Nebraska: Platte River and Sandhill Cranes Mar 15—19, 2008

Posted by 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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The migration had been so different in recent years, compared to what it used to be in the 1990s, that revised wording was called for in this tour's itinerary. No, this had nothing to do with Sandhill Cranes. They were certainly still there, massing in countless and always-impressive numbers along Nebraska's Platte River as they had always been. But the formerly massive migration of Snow Geese and other waterfowl through the Rainwater Basin's wetlands near the Platte almost seemed to be a thing of the past.

Long-term drought conditions were one of the reasons we weren't seeing the amazing numbers of geese like we used to. With numerous wetlands dried up since the 1990s, there were few places for them to linger before continuing north. Our former estimates of Snow Geese in the hundreds of thousands had become merely in the thousands since the turn of this century. Global warming/climate change, which of course has now become the root of all evil, was certainly at fault as well: the geese mostly seemed to have already gone north before this tour took place.

Thus, it was both refreshing and surprising this year to see the Snow Geese flocks back in force like they used to be. Water levels at several wetlands were back to normal, with some areas holding water for the first time in several years. Perhaps the best example was at York WPA along I-80, which had been completely dry for years—this time around there was not only water, but also an estimated 45,000 Snow Geese in this single wetland.

The weather must have had something to do with this as well. It seemed more like winter than summer for a change, with ice still present in places, and if anything the migration was behind schedule. The woodcock, for example, still weren't back and displaying on territory, and it was disappointing to miss this species for the first time in 20 years. It was also strange to find hardly any flickers or grackles around—usually these are routinely seen in good numbers on this tour.

But enough about drought and climate change and geese. The spectacle of the Sandhill Crane migration is what this tour is primarily about, and cranes don't seem to care about the weather. As reliable as they are, though, every tour's experience with them seems to be different. Most memorable this year were our views of them standing in the fields along the Platte: in view all at once in just one expanse of meadow were an estimated 30,000 cranes! Impressive and unique as well was a group of several thousand cranes still standing in the river until nearly noon—normally they are gone from their roosts on the shallows and sandbars before 9:00 am.

Another attraction on this tour are the Greater Prairie-Chickens displaying on their leks near Grand Island, and, like the Snow Geese, they put on one of their best showings in recent years. They seemed more visible than usual, and, with light winds at the time, they were easily heard as they harmonized beautifully with the bubbling songs of Western Meadowlarks. In this same area, a Northern Shrike, for only the seventh time out of 20 tours, put in an appearance.

Also seventh records for this tour were both the unexpected Purple Finch and Pine Siskin at Branched Oak Lake Recreation Area; even less expected here was a Red-breasted Nuthatch, only the fourth record on this tour. And there was yet another species which appeared for only the fourth time out of 20 years. Even though it was broad daylight on our first morning along the Missouri River south of Omaha, a pair of Barred Owls not only vocalized at length for us, but they eventually copulated in full view of our amazed group.