall and have a 7-foot wingspan. Because of their long legs and neck, they look bigger than they are but tip the scale at only 7 to 10 pounds. A gathering of upward of a half million of these is an impressive sight and sound.
The natural range of sandhill cranes has an enormous hourglass shape. The birds nest across a vast area of northern Canada, Alaska and Siberia and winter along the Gulf of Mexico coast. Early each year cranes gather for a long northern migration along a narrow corridor at a right angle to central Nebraska's Platte River.
During March and April they are easy to spot along Interstate 80 from Grand Island west past Kearney. Once, cranes migrated along a wider path of the Platte River. Today, because of its protected habitat, Kearney is the pinch point of the hourglass migratory pattern. So, most cranes congregate in south central Nebraska.
Another route with fewer birds mostly from Florida follows farther east up into Wisconsin, and there are some non-migratory populations of sandhill cranes.
The Platte is the perfect resting place for so many cranes. Early travelers described the river as being a mile wide and an inch deep. That wasn't far from the truth. The shallow river braids its way eastward to the Missouri through countless sandbars.
Migrating cranes need a rest stop with abundant food nearby where they can sleep nights standing in shallow water out of the reach of hungry predators. Just after dawn they leave the river to forage in fields and return to the river around sunset. Insects, snakes, snails and other small animals are eaten with enthusiasm, but most of their Nebraska diet is waste corn. Their month resting on the Platte fuels cranes for the long flight north. Come fall they retrace their route but hurry south, leaving much less time for us to spot them.
Not as many cranes visit the Platte as once did. It's a changed river. Irrigation water sucked from the ground has narrowed it while cottonwoods marched in to line its bank. Cranes prefer a wide river with treeless banks so they can spot lurking predators.
Today crane habitat is only about 10 percent of what it once was. Yet it still supports an amazing migration.
Making the migration to Kearney
Central Nebraska is a migration route for humans as well as cranes. Thousands of people annually motor across Interstate 80 en route to distant mountains. Many consider Nebraska merely an endless ribbon of boring concrete.
Too few linger to absorb the history and attractions along the interstate, even when cranes have migrated north.
Kearney, Neb., is exactly halfway between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. It's about 1,733 miles either way to salt water, and for Iowa travelers, it's about halfway to Denver. The town of 31,000 people offers a respite for road-weary tourists.
About 15 years ago the Archway Museum was crafted over Interstate 80 just east of town to help travelers soak in the rich history of the Platte Valley. After ascending a steep escalator, visitors can take the walking path over the highway and go on a journey from around 1800 until today.
Particularly striking exhibits show why the Platte Valley is a key transportation corridor. Modern holographic technology takes visitors back in time. Experience the majesty of flashing, rumbling storms, shiver at the sound of the bitter winds of winter and tremble as a buffalo stampede roars toward you.
Native Americans and early fur trappers and explorers followed the river upstream to the mountains. In their footsteps came gold seekers, settlers and adventurers following the Oregon, California, Mormon and 49er trails that paralleled the river. Stage routes roughly followed the trails. So did the Pony Express, and in 1869 the first transcontinental railroad train chugged its way along the river.
Years later U.S. Highway 30 — the Lincoln Highway that passed through Cedar Rapids and Eastern Iowa — and its modern cousin, Interstate 80, followed the same route. Still later, in the 1980s, a fiber-optic line was buried along the roads and trails, speeding data unseen across the nation.
In addition to cranes and history, Kearney offers a diversity of motels, locally owned restaurants and unique attractions.
Nearby Fort Kearney provides a taste of the Old West. At ultramodern Yanney Park, trout fishing, hiking, swimming, an impressive labyrinth and a tall tower within sight of Interstate 80 draw in local and out-of-town visitors. There's also a classic car museum and golf courses.
In addition to the cranes, flocks of geese and pelicans fly overhead, and many song, wading and water birds live along the river.
Next time you head west, take in Kearney.
If You Go
Sandhill Cranes: Visit the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology website for information about most bird species. The All About Birds website has details about sandhill cranes and recordings of their distinctive call.
Reservations: Visit rowe.audubon.org or call (308) 468-5282 at the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center near Kearney, Neb.
Kearney: Visit Visitkearney.org or call 1-(800) 652-9435.