Nebraska: Platte River, Sandhill Cranes & Prairie Grouse Mar 17—24, 2012
Posted by Steve Hilty
This trip was all about cranes—both Sandhill Cranes and a rare Whooping Crane that we managed to locate (with some luck) by systematically driving a series of roads where it had been reported. I inherited this trip from Kim Eckert who, through last year, operated it for VENT for 23 years and had the following to say about it in 2011: "Even after 20-plus VENT tours here in Nebraska in March, there always seems to be something unexpected waiting for us along the Platte River." This statement couldn't have been truer this year as well.
We began this trip with 80 degree plus daytime temperatures that followed on the heels of an unusually warm and dry winter across almost all of the eastern and central United States. By the last three days of the trip, temperatures had dropped somewhat and we experienced light rains several times. Fortunately, most of our morning viewing of Greater Prairie-Chickens on their display grounds was spared this spring rainy front passing through, and the following morning with the Sharp-tailed Grouse was crisp, clear, and absolutely superb.
Aside from the serendipitous Whooping Crane, this trip, by all accounts, is all about Sandhill Cranes, some 600,000 of which squeeze through a narrow 60-mile corridor of the Platte River between Grand Island and Kearney Nebraska. Now heavily dependent upon spilled or waste corn from immense fields in the area, these cranes spend almost a month each spring fattening up for their final push northward into Canada or even beyond, which usually begins in early April following some strong south winds. Perhaps best viewed from "blinds" or "hides" such as those operated by the Rowe Sanctuary, this is a world-class wildlife spectacle and one of the most impressive on the North American continent. This spectacle may provide a glimpse, in fact, into what might have taken place two centuries or more ago—one that has continued in one form or another since the retreat of the last continental glaciers some 10,000 years ago.
Finally, if more than a half-million migrating Sandhill Cranes massed along the Platte River were not evidence enough of the arrival of spring, surely the presence of blooming bloodroot, Dutchman's britches, and spring beauties the last afternoon in Fontenelle forest, which overlooks the Missouri River, provided confirmation that spring had indeed arrived in the continent's heartland once again. I hope that you enjoyed this trip, which truly celebrates the arrival of spring.