‘We’ve got birds’: More sandhill cranes arrive as harsh weather subsides

‘We’ve got birds’: More sandhill cranes arrive as harsh weather subsides
Photo Courtesy: Crane Trust

Nebraska, we’ve got sandhill cranes!

Thousands and thousands of them, right on cue.

That was the word Friday afternoon from both the Crane Trust at Wood River and Audubon Nebraska’s Rowe Sanctuary at Gibbon in the central Platte River Valley.

Both are prime springtime feeding and roosting spots for some 660,000 cranes winging their way north to their summer nesting grounds.

Friday’s aerial and ground report from the Crane Trust’s Andrew J. Caven in week six of the migration put the crane count at 326,400, plus or minus 72,000. That’s on par with numbers typically seen this time of year, Caven said. Finally, the migration is back on track after frigid temperatures, snowfall and ice on the river earlier this month all but stalled activity along the flyway.

“Ten days ago, we had a string of two or three really nice days, and it seemed like the numbers just popped back up and got us back to normal,” said Andrew Pierson, director of conservation at Rowe Sanctuary upstream. “We’re heading into probably the busiest week of the year for viewing.”

But there’s still some migration weirdness going on.

Rising flows and breaking ice on the Platte this week sent more than half of the crane population into the wetlands to roost.

“At the beginning of the migration, the cranes were lying on the ice, and now they’re roosting in the wet meadows,” Caven said. Both behaviors are rare. And now the birds appear to be in no hurry to return to the river at night, even with relatively normal river and sandbar conditions.

In recent days, Caven has observed something even more peculiar: cranes foraging at a voracious rate, probing the wet ground for a favorite food: earthworms.

Flooding often brings worms closer to the surface, Caven said. And there was that worm moon, full or almost full for most of the week, helping the spectacle along.

People heading for the Grand Island and Kearney areas this weekend for crane viewing are likely to be thrilled.

But if you don’t have a reservation, don’t expect to do your viewing in a blind at Rowe Sanctuary or the Crane Trust.

Morning and evening slots for viewing experiences are completely booked, Pierson said.

It’s also Audubon Nebraska Crane Festival weekend at the Holiday Inn and Convention Center in Kearney. “We’re expecting a pretty big weekend, with easily more than 1,000 people coming through the visitor center at Rowe,” Pierson said.

His advice to people in the Omaha and Lincoln areas: “If you have the flexibility, back off a week. There will be no change in the number of cranes. In fact, there likely will be even more next weekend.”

In an earlier interview, Caven predicted one of the most interesting migrations Nebraska has seen in recent years. Geese, ducks, whooping cranes and sandhill cranes all could come through at once.

“It’s a busy weekend in crane land,” Caven said. “The migration should be fun to watch in the next couple of weeks.”

Gravel roads to Rowe Sanctuary were good Friday, but rain forecast for this weekend could make them sloppy again. Pierson cautioned would-be visitors: “Wet weather could mean poor to possibly closed road conditions.”

People are encouraged to call the Rowe visitor center to check travel and viewing conditions.

Pierson offered a glimmer of hope for people without viewing experience reservations: “If you’re in the area, it’s worth checking with us mid-afternoon for any cancellations.”

The same holds true at Crane Trust.