Nebraska: Platte River and Sandhill Cranes I Mar 20—24, 2010

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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Although I had done this tour for twenty consecutive years, in some ways it was almost as if I had not led it for a while. For one thing, because of an event filling up all the hotels in Omaha, we met in Lincoln for the first time. But this worked well enough, with roosting Franklin's Gulls at Oak Lake and displaying woodcocks at Branched Oak Lake (to replace those at Lake Manawa in Council Bluffs, Iowa), and some decent woods birding in Lincoln's Wilderness Park (instead of at Fontenelle Forest near Omaha).

Then it was on to Grand Island, still our convenient base for witnessing the Sandhill Crane phenomenon, but what had always been a Holiday Inn had now morphed into a Quality Inn. Fortunately, only the name had changed, and the meadows adjacent to the hotel still hosted lots of birds, including some cranes, a few yellowlegs, and our only Baird's Sandpiper.

This tour has always involved much more than cranes, with the Greater Prairie-Chickens displaying on their Taylor Ranch lek near Grand Island one of the highlights. Years ago, a Sharp-tailed Grouse or two had shared this lek, but none had been here in the past decade. So it was a definite surprise when a lone grouse reappeared among the prairie-chickens, as if we were back in the 1990s.

Our post-lek tradition had always involved breakfast at Harriet's Danish Kitchen in nearby Dannebrog, but it was inevitable that Harriet would soon retire, and she will be missed. To offset this loss, however, at least we were able to visit the Nebraska Nature and Visitor Center that morning, which had just reopened after being closed the past few years. Here we turned up our first Harris's Sparrows, always one of this tour's sought-after birds.

This year's real highlight was certainly the Whooping Crane which turned up the week before within just a few miles of our hotel, and a tip that it had reappeared led us to the site in time before it moved on. This was only the fourth time this endangered species had been recorded on this tour, with our previous sighting ten years ago.

Other highlights included both Eastern and Western meadowlarks singing side by side at Pioneers Park in Lincoln, a few dozen Bald Eagles congregating the same day at Branched Oak Lake, a nice study the following day of a Rusty Blackbird along the Platte River, and a quiet but responsive Eastern Screech-Owl posing in the open before dawn just a mile from the hotel on our final morning.

But at least some things remained pretty much the same as usual. As always, the unique Sandhill Crane spectacle defies easy description, with the sights and sounds of countless cranes coming to roost at dusk in the Platte River just outside our observation blind particularly memorable. Equally impressive and less predictable, though, was the flock we saw from a hilltop the last day en route back to Lincoln. Concentrated in a single cornfield was a panorama of gray at least a half-mile long, and I figured as many as 10,000 cranes were spread out below us.