Experiencing the Great Spring Migration

Global Times - Weekend - - TRAVEL - By Ni­cola Gor­don

It’s 5 am on a cool March morn­ing and the sun sends shafts of gold across the prairies. Ahhh – the peace­ful Ne­braska wilder­ness – sa­vor it while you can! Dark still wa­ters rip­ple, as winged crea­tures wake watch­ful and hun­gry. A sin­gle bird flaps, lifts and soars. In­stantly a tran­quil scene erupts into the most ri­otous morn­ing pretty much any­where across North Amer­ica. A mil­lion beat­ing wings block out the ris­ing sun and bird calls shat­ter the si­lence with enough caws and trills and honk­ing to drown out a foot­ball sta­dium.

And where the birds go, so go the bird­ers – flock­ing in droves to North Amer­ica’s great­est bird­ing spec­ta­cle. For five short weeks the shal­low braided chan­nels of Ne­braska’s Platte River Val­ley host half a mil­lion sand­hill cranes as they bulk up for the long flight north. Ten mil­lion ducks and geese join the hun­gry throng. And most of the world’s 300 en­dan­gered whoop­ing cranes swoop down to wade among the reeds and gob­ble frogs.

Un­able to re­sist Ne­braska’s Great Spring Migration, my small group of bird­ing types flock to the spec­ta­cle. With binocu- lars, scopes, cam­eras, field guides and lay­ers and lay­ers of cosy clothes it’s clear we’re here to hol­i­day birder-style! With no Bingo, no sunny beach, no cock­tails by the pool, regular folk may won­der at our san­ity. But my bird­ing types know we’re in for a spec­tac­u­lar show!

Sand­hill cranes at sun­rise

Audubon’s Rowe Sanc­tu­ary, founded in 1974, pro­vides ed­u­ca­tion and bird blind tours in Kear­ney. Its mission is the con­ser­va­tion of sand­hill cranes, whoop­ing cranes and other mi­gra­tory birds, in a rapidly shrink­ing habi­tat along the Platte River Val­ley. The plight of the cranes is high­lighted by Rowe Sanc­tu­ary’s direc­tor, Bill Tad­dicken. He tells us to “em­brace this mo­ment, this river, the birds. To­day the habi­tat for the worlds great­est migration is nearly gone. To­day peo­ple say “You should have seen the great bi­son migration.” “You should have seen the car­rier pi­geon migration (where birds num­bered in the bil­lions).” And he fears that one day his daugh­ter may say “You should have seen the crane migration.”

Rowe Sanc­tu­ary is com­mit­ted to pro­tect­ing the birds through preser­va­tion of 2,800 acres of crit­i­cally en­dan­gered migration habi­tat. Wet­lands are main­tained and re­stored through pre­scribed graz­ing, burning and me­chan­i­cal clear­ing of sand­bars. Rowe Sanc­tu­ary also be­lieves they can foster con­ser­va­tion through ed­u­ca­tion. Adult and school-age pro­grams and work­shops teach par­tic­i­pants what they have and what they may lose if birds and bird habi­tats are not a pri­or­ity.

Fi­nal words from Rowe Sanc­tu­ary’s direc­tor en­sure we all un­der­stand some es­sen­tial bird­ing eti­quette. No cam­era flash, no speak­ing above a whis­per – no ac­tions what­so­ever that could disturb thou­sands of skit­tish crea­tures. We walk in si­lence to a dark­ened bird blind with only the stars to light our way. Sand­hill cranes wake with the first light of dawn and their dis­tinc­tive karr-r-r-o-o echoes across the sand­bars. Our small group shiv­ers in the frosty air – but not one of us would miss this early morn­ing in the Platte River Val­ley for any­thing.

Amer­i­can white pel­i­cans

Sand­hill crane migration in Ne­braska co­in­cides with Amer­i­can white pel­i­can migration. My­self and fel­low bird­ers are soon pon­toon­ing on the Har­lan County Reser­voir with pel­i­cans in our sight. Ev­ery year their migration route along North Amer­ica’s Cen­tral Fly­way leads here for sev­eral weeks of feed­ing and rest­ing. At 10 to 20 pounds, th­ese mas­sive birds are known as “B52 Bomber birds” and to il­lus­trate their im­pres­sive wingspan, two guides un­furl a sheet of pa­per. It stretches nine-and-a-half feet and beats the wing­spans of whoop­ing cranes, bald ea­gles, and flamin­gos. As one of the largest bod­ies of wa­ter along the Cen­tral Fly­way,

Har­lan County Reser­voir is a pri­mary ry stop for mil­lions of mi­grat­ing birds with over 300 species recorded in thehe area. My bird­ing group saw a sin­gle glau­cous gull, golden ea­gles, a tree full of dou­ble-crested cor­morants and a flight of skit­tish killdeer ris­ing from the reeds.

Greater prairie chick­ens

How do you find a prairie chicken lek? Drive out to the high­est pas­ture, and park your pickup. Now wait. If you’ve suc­ceeded, the chick­ens will come. Landowner and nat­u­ral­ist An­gus Garey did

just that. His search for a lek ended with a group of male prairie chick­ens per­form­ing their mat­ing dance obliv­i­ous of his pickup parked in their midst.

Male prairie chick­ens meet at the same lek year af­ter year to es­tab­lish ter­ri­tory in ar­eas of 20-50 feet in di­am­e­ter. The more dom­i­nant males es­tab­lish ter­ri­tory closer to the cen­ter of the lek and have a greater chance of at­tract­ing a fe­male. And what bet­ter way to at­tract a fe­male than to show off and strut your stuff?

An­other early morn­ing on the prairie and I’m sit­ting in what can only be de­scribed as the five-star ac­com­mo­da­tion of bird blinds. What this re-pur­posed an­i­mal trans­porta­tion trailer lacks in wash­rooms it makes up for by pro­vid­ing chairs, blan­kets and pil­lows. We sneak in be­fore sun­rise, and as morn­ing ar­rives, the boys come out. Seven males in all, and not a fe­male in sight. Ei­ther they know the ladies are watch­ing from the long grass, or they are just happy to get a lit­tle prac­tice in first. In the si­lence of the blind tail feath­ers un­furl­ing is an au­di­ble sig­nal that the dance has be­gun. Ear feath­ers come up re­veal­ing bright or­ange air sacs. A dance de­scribed as a “stutter-step” is ac­com­pa­nied by deep hoot­ing moans called “boom­ing.” Th­ese boys are look­ing for love and they didn’t care who knows!

Sun­set and more sand­hill cranes

Our in­tro­duc­tion to The Crane Trust starts with an in­tro­duc­tion to the friendly ri­valry that ex­ists with Rowe Sanc­tu­ary in Kear­ney. Our Crane Trust guide tells us “Kear­ney may be the sand­hill crane cap­i­tal of the world, but we have more birds!.”

The Crane Trust was es­tab­lished in 1978 with the mission to pro­tect and main­tain the Big Bend area of the Platte River as a life sup­port sys­tem for whoop­ing cranes and other mi­gra­tory birds. Ef­forts to main­tain the nat­u­ral dy­nam­ics of the area in­clude ac­qui­si­tion of a herd of bi­son.

Graz­ing is ro­tated by area to nat­u­rally re­duce veg­e­ta­tion and cre­ate nest­ing habi­tats. And at the heart of con­ser­va­tion ef­forts is ed­u­ca­tion of the over 25,000 yearly vis­i­tors. Crane Trust quotes African Con­ser­va­tion­ist Baba Dioum to ex­plain their phi­los­o­phy:

“In the end, we will con­serve only what we love. We will love only what we un­der­stand. We un­der­stand only what we are taught.”

And what bet­ter way to teach than to show? Sun­set at The Crane Trust is beau- ti­ful may­hem. Ten thou­sand sand­hill cranes gather at a nearby field fol­low­ing a full day of feast­ing.

Some­one just can’t wait a sec­ond longer, spreads his wings, and in one mag­i­cal mo­ment 10 thou­sand cranes take flight. From our bird blind we watch as wave af­ter wave washes over the trees and paints a time­less sil­hou­ette on the or­ange sky. The ar­rival is her­alded by the most ri­otous sound in na­ture.

I can only imag­ine that ev­ery crane feels com­pelled to bid good-night to ev­ery other crane, for the sound is a tu­mul­tuous roar. This is why we are here, and no one said it bet­ter than Crane Trust’s Karen Krull Ro­bart.

“When you are ready to leave the blind, stop and lis­ten – you will re­mem­ber that sound for­ever.”

As my bird-filled hol­i­day comes to an end, the long drive to the air­port gives me time to pon­der. What is it about bird­ing that com­pels our small group of trav­el­ers to go any­where, get up at 5 am and hud­dle in blinds on a frosty morn­ing? Ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the di­ver­sity? Love of na­ture? The ex­cuse to be out­doors? While th­ese were all great rea­sons to get started, there was some­thing that made me cross the line from in­ter­ested to pas­sion­ate.

Dawn He­witt, one of my fel­low bird­ers and man­ag­ing edi­tor of Bird­watch­ers Di­gest had the an­swer “Bird­ing is a life­long scav­enger hunt!.”

So glad my per­sonal scav­enger hunt brought me to Ne­braska’s Plat­ter River Val­ley for a the won­der­ful Great Spring Migration.

Pho­tos: Courtesy of Ni­cola Gor­don Photo: Courtesy of the Ne­braska Tourism Com­mis­sion

Main: A birder pho­tographs cranes. Top left: Sand­hill cranes in flight Top right: Nest­ing grounds on the Platte River Top mid­dle: Sun­set on the Platte River

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