Early morning tour highlights Sandhill crane viewing trip

Early morning crane viewing on the Platte near Grand Island, NE

4:30 a.m. is early. Who in their right mind gets up at 4:30 a.m. on a weekend? Um, us. It’s our annual trek to central Nebraska to check out the migration of the Sandhill crane. The cranes are in the middle of their spring migration from their winter homes in the south to their natural nesting grounds in Alaska, northern Canada and Siberia.

About 500,000 cranes – about 80 percent of the population – will visit the Platte River valley over a six-week period between last February and early April. The region is referred to as the “Central Flyway” – a span of about 100 miles, mainly bordered by Grand Island on the east and North Platte on the west. Kearney is considered the epicenter of the Flyway. The birds gather to dine in area farm fields on corn, worms and other grub. Cranes gain most of their weight during their stay.

Sandhill cranes at their roost on the Platte River near Grand Island

The Platte River provides a natural resting spot for cranes. The river is wide and shallow. This allows the birds to use the numerous sand bars in the middle of the water as safe roosting areas at night. The splash predators make as they approach a roost during the darkness is usually enough warning for the cranes to sound the alarm and fly away from the danger. The main predators for the Sandhill crane in Nebraska are coyotes and foxes. Bald eagles can be tossed in as well.

Sandhill Cranes taking off for feeding grounds in fields in Nebraska

Each crane will stay in the area for about two weeks, resting and eating. As they approach time to continue their trip home, they will become more active and playful with each other.

Sandhill Crane in cornfields

The annual Sandhill crane migration attracts thousands of people for the area. People from several countries will visit to see the cranes. Americans will travel from almost every state, as well. Millions of tourism dollars roll into the area.

Our migration this year took us to Grand Island. We participated in a morning viewing blind tour on a Sunday morning at the Crane Trust Nature Center and Visitor Center. Thus, we were up at 4:30 a.m. and out of the hotel by 5:30. We had about 20 people and two guides on our trip. The guides provide a background on the nature center and an idea of what to expect in the blinds.

Sandhill Cranes in taking off for the morning

We had to drive about 1.5 miles from the center to the viewing area. There is no way to mistake a convoy of 5-10 vehicles in the dark as anything but a gaggle of crane watchers.

Once we made our way along a dimly lit pathway, we were in the blinds next to the Platte River. The Crane Trust’s blinds had Plexiglas windows. This was excellent; because it gave you unfettered viewing of the river and the cranes. Of course, it was dark, so it was more of a listening opportunity than sightseeing. Nothing beats the call of the Sandhill crane. It has a distinct call. Once you hear it, you actually fall in love with it. The sound can travel for a mile or so.

The birds roost on the sandbars, but they also stay alert for danger. That includes humans. Nebraska is the only state along the Flyway that bans hunting the Sandhill crane. The birds are not safe again until they reach Canada. Hunting has made them skittish of humans, making it difficult to get close to them without some camouflage.

We watched and listened as the sun eventually started climbing above the horizon. First, nothing beats a sunrise this time of the year than one in central Nebraska.

Sandhill Cranes wake up from their evening on the Platte

Eventually, the silhouettes of the cranes along the river come into view. So, now we can see what we could only hear before. Some of the cranes were spooked and took flight. They looked like bats taking flight.

As the sun lights the sky even more, we get a better look at the hundreds of cranes nestled together, some in the shallow water, and some on the sandbars.

Sandhill Cranes choose the Platte due to the shallow and wide river

The birds start taking flight. They usually take off a few at a time. It can develop into large group launches.

We spent about 2.5 hours at the Crane Trust or in the viewing blinds. We had to be at the nature center before 6 a.m. and the tour last until about 8:30 a.m.

Viewing blind tours are an excellent way to get close to the birds. We did an evening blind tour at nearby Rowe Sanctuary a few years ago. We’ve now enjoyed both a morning and evening viewing tour. We’d do them again in a heartbeat!

After the viewing blind tour, we scampered back to our hotel for breakfast and checkout. Then, we were back on the road searching for cranes in farm fields south of the Platte River. We had been advised by the staff at the Crane Trust the day before the birds were seen eating in the southern fields.

We drove the back roads for several miles searching for the Sandhill cranes in fields. We weren’t disappointed. We found then, but as soon as pulled off the side of the road, they quickly moved away from us. If you plan to photograph them, be quick with the camera, because they will move. I shot more than 1,400 photos over the weekend, and I had about 350 that were “good.” I was disappointed with the photo opportunities, but I love watching the birds, so it was a break-even venture.

Sandhill Cranes in flight

I did catch a grouping just as they were flying away from us. They didn’t move too far away after their short flight, either. So, the viewing of these cranes was great.

If you are new to Sandhill crane watching, I suggest checking out one of the visitor centers designated for cranes and wildlife. In Grand Island, that’s the Crane Trust Nature and Visitor center. The center is located near Alda, at exit 305 on Interstate 80. As you travel the roads in the area, you remember the exit numbers.

Crane Trust Nature and Visitor Center

The center is more than just a place to learn about Sandhill cranes. It has wildlife classes and exhibits. The center owns and manages about 4,500 acres of land and wetlands along the Platte River. Part of its mission is to protect the land.

The visitors center has a half-mile paved walking trail. Along the trail, you can climb the small observation tower and take a look around for miles of the Platte River valley. You can also check out the small buffalo (American bison) herd. The center recently became home to “genetically pure” buffalo from the Winnebago Native American tribe in northeast Nebraska. The buffalo are off display for now, but eventually will roam the prairie area.

Buffalo at the Crane Trust Nature and Visitor Center

The goal is to help recreate the natural environment of the plains for the buffalo and the Sandhill cranes. It was noted recently, according to the visitors center, that some cranes were eating near the resident buffalo in areas not frequented by the cranes previously.

The center also has cattle on the land. We believe one cow was ready to deliver a calf. We saw another five cattle standing near her with eyes in her direction, as if they were there to provide moral support.

Cows at a neighboring farm to the Crane Trust and Visitor Center

So, as you plan your trip to the Central Flyway for some crane watching, be sure to check out the Crane Trust Nature and Visitors Center.

Also, please ensure you follow the guidelines for proper Sandhill crane watching etiquette (http://outdoornebraska.ne.gov/):

• Do not approach cranes on foot while they are in fields. Cranes do not tolerate humans.
• Stay in your car and use it as a blind.
• Use appropriate locations for viewing the cranes on the river. Do not attempt to approach or otherwise disturb cranes on the river.
• Never approach a whooping crane. Flushing a whooping crane violates the Endangered Species Act. Stay in your car. View guidelines to avoid harassing whooping cranes.

Many paved and gravel roads traverse the area, and traffic travels fast. While driving to crane viewing areas, observe the following rules:

• Do not slow or stop on the road. Drive onto the shoulder.
• Never slow down or stop on bridges.
• Never block a driveway or any other farm road.
• Most land adjacent to the river and all of the agricultural fields are private property, so visitors should:
• Stay on county roads. Do not drive on farm roads.
• Assume all property is private and obtain owner permission before entering.
• Never cross a fence or open a cattle gate without the owner’s permission.
• Do not disturb farm animals, cross cropland or touch farm equipment. Respect the rights of the people who live in the area

For more information on the viewing blind tours, as well as other information, please visit the Crane Trust Nature and Visitors Center website at www.cranetrust.org.

Disclaimer: Thank you to the Grand Island Visitors Bureau for the complimentary tickets for the viewing blinds tour. However, all opinions and views are ours.