Ne­braska’s sand­hill crane mi­gra­tion gives new mean­ing to ‘flyover coun­try’

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - REAL ESTATE - By Beth J. Harpaz

KEARNEY, Neb. — ur­veys ask­ing trav­el­ers where they plan to va­ca­tion have con­sis­tently ranked Ne­braska last among the 50 states. No won­der the state chose this for a tourism slo­gan: “Hon­estly, it’s not for ev­ery­one.”

But here’s a rea­son (ac­tu­ally, hun­dreds of thou­sands of rea­sons) why Ne­braska isn’t just flyover coun­try. More than a half-mil­lion sand­hill cranes stop here each year as they mi­grate north. They ar­rive around Valen­tine’s Day and dis­ap­pear by Tax Day, April 15.

Peak sea­son for the spec­ta­cle is mid- to late March, with mas­sive flocks land­ing around sunset each day on the Platte River, a few hours’ drive west of Omaha.

SAs dark­ness falls, the birds find sand­bars in the shal­low wa­ters to roost on overnight. They take off again at dawn to feed in nearby fields. Their trills and caws fill the air as they fly across the sky in swirling waves. For na­ture lovers, a long week­end in March to wit­ness the mi­gra­tion makes for a mag­i­cal spring get­away. This isn’t one of those ad­ven­tures where you hike miles or wait hours to catch a fleet­ing glimpse of some elu­sive crea­ture. You don’t need to be an ex­pert bird-watcher; you don’t even need binoc­u­lars. And while you can pay for guided tours, pub­lic view­ing spots aren’t hard to find. As sure as the sun rises and sets, you’ll see the cranes.

An­thro­pol­o­gist Jane Goodall, renowned for her chim­panzee re­search in Tan­za­nia, has vis­ited Ne­braska more than a dozen times to wit­ness the phe­nom­e­non. In a “60 Min­utes” seg­ment, she called it “food for the spirit.”

Find­ing the birds

The cranes fly here from win­ter homes in Mex­ico, Texas and New Mex­ico, en route to sum­mer play­grounds in Alaska, Canada and Siberia. In Ne­braska, they fat­ten up for their trav­els by eat­ing waste grain and corn from last year’s harvest.

As you drive lo­cal roads, you may see them feast­ing by day in the fields. But they’re so skit­tish that the sound of a car door open­ing can send flocks air­borne. (It’s also il­le­gal to ha­rass them.) So pull over qui­etly, and watch through your car win­dows. Look for their mat­ing dance as they hop on spindly legs and flap their


The real show be­gins at day’s end, when the mi­grat­ing cranes leave road­side fields for the sandy flats of the Platte River.

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