Sunday, March 18, 2012

Another Sort Of Pilgrimage: The Way Of Saint Cranes

Every March - early April, the Sandhill Cranes migrate through Nebraska on their way to their summer homes in Canada and Alaska.  The Cranes stop for a spell along a stretch of the Platte River, often described as being "a  mile wide ... and six inches deep."  While there they gorge on waste corn in the adjacent farm fields and rest up for their long journey north.

Like the sandhill cranes, every March - early April, people converge on central Nebraska to see the estimated 500,000 - 600,000 cranes.  They gather on bridges, roadsides, and bird watching blinds at sunset and sunrise to watch the cranes return to/leave the river for the night/day.  We joined this bird nerdy gathering three years ago when we froze out patootees off watching our first crane migration.  We'd been thinking about doing it again when I saw a contest on Facebook put on by Cars, Travel, Food.  Leave a comment on their Facebook page and you could win two free tickets to get into a bird watching blind.  I commented ... I won!  We went.

Cranes zooming in for a landing.
We left Saturday afternoon.  The bird blind tours are held by the Nebraska Nature & Visitor's Center about seven miles from Grand Island, NE.  This is an easy two hour drive for us.  We arrived shortly after 3:00 PM, early for the tour, so we sent into town looking for food.  We've had rather bad luck finding specific places to eat in Grand Island.  In 2009 we had a list of two quirky places that turned out to be closed.  This time the place I'd picked - it had flat screen TVs at each booth ... perfect for March Madness - was not where it was supposed to be.  We never found it.  Like in 2009 we ended up at some chain restaurant which was good enough.  At least we liked the hot chocolate chip cookie covered in ice cream, whipped cream, and Oreo bits.

We went to the nature center and picked up out tour passes, perused the gift shop (T-shirt and a magnet), and watched a movie about the crane migration.  At 6:00 PM a guide shared some knowledge of the cranes and informed us of the proper bird blind etiquette.  We were then split into two groups and we caravaned out to the blinds.

Whole bunch of Sandhill Cranes
The blinds are nothing fancy.  Big wooden boxes with windows facing the river.  We each had a chair and our own viewing window.  It would have been cold in the winter time.  At least it would have been cold if this were a normal winter.  It was in the upper 70s with a warm south wind when we reached the blind.

As sunset approached so did the cranes.  The nearest crane was probably 80-90 yards from the blind.  Cranes are notoriously skittish as they are hunted everywhere but Nebraska.  While we watched the mass of cranes accumulate on the river's sandbars, we were treated to a rarity.  Among the grey/brown sandhill cranes was a bright speck of white - a Whooping Crane.  How special is this?  There are less than 300 of these birds in the wild.  At one point around 1941 there were only 15 in existence.  Truly a once in a lifetime occurrence.

Whooping Crane among the Sandhill cranes (Click on picture to see a larger version)
The next day we got up early and went to the same place we went in 2009.  While we froze last time, this year it was in the 50s and rather comfortable.  It was windy and there were some low clouds that dampened the brilliant sunrise colors we'd witnessed in 2009 but, despite this, we enjoyed watching the cranes wake up and take flight.

We headed back to the hotel, decided to skip the hot tub (full of little kids at 8:00 AM!), had breakfast at Grandma Max's Diner (with a name like that how could it be bad - it wasn't!), and headed home.  We got back home before Noon so were were gone less than twenty-four hours.

Out of 490 pictures the Wife and I took, I only found 25 worth posting.  Those 25 can be found in my 2009-2012 Sandhill Crane Migration Google Photos album.  As I was looking at the pictures I noticed something.  When on the ground, all the cranes seem to be facing the same direction.  Wonder why that is?

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