Homer's Travels: The Cranes! ... The Cranes!

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The Cranes! ... The Cranes!

Some of the busiest bird migration flyways pass through west and central Nebraska. One of the more well known migrations is the Sandhill Cranes. Every year between mid-February and mid-April hundred of thousands of cranes stop along the Platte River on their migration north. This year the Wife and I decided to join them.

We headed west to the Kearney - Grand Island area. There are three main viewing places in the area: The Fort Kearney State Recreation Area (FKSRA), the Rowe Sanctuary, and the Crane Meadows Nature Center. Our hotel was nearer to Crane Meadows so we decided to save that viewing area for Sunday morning choosing to go the Kearney area first.

As we got closer to Grand Island you could see large groups of cranes foraging for food in the empty farm fields. The number of birds we saw along the way boded well for us seeing the cranes along the river.

As we approached Kearney we realized it would be a little too early to go to FKSRA so we decided to check out Kearney's Great Platte River Road Archway. The archway is a mildly cheesy, but otherwise informative, museum covering history of all the trails that headed west through Nebraska (The Lewis and Clark, Mormon Pioneer, Pony Express, Oregon, and California national historic trails, among others) including the more modern Lincoln Highway, America's first transcontinental highway and once described as America's Main Street. The archway is a two story building straddling Interstate 80. The structure is pretty impressive. Over 300 Feet Long and high enough to house a two story museum and still allow traffic to go under it.

The museum itself is rather typical. Lots of history told using cheap looking dioramas and recorded audio playing on you headphones. It wasn't bad but it was ... meh. One of the best parts was looking out the two windows at the top at the speeding traffic below. Radar guns displayed the traffic speed proving that a lot of people think the limit is only voluntary.

After we'd finished the museum, and bought a couple travel magnets, we headed out to FKSRA to check out the layout. FKSRA is a cluster of swimming and fishing ponds not too far from the Platte River. It was small and peaceful. We parked the car and walked the short one third mile to the converted 1893 railroad trestle that crossed the Platte. The river is very wide and very shallow and provides an ideal habitat for the Sandhill Crane. There were very few people there as the cranes don't come to roost by the river until sunset. There was a pretty stiff breeze blowing so we knew we would have to be dressed warm when we returned at sunset.

We drove back into Kearney and stopped and had an early steak dinner at Whiskey Creek. The food was good but the service was not tip-worthy.

We got back to the bridge around an hour before sunset. I took pictures of the river and the setting sun while we waited for the arrival of the cranes. I had my tripod with me but the wind was hard enough to cause it to vibrate which negated its usefulness.

The bridge was soon full of people with binoculars and cameras. The crane's calls announced their arrival. Waves of cranes flew overhead making a rather unique honking-quacking-squawking call. Unfortunately most of them just flew over. You see, the Wife and I had the misperception that you would experience that National Geographic moment surrounded my thousands of cranes, up close and personal. Talking with some of the watchers we learned that cranes are hunted in neighboring states (it's illegal in Nebraska) and they are rather skittish around people. Once the sun dipped under the horizon some of the cranes began settling down on the sand bars in the distance. I'm guessing at least a mile away. While I was a little disappointed by that, the shear quantity of cranes, and the awesome chatter they made, made up for the lack of close encounters.

A bit after 8:00 PM it was getting chilly so we headed back to the car. We headed out, turning around briefly to take a picture of the last bit of twilight reflecting off one of the ponds. One of the best pictures I've ever taken in my opinion.

Our hotel had a heated pool and hot tub and we were looking forward to thawing out but, when we checked in, the pool room was full of drunk parents ignoring their noisy, obnoxious gaggle of 8-10 year olds running rampant. We decided that a warm bed would have to suffice.

Sunday was an early morning. We drove to the Crane Meadow Nature Center and found people already lining up along a bridge. We walked out on the bridge and looked out over the dark river. There were large groups of cranes to the east and west of us but, like the previous night, they were far off. Through the binoculars you could see the cranes starting to stir. The sun peeked up over the horizon and the cacophony started. It took them a while to start taking flight, heading out to the fields to feed. We were up on the bridge for about three hours before the pain in our toes and fingers from the cold convinced us that we'd had enough.

Back at the hotel the hot tub and pool were empty so we got into our trunks and took a good long, delicious soak in the hot tub. If we'd not seen any birds at all, the hot tub would have been worth the trip all by itself.

The soak was followed by the quest for breakfast. We had a couple of spots on out list - small, quirky sounding places. The were both closed. We ended up at a less that interesting Perkin's which, never the less, served a pretty good breakfast.

On our way out of town we looked for a marker. It was supposed to mark where you could actually see surviving wagon wheel ruts (swales) from the original trail wagons. We did manage to find the marker (erected in 1922 I believe). The corner of the field that it marked was fenced off to protect the area. It wasn't that impressive (these things rarely are). The long grass obscured everything but you could see some depressions where a wagon may have gone a hundred years ago.

Our last stop before heading home was next to a field full of cranes. I took maybe ten steps away from the car toward them and they all took flight. I didn't manage to get very close at all or get a decent picture. They were way too skittish. We now know why people fork over $125 for a blind at the Rowe Sanctuary. A blind would be the only way you could get close. Maybe next time.

We had a busy few days. It was definitely not a restful weekend but we both had a good time and enjoyed our attempts at birding. While I didn't get very many good pictures of cranes, I got quite a few good sunset and sunrise pictures. These pictures can be found here.


  1. Did you guys watch Winged Migration?

    Another cool photo of the cranes :)

  2. Beautiful pictures. I don't know that I always have the patience for setting up a tripod and waiting for the shot to come. I usually end up getting too cold!

    Suggestion: next time, hang your camera bag from your tripod. The extra weight will help kill the vibrations from wind or movement.

    Last year I read "Empire Express" (about the transcontinental RR), but his follow up "The Old Iron Road", where the author follows the route in the present day, you might find interesting reading.

  3. JaG: I've heard of it but we've never seen it. :-)

    GH: Thanks. I suspect you are more patient than I am. The Wife often helps be be patient.

    My tripod, a relatively cheap one that I picked out, doesn't have a hook for a weight but I suppose i could easily rig something. Having said this, the bridge railing was high - chest height - which required me to raise the camera almost to the fullest extent of the tripod which also made it most susceptible to the wind and vibration. I ended up not using the tripod at all.

    I will add it to my books to read list.