Nebraska: Platte River and Sandhill Cranes Mar 21—25, 2009
Posted by Kim Eckert
You'd think that after leading this tour along the Platte River of Nebraska for 20 years, I'd be pretty good at predicting how a year's tour would turn out. But it's not that easy; every year is different, and it all depends on the vagaries of weather. Had it been too dry or wet enough in the past year to affect the water levels and waterfowl numbers in the wetlands? Had the first half of March been warmer than normal, driving the waterfowl flocks prematurely north and prompting the early arrival of other migrants? Or, conversely, would there still be half-frozen wetlands full of geese and a delayed migration? And what's the forecast while we're there: too windy for efficient birding, sunny and 80 degrees, or a full-blown blizzard and temperatures below freezing?
This tour has seen it all over the past couple of decades—and so have the Sandhill Cranes, for that matter. But the cranes' experience is measured by millennia, not merely by decades, and no matter what the other migrants are doing, the cranes are still there. They may arrive earlier in February or depart later in April depending on the conditions, but a half-million-plus are always there in all kinds of weather, massing along the Platte when our mid-March tour arrives.
Of course, the cranes get top billing on this tour, and the sights and sounds we experience pretty much defy verbal description. It is certainly worth mentioning, though, that two of our experiences were especially memorable. One was our vigil at dusk in the Rowe Audubon Sanctuary's blind, as tens of thousands of cranes settled in for the night along the river in front of us, many less than 100 yards from our position. In a different way, another impressive sight was the group of cranes on the river along busy Highway 281 less than a mile from our hotel, outlined in red by a prairie sunset.
But this tour involves much more than the Sandhill Crane, which this time was just one of the 97 species we somehow managed to find. Surprisingly, this was our second-best total ever, just one shy of our record of 98, even though the birding conditions were far from ideal. During the three full days of the tour, sustained winds were 20 m.p.h. or higher, often over 30, with gusts between 40 and 60 m.p.h.! It was even windy enough one afternoon to close busy I-80 at two locations near us: once due to dense smoke from an advancing grass fire, and later because a semi on the interstate was blown over. At least it was around 70 degrees on two of these windy days, but wind-chill was a definite factor on the third day when the high temperature fell to 38, more than 30 degrees colder than the days before.
Despite our lofty species total, the number of geese and other waterfowl was perhaps the lowest I'd ever seen here. The water levels were healthy in the so-called Rainwater Basin near the Platte River, but the geese had mostly headed north from there for the Dakotas prior to the tour in response to strong warm fronts. On the other hand, that premature warmth brought in other migrants which usually aren't yet present, and our species count was accordingly enhanced. For example, the Common Loons, Tree Swallows, and Ruby-crowned Kinglet all represented species recorded only once before in the tour's 20-year history, a Chipping Sparrow was the first ever, and the shorebirds came in early: we saw no fewer than eight species (four is normal), including Lesser Yellowlegs (4th record), Least Sandpiper (3rd record), and Long-billed Dowitcher (5th record).
In addition, there were other highlights with no clear meteorological connections. A handsome male Cinnamon Teal (4th tour record) graced a roadside puddle, and a surprising Merlin (another 4th record) posed in the scopes by one of our crane-watching bridges. On cue, a pair of Barred Owls flew in by day as they had done last year at Fontenelle Forest. The displaying Greater Prairie-Chickens on the leks north of Grand Island were especially visible and cooperative, with 25 individuals about the best showing here in years. A quite unexpected and first-tour-record Glaucous Gull appeared just before dusk among the roosting gulls at Lake Manawa. And that same evening by Lake Manawa, after last year's absence, the American Woodcocks again launched into their curious and impressive display flights, with one eventually posing in the spotlight on the ground next to us.