Watching the Sand Hill Cranes migrate, and other aviary adventures in Nebraska
GRAND ISLAND, MCCOOK AND KEARNEY, NEBRASKA. – I have to admit right off the bat, I was never a bona fide outdoorsman, let alone a bird watcher or ornithologist. Basically, when I travel, “roughing it” meant a single bar of soap in the bathroom of my hotel room instead of the usual two, and my bird watching was relegated to the usual assortment of pigeons and sparrows that flew by and briefly landed in the public parks and squares throughout my hometown of Montreal.
However, that all changed greatly during a recent press tour that I participated in at the Central Platte River and Frontier Trails regions of Nebraska, practically located in the centre of the United States. Watching the morning and night time migration rituals of the Sand Hill Cranes (in Grand Island and Kearney), and the quirky escapades of the Prairie Chickens in McCook, opened my eyes to the beauty of these avian creatures, and how this annual northward migration to their breeding grounds in Canada, Alaska and Siberia(which takes place from the end of February until the end of March), is one of the most beautiful natural spectacles south of the 49th Parallel.
My initiation into the world of the Sand Hill Crane migration was courtesy of the Crane Trust Nature and Visitor Centre in Grand Island (www.nebraskanature.org). Established in 1978 as a result of a lawsuit that prevented the state of Wyoming from building a dam that would have affected the Platte River basin area of Nebraska where the cranes migrate to, the Crane Trust attracts more than 35,000 visitors during the peak of the Sand Hill Crane migration season. As well, they offer these seasoned and aspiring bird watchers a series of viewing experiences and package deals, which include morning and evening crane viewing tours, footbridge evening tours and private overnight photo and viewing tours for serious nature enthusiasts; and for $1500 (USD), the Trust offers VIP viewing packages for groups of 12-16 people that include lodging, meals, drinks and morning and evening crane viewings.
I started my Sand Hill Crane viewing experience at the Trust just before nightfall. Myself and the group of journalists in attendance made the brief trek from the Trust’s main building to the “blind”, the Quonset hut-shaped structure (which its interior resembles a rather comfortable log cabin .. and heated, too) where we would be witnessing (and photographing) the cranes as they made their way to the nearby wetlands to retire for the evening. At first, we were met with a sense of deafening tranquility, which was gradually broken as the cranes (which could number in the hundreds of thousands) began to arrive for the evening. The cacophony of their trademark cooing signalled to us of their arrival, and was almost like a mass conversation of how their day has went (and maybe sharing their plans of their continued migration north).
We returned to the Trust’s blind around 7 a.m. the following morning, just before daybreak, and were greeted by the cranes’ rather subdued cooing sounds. Our guides for the morning, Ben and Charles, told us that as soon as we entered the blind, we had to maintain a sense of “radio silence” for several minutes, so that the cranes can become familiar with us, and not get easily spooked, which would compel them to fly away en masse rather too quickly. During our more than two hours spent in the blind viewing the cranes that morning, Ben and Charles pointed out the little dramas, peculiarities and interesting facts about the cranes, which I called my “National Geographic moments”. This included seeing a pair of Canadian geese who just sat a few feet away from the cranes and did nothing but watch and observe them (I was told they have been there lounging and watching for about a month), witnessing formations of ducks fly above the basin in formation, as if they were a group of World War II bombers on a mission, and the moment when a group of cranes suddenly flew away a little earlier than expected (Ben told me they were spooked when a bald eagle flew by).
Four days later, we did another night time and day time Sand Hill Crane migration viewing at the Iain Nicolson Audubon Centre at Rowe Sanctuary in the town of Gibbon (www.rowe.audubon.org). Owned by the National Audubon Society, the Rowe Sanctuary is located on Platte River and possesses over 1300 acres of river habitat and adjacent wetlands that accommodates over 70,000 cranes every night during the peak migration period.
Our time viewing the cranes at the Rowe Sanctuary was just as breathtaking and naturally spectacular(not to mention filled with “National Geographic moments”) as it was at the Crane Trust. However, besides the usual “radio silence” that we had to maintain during our time at the blind, the people at the Rowe Sanctuary asked us to maintain a semblance of “photographic silence” (including the prohibition of using flash photography, video cameras and the auto advance function on our cameras), which was emphasized during our early morning visit that started before the crack of dawn, in which a red light in the blind was turned on to signal that we were not allowed to use our cameras until daybreak, when the light turned green).
Perhaps the most curious – and peculiarly entertaining – bit of bird watching that I did in Nebraska took place in McCook, as I witnessed the spectacle that was the morning rituals of the prairie chickens, which is dubbed the “Prairie Chicken Dance Tours” (www.prairiechickendancetours.com).
Instead of wetlands, the prairie chickens congregate every morning in the flat grasslands of Nebraska, in their own assembly area that’s called a “lek” (which is derived from the Swedish word “lekstalle”, which means “mating ground”). We arrived in our blind on the lek bright and early around 6:30 in the morning just before the crack of dawn, as we awaited the arrival of the prairie chickens for their morning performance, and warding off the early morning chill thanks to the multitude of blankets and the survival kits that we were given us by the McCook tourism bureau (which included snacks, a bottle of water and plenty of hand and foot warmers).
Just after sunrise, a group of prairie chickens flew onto the lek like clockwork, ready to perform their daily mating rituals for their shivering audience. And the star of this avian show was the Male Greater Prairie Chicken, whose job it was that morning to find a mate, and passionately fight off any fellow male prairie chickens should they have any intentions of horning in on their potential mates. A combination soap opera, sitcom and dance recital, these prairie chickens get practically territorial over each other, which is highlighted by the quick-paced, almost violent skirmishes they do, which almost resembles a type of tribal dance style that they call their own. And those male chickens, when they find that potential mate, display their own sense of macho flirting, which is symbolized when they inflate the bright yellow-orange air sacs on their necks, erect the long pinnae feathers that are situated alongside the neck, and thanks to those air sacs, emit constant, thunderous booming sounds from their voice boxes.
…And exactly two hours after their arrival, the prairie chickens depart the lek together, knowing that their mating work for the morning is done, and that their performance is over until the following day.
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For more information about visiting the Central Platte River and Frontier Trail Region of Nebraska and what it has to offer tourists, visit the Nebraska Tourism Commission website at www.visitnebraska.com.