Platte River crane migration delayed by winter weather

March 30, 2019
In this Thursday, March 28, 2019 photo, Morgan Dowdall , of Loveland, Colo., sets up his camera to catch a sandhill crane in action while on a guided tour at the Crane Trust Nature and Visitors Center south of Alda, Neb. The numbers were low on this visit because of the weather, and there were only about 3,000 cranes on the river instead of the usual 10,000 or more. (Robert Pore/The Independent via AP)

WOOD RIVER, Neb. (AP) — The weather hasn’t shown much kindness so far in the new year.

Through February and into March there was much snow and bitter cold. Then came a sudden warm spell that quickly melted the snow and flooded the area streams and rivers. The next day, a blizzard with long periods of strong winds.

It has been crazy weather, unpredictable for both man and the hundreds of thousands of Sandhill cranes that migrate to the Platte River in central Nebraska each year.

That annual migration of the cranes also brings thousands of visitors — from across the country and around the world — to witness one of the most spectacular wildlife migrations in the world.

One of the “must-go” spots for visitors here to see the crane migration is the Crane Trust Nature and Visitors Center. The center is operated by the Crane Trust, whose headquarters is located south of the center, along the Platte River.

The Crane Trust’s mission is to protect and provide habitat for the cranes, especially the endangered whooping crane, along the river. This especially applies during the migration season, when visitors descend en masse.

As a way to raise awareness of their mission and to raise the necessary $2 million the trust needs annually to advance that mission, Crane Trust employees and volunteers operate blinds along the river on their property for visitors and photographers to see and photograph the birds.

This year, the blind tours got off to a late start because of the bad weather. The tours usually get underway on March 1. This year, they were delayed for more than a week because of the snow and bitter cold. The cold weather also delayed the cranes’ migration, the Grand Island Independent reported.

The blinds eventually opened to the public and tours got underway as more and more cranes arrived.

Each year, starting in February and going well into April, the cranes arrive for a short stay on the Platte River. During the day, the birds are out foraging on waste corn in area fields. At night, they go back to the protection of the river.

There, at the river, they huddle on the vast expanse of the shallow river in high numbers for protection against predators, such as coyotes and eagles.

Once the weather began to warm from its frigid claims as the south winds began to arrive, crane numbers quickly multiplied, going from around 13,000 to about 300,000 almost overnight.

The blinds set up along the river bank. The tours began at 5 a.m. each morning for the first week of March — before the clock springs ahead one hour. Then, the tours begin at 6 a.m.

Before the visitors arrive, a solid group of volunteers opens the Crane Trust Nature and Visitors Center up. Many of the tour guides have been volunteers for years.

One of those tour guides was Richard Johnson of Grand Island. It’s his third year as a tour guide.

“I love birds,” he said about why he volunteers as a morning tour guide. “I like nature, in general.”

That is a typical answer for many of the volunteers. They all feel fortunate to have this majestic natural phenomenon happening right in their backyard.

It is the same feeling shared by the thousands of visitors that come to see the crane migration each year.

Ann Fintel brought her family to see the cranes. They have lived in Lincoln for 25 years, but this was the first time they have come to see the migration.

Once the visitors have a short orientation presentation at the visitor’s center, they are led in a caravan for about 1.5 miles to the Platte River to the blinds.

When they arrive, it is dark, and the guide leads them from their vehicles on a short walk. The visitors are asked to keep quiet as they walk and enter the blinds, so as not to disturb the birds. The blinds are unheated. Some mornings, in early March, the morning temperature can be in the teens or low 20s.

While the guests are asked to be quiet, the sounds of the cranes roosting on the river can be loud, especially as the horizon lights up with the rising sun and birds become more active.

As the sun rises, sometimes the birds are startled by an eagle, and thousands of cranes lift from their evening roosting area and take to the sky. It is an overwhelming sight that quickly summons the cameras.

The Fintels were here for both tours — the one in the morning and the one at night when visitors see the birds settle back at the river after a full day of feeding.

Also on the tour were Morgan Dowdall and Sara Runyan of Loveland, Colorado.

“It is beautiful,” Runyan whispered as the rising sun revealed several thousand cranes roosting on the river several hundred feet away from where she sat.

It was her second visit to the spring spectacle on the Platte River. The numbers were low on this visit because of the weather. But it was still “cool” for Runyan even though there were only about 3,000 cranes on the river instead of the usual 10,000 or more.

But the sky was cold and clear that morning and guests got to see the moon in conjunction with Saturn and Jupiter on the southern horizon.

“I think we will come back next year, too,” Runyan said.


Information from: The Grand Island Independent, http://www.theindependent.com