In planning our trip to Nebraska, I had scoured the AAA guide and another guide I had bought about out-of-the-way sights everyone should see and I had gone through the National Geographic Road Atlas Adventure Edition and a Nebraska Atlas….and then there’s Google and Bing Maps online, not to mention checking eBird for birding hotspots in the state. This process can take several weeks as I check for parks, preserves, and wildlife refuges. Of course, the first priority was seeing the Sandhill Cranes and so that’s where I started – Google Nebraska and Sandhill Cranes and you will find Rowe Sanctuary very quickly. So that was ground zero so to speak but there would be lots of ground to cover in getting there and I wanted to take every opportunity possible to see what birds and attractions we could see along the way.
So, with all that checking and searching and listing and figuring, I had come up with twelve places I absolutely wanted to see and eleven more places that I categorized as “maybe, if there’s time”. So far, I’d seen two sites from the “maybe” list – the Townsley Murdock Trail site and the Higgins Memorial – and one site from the “definitely” list – Freemont State Recreation Area (SRA). But, now it was time to get busy on the “definitely” list and the “where the cranes are” places on the maps. And the fifty mile area from Grand Island to Kearney (kar-nee) was supposed to be it – Crane city all the way and we were ready to see some Cranes.
I suppose I thought that there would be Cranes everywhere. After all, what do you do with half a million birds that are about 5 foot tall and trying to bulk up for a long flight to their Arctic breeding grounds? I’m thinking you’d see those birds everywhere….but, so far, on this trip we hadn’t seen a one. We’d driven more than 160 miles into Nebraska, crossed plains and rivers and hadn’t spotted a single Crane. Being the worrier that I am, I began to wonder if I had dragged my long-suffering husband all the way to mid-America on a wild goose – errrr, Crane – chase. I fretted that the warm weather had encouraged the Cranes to head on up north and they had all departed maybe a day or so before we got there. If you have followed my bird chasing in the past, you might have noticed a trend – I seem to have a habit of being a day late and a dollar short on these things. Hadn’t I driven all the way to Flamingo Point in the Everglades only to find no flamingos? And, then hadn’t we driven all the way around Yellowstone Park to discover that there is no fishing allowed at Fishing Bridge? Now, had I arrived in Nebraska only to find that there were no longer any Sandhill Cranes on the South Platte River????
So, it was with some excitement and some trepidation that we headed out from Grand Island to start seriously looking for Cranes…..and I had a plan, of course….always got a plan whether it works or not. My “definitely” list included three sites to see in and around Grand Island before heading on down towards Kearney. I had eliminated one location – the Coney Island Café – when we arrived. While the internet site shows a photo of a snazzy café from the 1950’s era, the actual café was a very nondescript place in a strip of shops downtown and the reviews weren’t so good for the food so I decided it wasn’t worth backtracking into downtown just for lunch. There was also a very important site nearby at Wood River – Crane Environmental Trust & Visitor Center (also known as Crane Meadows). So, day 3 would be an exploration of these sites around Grand Island. If time permitted, we might also take a look at the Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer. Most important to the day’s activities would be getting to Rowe Sanctuary by 6:00 PM where we had reservations for the evening viewing of the Cranes…..if there were any left in Nebraska.
But first, we pause for our second GPS glitch of the trip! We entered the address for Mormon Island in the GPS – 7425 US 281 – and we were on our way. What I didn’t enter was “south” US 281 so the GPS took us on a path to the north. We started thinking we might be going away from the Interstate and we knew that the park was near the Interstate….but then the GPS informed us that we were nearing our destination and, looking around, we saw farms and cattle ranches but no park and no river. Using Google Maps on my phone (my trusty backup), we turned around and headed south again. But all was not in vain, on the way to US 281, we found Eagle Scout Park and some pretty good birds – Snow Geese, Canada Geese, Collared Doves, more Red-Winged Blackbirds, and, of course, American Robins.
First planned stop – Mormon Island State Recreation Area.
The site where the park is located was formerly a stopping point on the Mormon Trail used by Mormons (Church of the Latter Day Saints) on their way from Navoo, Illinois to the Great Salt Lake Valley. In the 1800’s, the Mormons were seemingly constantly on the move trying to find a place to set up their stronghold without persecution.
The Mormon Trail which is about 1300 miles long is now the Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail and ran roughly along the same route as the Oregon and California Trails. The Mormons chose to travel along the north side of the Platte River to avoid conflict with travelers on the Oregon Trail just to the south.
Today there is little at the park of the Mormons or the trail except for the name. There also isn’t really an island. The park sits right along Interstate 80 and just a hop, skip, and a jump from the Platte River (after you cross the Interstate, of course). It is a lovely park with several small lakes (the island effect?) and offers hiking, camping, fishing, and some boating on the lakes).
For us, it was about the birding. We saw good birds there but most would be instantly recognizable to birders back home. The Eurasian Collared Dove is one bird that seemed to be settling in nicely in the west but is still quite the rarity back east. There were also some ducks and Scaups that lingered on the lakes and had not yet started their northern migration. There were quite a few Red-Winged Blackbirds and, you guessed it, plenty of Robins.
After an hour or so birding the park and just looking around, we headed down to Wood River and the Crane Trust.
I’d like to say we saw thousands of Sandhill Cranes at the Crane Environmental Trust…but we didn’t. We took the Interstate (80…since it is the only Interstate in Nebraska and from this point westward parallels the Lincoln Highway, US 30) and we did see maybe 100 Cranes flying over right at the exit for Wood River. We followed their flight to a field along the road and stopped to try to get a good look and grab some photos but the birds landed in a farmer’s field that we could not easily (and probably legally) get to so, with our hopes high we headed on over to the Crane Trust Visitor’s Center. Imagine our dismay when the volunteer at the center informed us that the Cranes had already left the area. In fact, she was surprised that we had seen the birds along the highway. She advised us to take back roads in a westerly direction towards Kearney and check out farmer’s fields if we wanted to see Cranes.
In the meantime, we checked out the Visitor’s Center, which was very nice and had some very good displays. We saw a Snow Goose and a Ross’s Goose in the display area that helped to confirm my tentative identification of a pair of Geese we had seen at Eagle Scout Park as Ross’s Geese. The center also had a nice hiking path and a bridge across the river that looked pretty inviting so we got binoculars and cameras and headed out on the trail. We had noticed that the western sky looked gray and cloudy but I decided (against Jerry’s good advice) that we had plenty of time to hike a mile or so and see what birds we might find on the preserve that might be interesting. You never know, we might find a stray Crane or a life bird or two. Who knew?
Well, we got about a half mile down the path and just over the bridge when it started raining, of course, and we quickly headed back to the Center….but not quite quickly enough. We had only taken a few steps on our way back when the rain turned to sleet or hail and then both. Oh my! We were stung and pounded for five minutes or so and then it was icy cold rain again. We had picked up our pace considerably and were soon back under the shelter of the back deck at the Visitor’s Center….and then the rain stopped and the sun came out beautifully. Right! We gave the sky another look – more gray clouds to the west – and turned away from the trail and headed on back to the car and decided to drive west along those backroads that the nice volunteer had mentioned.
We meandered along the back roads through farm country for an hour or so without seeing much so we took a turn to the right at the first road we came to (not many choices) that headed back north to the Interstate. Once on the Interstate, we headed west to Kearney. We had decided to find our hotel for the next two nights and rest a bit before heading up to Rowe Sanctuary. And, what do you suppose we found all along the Interstate where stopping to look is not such a good idea when the speed limit is 75? You guessed it, Sandhill Cranes….everywhere in the fields along the north side of the highway. Although we couldn’t exactly stop and spend time admiring the big birds, it was a relief to me (Jerry always knew they’d be there) to know that the Cranes had not yet departed on the rest of their migration.
And now it is time for GPS glitch number 3. It was another south-north issue with Route 10 that runs straight through Kearney. Our hotel was the Holiday Inn Express on the south side of town and on the other side of the Interstate but the GPS took us to the address on the north side and we found ourselves at Taco John’s with no hotel in sight. Now, I have to ask myself why cities and postal authorities use the same address number for two sites on different sides of a highway when in actuality the two sites are less than two miles from each other. Seriously? I’m not sure the GPS is at fault here.
Well, at any rate, there was a very large Holiday Inn with a huge convention center about a mile from the wrong address so we stopped in and asked about the Holiday Inn Express which was just a little over spitting distance down the road. While we were there, we asked how a small town like Kearney could support so many hotels and a Convention Center no less. Well, there’s a rather simple explanation. Remember in Day 2 that I wrote about the Lincoln Highway running from NYC to San Francisco? It turns out that Kearney, Nebraska is just about halfway to San Francisco so in the early days of the highway, Kearney became a big check point for people traveling on the highway. But that still doesn’t really explain why there are so many hotels there today. Then again, it does. If you are a large corporation with offices all across the US and you’re looking for a spot about halfway to have those corporate wide meetings and retreats, then Kearney is the place for you. Now, I’m not saying that there’s a lots to do around Kearney but it is just about halfway across America. (Per Google, the actual median is just a few more miles west at an even smaller town called Cozad. It seems Kearney is about halfway if you’re measuring “train” miles which were what was being measured back at the turn of the century when someone decided Kearney was the halfway point.)
At last, we found the hotel, checked in and, after a couple hours resting and a light supper, we headed out to make our appointment at the Sanctuary.
It was just about an hour before dusk when we checked in at the Sanctuary which sits right on the South Platte River. The only people allowed into the Sanctuary in the evenings are those who have reservations. We gathered with the others in the visitor’s center for a short video about the Sanctuary and the Cranes and an overview of what we should expect and how we should behave – no talking above a whisper on the trail or in the blinds, no repeat-clicks on our cameras, phones muted, photographs only when the guides allowed, no flashlights other than the red filtered ones used by the guides, no noise whatsoever, etc. The photographers who had paid for the special full night viewing (really?) set out first and headed to their blind. Then a smaller family group left and everyone remaining formed the largest group that included us. With some excitement, we headed out to the blind. We had about a half mile walk and were soon quietly settled at our spots in the blind. After a bit of shuffling for the best views (I went for the sunset view), we were all accommodated and the wait began. At this point, the river was quiet and there really wasn’t much going on so we waited….and we waited…and we watched the sun slowly start sinking down towards the river. After about 20 minutes of waiting, most everyone left their viewing spots unguarded and decided to wait on the benches provide. I sat while Jerry guarded our spot….he’s good like that.
While we waited, we birded – there was a great kingfisher and some Canada Geese and a few birds here and there. Then we were wowed by a Bald Eagle swooping in and then a Northern Harrier. Everybody and every predator was there waiting for the birds to come on down to the river.
And then they came. At first, there was just a few Cranes and then a few more and then a few flocks and then more and then hundreds and then thousands. Where had they all been when we were out riding down dusty dirt roads this afternoon? Oh yeah…over by the Interstate.
The birds just kept coming. The guide told us that probably about half of the Cranes had already departed north on their migration so there were maybe about a quarter of a million left in Nebraska. During the day, they scattered to the countryside to graze on the leftover grains and corn in the fields but at night, they all gathered together for protection on the river. And the Platte River was just perfect for this. It is a wide river – some say “a mile wide and an inch deep” – and it is very shallow with hundreds of tiny sandbars where the Cranes come to roost for the night. Because of the sandbars, the river is said to be “braided” running here and there around these sandy islands….like many of the rivers in Nebraska.
As the Cranes came in, they started to land on the sandbars, first one and then another and by the time we lost all light, the islands were covered with birds all settling in and preening and chattering among themselves. The sounds of the birds talking and calling out to each other had been overwhelming at points. The whole scene was just breathtakingly beautiful. The sounds of the Cranes chattering followed us as we quietly stowed our cameras, left the blind and headed back to the visitor center. We had been amazed and awed by this show….a show that had been occurring annually every year since the dawn of time…. a marvelous display of one of God’s wonderful creations!
We headed back to the hotel – mission accomplished and then some.
(The cost for viewing the Cranes at the Sanctuary is $20 per person and reservations have to be made well in advance….we had made our reservations way back in early January….best $40 I’ve spent in quite some time!)
April 3 – Baltimore, MD to Omaha, NE (via Minneapolis, MN): 1153 Miles
April 4 – Omaha to Grand Island (via Route 30): 160 Miles
April 5 – Grand Island to Kearney (via Interstate 80): 49 Miles
Sites Visited Thus Far:
ADM Grain Company Driveway (Day 2)
Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary (D3)
Crane Trust (D3)
Eagle Scout Park (D3)
Freemont State Recreation Area (SRA) (D2)
Higgins Memorial (D2)
Mormon Island State Recreation Area (SRA) (D3)
Townsley-Murdock Trail Site (D2)
Birds Spotted On The Trip Thus Far – Total Species Identified – 36:
American Bald Eagle American Coot American Crow
American Goldfinch American Kestrel American Robin
Belted Kingfisher Canada Goose Common Grackle
Dark-Eyed Junco Double-Crested Cormorant Eurasian Collared Dove
European Starling Feral Pigeon House Finch
House Sparrow Killdeer Lesser Yellowlegs
Mallard Mourning Dove Northern Cardinal
Northern Harrier Northern Shoveler Red-Tailed Hawk
Red-Winged Blackbird Ring-Billed Gull Ross’s Goose
Ruddy Duck Sandhill Crane Scaup, Lesser & Greater
Snow Goose Song Sparrow Tree Swallow
Wild Turkey Wood Duck