In March, cranes flock to Ne­braska

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - TRAVEL -

wings.

The real show be­gins at day’s end, when the birds leave those road­side fields for the sandy flats of the Platte River. As they seek out the per­fect sand­bar, they cir­cle the sky in un­du­lat­ing rib­bons. Amid a sound­scape of wild cries and calls, they land in larger and ever more fren­zied waves un­til the last ray of light is gone.

Sev­eral sites of­fer ex­hibits, films and other in­for­ma­tion about the mi­gra­tion and lo­cal con­ser­va­tion ef­forts, along with tips on find­ing the birds. The vis­i­tor cen­ters at Fort Kearny State Recre­ation Area, Rowe Sanc­tu­ary in Gib­bon and Crane Trust Na­ture & Vis­i­tor Cen­ter in Wood River are all worth a stop.

Guided tours and overnight stays in river­front cab­ins are also avail­able from Rowe Sanc­tu­ary, Crane Trust and pri­vate lo­cal prop­erty own­ers, but they sell out fast, es­pe­cially dur­ing the an­nual crane fes­ti­val (March 21-24) in Kearney.

On a visit last year, my hus­band and I got a call off a wait­ing list for a sun­rise tour with Rowe Sanc­tu­ary. At 4:30 a.m., we headed to a win­dowed river­front cabin where we watched the birds peel off at dawn. We en­joyed sunset view­ings on our own.

At Fort Kearny State Recre­ation Area, dozens of bun­dled-up bird-watch­ers gather a half-hour be­fore dusk on an old rail­road bridge to watch the birds come down for the night. Other road­side turnouts in­clude the Richard Plautz Crane View­ing Site in Gib­bon and the Alda Crane View­ing Site.

Warm cloth­ing is es­sen­tial for the sun­rise and sunset out­ings, when tem­per­a­tures of­ten dip into the 20s. Con­sider base lay­ers, long woolen un­der­wear and dis­pos­able hand-warm­ers in ad­di­tion to warm socks, boots, gloves and hats.

The birds stand 3 to 4 feet tall, with a 6-foot wingspan. Close-up pho­tos are hard to get with­out a long lens, but cell­phones cap­ture de­cent im­ages of the birds in flight.

Mi­gra­tions of man and beast

Crane fos­sils found in Ne­braska date the mi­gra­tion back 9 mil­lion years. But Ne­braska has long been a cross­roads for mi­grat­ing hu­mans too. The his­tory of pi­o­neers who passed through in the 19th cen­tury is ex­plored at the Arch­way mu­seum in Kearney. Ar­ti­facts and ex­hibits, in­clud­ing com­pelling ex­cerpts from pi­o­neer diaries, de­tail the hard­ships and hopes of this west­ward mi­gra­tion.

Arch­way spokesman Mark Fo­radori says the Platte River not only pro­vides “ideal habi­tat” for the cranes but his­tor­i­cally also served as a “nav­i­ga­tion guide” and wa­ter source for peo­ple on the move. Na­tive Amer­i­cans showed the route to fur traders; pi­o­neers fol­lowed. Fort Kearny was “one of the last out­posts” for trav­el­ers head­ing west on the Ore­gon Trail and to Utah with the Mor­mon mi­gra­tion.

The mu­seum also looks at the rise of au­to­mo­biles and road trips. In­ter­state 80, Fo­radori noted, is a mod­ern ver­sion of the Ore­gon Trail, an “es­sen­tial transcon­ti­nen­tal path­way.” The mu­seum’s lo­ca­tion is fit­ting: It’s built into an arch that strad­dles I-80.

A truck stop sur­prise

Vis­i­tors fly­ing in for the cranes will likely ar­rive via Omaha. From Omaha, rent a car and drive about 185 miles west, mostly along I-80, to the Kearney area. Kearney and Grand Is­land have var­i­ous ho­tel and din­ing op­tions.

Our hands-down best meal in Ne­braska was a half-hour west of Kearney and a com­plete sur­prise, given its truck stop trap­pings.

Taste of In­dia restau­rant is tucked into Jay Bros. truck stop in Over­ton, just past the dis­plays of chips and beef jerky, be­fore you hit the truck­ers’ show­ers. The chef wore a tur­ban, a Bol­ly­wood movie played on the TV and we feasted on gar­lic chili naan bread and but­ter chicken, a home-style In­dian clas­sic.

Back in Kearney, we had a good meal at Cun­ning­ham’s Jour­nal, a lively pub, and we liked the Daily Grind for cof­fee and sweets. Lo­cals rec­om­mend Runza, a re­gional chain with a sig­na­ture ground beef sand­wich.

Preser­va­tion for the fu­ture

Con­ser­va­tion­ists have worked for decades to pro­tect land around the Platte River from de­vel­op­ment. Last year was a ban­ner year for their ef­forts: Aerial photo sur­veys es­ti­mated 650,000 sand­hill cranes, along with a cou­ple of rare white whoop­ing cranes.

Goodall cau­tions that this habi­tat is frag­ile.

“The en­vi­ron­ment has been very dam­aged in Ne­braska, with wa­ter lev­els drop­ping, the Platte River pol­luted, the aquifer shrink­ing, the wet­lands drained,” she said in a talk at the Univer­sity of Ne­braska.

De­spite these pres­sures, she added, “the cranes are still com­ing. … It’s pretty mag­i­cal, and na­ture’s very re­silient.”

NE­BRASKA TOURISM

As you drive lo­cal roads in Ne­braska, you may see sand­hill cranes feast­ing by day in the fields. It’s il­le­gal to ha­rass them.

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