The Lumbering and the Light

It is March. You are in Nebraska, one of those so-called flyover states in the American Midwest. Perhaps you’ve never imagined yourself in Nebraska. But then you learn that a narrow belt of the Platte River hosts one of the greatest flyover migrations in the world. You traveled to see the peak of this migration, when over half a million sandhill cranes will pass through central Nebraska.

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Map from Visit Grand Island, a site that helps visitors plan trips to the Platte River for the Sandhill Crane Festival and more.

Poets, visual artists, documentary film makers and writers flock to witness the peak of migration. Like people across the globe and throughout history, they find inspiration in the cranes’ gravity-defying dancing, lifelong pair bonds, ancient migrations, and attentive parenting.

Every year, increasing crowds of regular folk show up for the spectacle, too. Sighting a rare whooping crane traveling with the sandhills transforms everyone’s experience into magic.

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Sandhill cranes once shared the prairies, wet meadows, and perhaps tundra with much larger denizens of North America. These elegant birds, only about 6-8 lbs., flew over the giants of the Ice Age: not just mammoths, but also 12-foot-tall ground sloths that weighed 3,500 lbs (1,579 kg), beavers the size of today’s black bears, and much more.

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Sandhill cranes would have flown over this woolly mammoth. Photo by Flying Puffin  via Wikimedia Commons

By the end of the Ice Age, about 11,700 years ago, giants died out or gave way to smaller modern species.  Massive ancient bison vanished, and today’s smaller plains and wood buffalo emerged. The 400-lb beaver shrunk to the more modest size rodent we know today.

While dramatic climactic change and extinctions transformed North America, sandhill cranes were a constant presence. After their appearance 2.5 million years ago, these tall, long-necked birds still fly over North America in historic migration patterns.

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As cranes come in for a landing, they appear to be standing.  In flight, they can catch thermals and travel hundreds of miles in a day!

You can see two survivors from the Ice Age at Crane Trust, in Wood River. The Platte River Whooping Crane Habitat Maintenance Trust, or simply Crane Trust, was established by a court-approved settlement. Their primary mission is to conserve crane habitat, but since 2015, the Trust has added a herd of plains buffalo to their 10,000-acre prairie restoration project.

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The Crane Trust bison herd not only wows visitors with total buffalo zen. They also assist in restoration and in prairie research projects. 

The Grayrocks Dam proposed in the 1970’s for the Laramie River, a tributary of the Platte River in Wyoming. The dam precipitated a sustained battle over water for people and wildlife downstream.

The National Wildlife Federation objected to the dam, fearing impacts of reduced flow on irrigation and wildlife along the Platte River in Nebraska. Opposition brought the dam project to a halt, driven by potential impacts to the critically endangered whooping crane.

All the parties involved managed to sit down at the table and hammer out an agreement to allow dam construction to continue while protecting farms and wildlife –particularly cranes and other migratory birds — in Nebraska. A settlement fund of $7.5 million created Crane Trust in 1978.

The fight for water did not end with the settlement, and in the thirsty West, may never end.  A higher court ruling refuted a claim that the settlement prevented the Trust from taking legal action in the future to protect the habitat value of its lands.

In 2012, the Trust took over management of the Nebraska Nature and Visitor Center.  The Center’s back doors open onto Crane Trust property, and gives the Trust a door to open to visitors, right off Interstate 80 at the Alda exit.

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Past the center and across the footbridge, hiking trails wind through the prairie, with abundant signs of wildlife. One local who hikes the trails weekly told me she has heard rumbling and looked up to see buffalo rolling like a thunderstorm across the grasslands along the Platte River. A little like it was a couple hundred years ago.

The Crane Trust herd is one more example of how private ranches have contributed to the recovery of buffalo. Ted “T.R.” Hughes of Rimrock Ranch near Crawford, started this herd in 1972. Mr. Hughes had a lasting interest in buffalo conservation and education.  He not only contributed animals to start tribal and conservation herds, but also worked closely with the Northern Cheyenne Tribe. The Hughes donated land for a monument to tribal ancestors killed by the U.S. military in 1879 after they escaped Fort Robinson.

Mr. Hughes’ health began failing, and he needed new homes for his carefully managed conservation herd. Forty-one bison arrived at Crane Trust in January 2015. Some went to the Wild Idea Buffalo Co., owned by writer and conservationist Dan O’Brien. Six months later, Mr. Hughes had passed away, but his precious herd lives on, engaging and educating people as he would have wanted.

CraneTrustBison2Crane Trust’s herd has grown to 101 animals as of spring 2018.  Their lands can accommodate about 110 with additional acreage going to pasture this summer.

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This footbridge leads to prairie hiking trails and wildlife.

Crane Trust still has a job to do. There is more prairie restoration, a buffalo herd to manage, people to engage and educate, climate change to consider, and a river to protect. Through 30 years of hard work, they have shown how today’s farms and towns can live with a great migration of ancient birds and the largest land mammal to survive the last Ice Age.

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Multiple agencies work to maintain sandbars like these at Crane Trust so cranes have a safe place to roost.  Mother Nature used to do the job with spring floods, but water diversion has put her out of a job. Now people remove invasive trees and restore the bars for cranes.

Get inspired by this Crane Trust video on the sandhill migration:

If you go to view the crane migration:

The peak of the migration around the Platte River is in mid-late March.  This is also when the most people are present.  Rowe Sanctuary hosts the Crane Festival. The registration fee covers talks, some meals, and workshops; excursions to see cranes and sage grouse are extra. Crane Trust also hosts free events and talks during this time. You should check both schedules to make sure you don’t miss anything.

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During the Crane Festival, prairie bird ambassadors are a popular draw.  These striking birds, injured and unable to survive in the wild, help visitors to learn about wildlife protection.

Plan to spend a few days if you want to experience the sandhill crane migration.  And plan to lose sleep: cranes take off en masse from the Platte River very early in the morning, and land at dusk.  The weather can be changeable, so you’ll want to have a range of clothing, and a time buffer. You can add a day and take a trip to see the Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve bison herd, if road conditions allow.

If the weather won’t even let you roll down your window and gaze at cranes in fields, Kearney, Hastings, and Grand Island have a variety of museums, and you can visit Fort Kearney State Historic Park (there is also a crane viewing area nearby).

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The Archway Monument in Kearney takes you on an immersive, multimedia journey down the historic Great Platte River Road. Great place to visit on a snowy, windy day!

Viewing blinds are a good way to view cranes at sunrise and sunset.  While there are several public viewing platforms, people aren’t hidden from view. Big, loud crowds can spook the cranes in the morning or prevent them from landing in the evening. You will have to arrive well before the cranes move in the morning and land in the evening to get a parking spot and a place to stand.

Rowe Sanctuary and Crane Trust offer guided tours to covered viewing blinds on their properties.  The guides provide instruction to ensure everyone on the tour has a good viewing experience.

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Viewing blind, inside view, Rowe Sanctuary.

You can also stay overnight in a blind, reportedly a spectacular experience (trying this next year). The fees might not appeal to the budget conscious, but know that the cost of this once-in-a-lifetime experience supports organizations carrying out critical work for sandhill cranes and other prairie species.

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This is probably a claustrophobic’s nightmare, and it’s not the Ritz, but you can be up close and personal with thousands of cranes when they fly in at night and wake up at daybreak.

Tours, blinds, and hotels fill up quickly, so make reservations early. If you are crane viewing on the road, please be considerate of local farmers, and don’t block traffic and driveways, or trespass on private property.

And drivers, suck it up and just drive:  I saw a few fender-benders caused by crane rubberneckers braking unpredictably in all the wrong place. I know it’s hard to pass up a whirling crane tornado to park in a safe place, but do it and spare your vacation and wallet.

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