Nebraska: Platte River and Sandhill Cranes Mar 17—21, 2007

Posted by Kim Eckert

Kim-eckert

Kim Eckert

Kim Eckert, with over 40 years of birding experience throughout the U.S. and Canada, has now been guiding birders or teaching bird identification classes for more than 25 o...

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No, there wasn’t even a hint of any raging blizzard like there was last year, the likes of which was locally unprecedented and which grounded spectacular numbers of birds concentrated along the roadsides. Actually, the weather this year was pretty mellow, with Day One our only cold day with temperatures in the 40s. Sure, it was a bit too windy on a couple of days, but that’s entirely normal on the Great Plains, and it was even pleasantly warm and calm during our first two crane-watching evenings.

This year we were left with but one meteorological highlight: the chronic drought conditions which continue to deplete the water levels in the so-called Rainwater Basin. (Not even last March’s record snowfall seemed to have made any difference.) Once again, with such former famous wetlands as Pintail Lake and Funk Lagoon no longer wet, the hordes of migrant geese and other waterfowl which used to concentrate so spectacularly here had again mostly gone north towards the tundra before we arrived. (I suppose good ol’ Global Warming must have had something to do with it, too.)

But the Sandhill Cranes don’t seem to care at all about the ups and downs of weather and waterfowl, and, after all, aren’t the cranes what this tour is all about? Indeed, in some ways they may have been more impressive overall than ever before! First, there was our pleasantly warm evening on Day Two, as we had fields full of cranes all to ourselves along a back road as the sun set. On the equally warm afternoon of Day Three, kettles of cranes riding thermals overhead decided to gradually descend into a field next to the van. Then it seemed like there were more cranes than ever at the traditional roost in the Platte River by the Alda Bridge the next evening; the endless flights passing by seemed larger and more continuous than in years past, and there were places in the river which I’m sure had never previously supported roosting cranes.

Perhaps most amazing to me, though, was our last morning with fields of cranes east of Grand Island where I have never before spent any time. Credible and recent?but sporadic?reports of a Whooping Crane were coming from that area, and we had a bit of time to look before returning to Omaha. No, of course, we never did spot the Whooper, but talk about the proverbial needle in a haystack! A cliché never seemed more apt, as the stacked-up quantity of Sandhill Cranes was as large as anything west of Grand Island within the core of their concentration. These section roads I had never driven in the past were supposedly too far east to have any significant numbers of cranes, but significant doesn’t adequately describe those flocks.

To be sure, there were other memorable non-crane highlights. One especially territorial woodcock by Lake Manawa confronted my recorder by staring in my direction, uttering its curious and electric-like alarm notes, and flying at and around my head. While waterfowl numbers may have been down, it was encouraging to see more shrikes and bluebirds than usual. We even found a few unexpected rarities: the early Eared Grebes at Lake Manawa and Least Sandpipers along the Platte had only been found once before on 18 previous tours, while the beautiful adult male Merlin at Schramm Park and that mockingbird in the motel parking lot were just 3rd tour records.

Finally, it was nice to return to my two favorite?and unique?restaurants, which last year’s blizzard kept us away from: that amazing Sunday brunch at Chances R in York, and the authentic Danish breakfast at Harriett’s in Dannebrog.