Great Migrations02/23/2021 12:07PM ● By Jennie Lay
Sandhill cranes soar over the North Platte River at sunset in Kearney, Nebraska. Photography by Abby Jensen.
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS - Everyone is bound to recall the moment when their 2020 trajectory went sideways. My own pandemic misadventures started in the midst of a road trip to Nebraska.
On one of the last March days when Steamboat was still wide open for business, my husband and I headed out of town, winding north through the Snowy Range before shooting east through Wyoming’s growing crop of wind turbines. Minutes after speeding across the Nebraska state line, the first of many ominous Friday the 13th calls rang through: our intended destination was closing for coronavirus precautions – immediately.
Some spicy marital discourse ensued on the shoulder of I-80. We turned the truck around. Twice.
This is for the birds, he grumbled.
Yes, for the birds, I pleaded.
Passion prevailed. Onward, to the east.
Curiosity had lured two novice birders toward an annual spectacle when the sandhill crane migration converges on the Platte River near Kearney, Nebraska. It’s a tranquil town born of a fort and a railroad junction, and it’s best known as the “Sandhill Crane Capitol of the World.”
We’d spent a decade admiring the Yampa Valley’s greater sandhill cranes. We counted ourselves among the enthusiastic ranks of Routt County’s conservation-fueled “craniacs” who organize the Yampa Valley Crane Festival at Bud Werner Library each Labor Day weekend. Now we were anxious to witness central Nebraska’s notorious air show, when more than 600,000 of these prehistoric, crimson-headed birds flock in for corn field feasts and respite in the central Nebraska wetlands.
Nebraska gets mostly lesser sandhill cranes, typically about 5 inches smaller than the Steamboat variety. But their shorter stature is overcompensated by incomparable numbers. The cranes’ convergence on the Platte River includes more than 80% of the world population of these ancient omnivorous birds as they pause to fatten up and perform intricate courtship dances en route to breeding grounds in Canada, Alaska and Siberia. Their gluttony in Nebraska will add 20% to their body weight.
Our personal migration to watch this avian phenomenon was finally happening in 2020 because I’d been invited to visit the nonprofit Crane Trust, which protects critical habitat on the Big Bend stretch of the Platte ecosystem for sandhill cranes, endangered whooping cranes and other migratory birds. The trust’s emergency closure spurred us to whip up a D.I.Y. crane tracking expedition as we continued traveling east. It also gave us the unexpected blessing of time to explore the charms of a heartland community.
After scoring the coziest lodging at an impeccably restored 1888 home, we had the good fortune of securing spots on two different riverside blinds at the Audubon Society’s Rowe Sanctuary – the very last days blinds would be occupied as COVID-19 brought crane-watching season to a halt. We’d been forewarned: any opportunity for proximity in a blind is essential to experiencing this great migration. It is indeed astounding to be camouflaged inside a prime location while thousands of cranes congregate before your eyes.
The brick streets of old town Kearney provided an atmospheric respite while we scoured maps and figured out how best to spend a few days chasing cranes. We quickly found community in the embrace of Kitt’s Kitchen and Coffee, a restored 1920s warehouse for Pierce Hide and Produce Co. that now procures perfect coffee, chai and croissants. In addition, it was instantly clear that the café serves as an egalitarian living room for university students, farmers and one gregarious pharmaceutical rep who does regular business with a team of Steamboat doctors. Thanks to generously shared local insights, we were bundled in ski gear and headed down the road to a free public viewing deck where we saw more than 100,000 cranes soar in to roost under an eternal prairie sunset.
This is the instant I succumbed to being a birder. The cranes made the icy air electric. Their majesty was irresistible.
Birding is about exploring the abundant wonder of so many feathered species, but witnessing boisterous, 4-foot-tall sandhill cranes flock in by the tens of thousands is a supremely gratifying hook for a naturalist hobby that typically requires infinite patience. Birdwatching is ultimately about quietly planting yourself in nature, being still in the landscape, listening for screeches and warbles, studying the breeze and starting to comprehend how all those pieces fit together as a safe haven for landing, nesting and flight. Watching sandhill cranes provided a shortcut to surefire success on all fronts.
Our inspiration to travel to Kearney was lit by Abby Jensen, a Steamboat local who is a professional wildlife photographer and part owner of Pine Moon Fine Art. Jensen is a native Nebraskan who grew up along the Missouri River, about three hours away from Kearney. Sandhill cranes didn’t visit her part of the state, and she didn’t have her first crane encounter until she was in her early 40s. But after making her first pilgrimage for the spring crane migration, it became her annual habit to camp out at the Fort Kearney campground for weeks of sunrises and sunsets, sharing blinds with biologists and scouring the landscape for dancing cranes feasting on the grassland bounty.
“It’s magical every time. It’s different every time,” she says. “One of the reasons I used to stay so long was waiting for the roosting when the sun comes up – the perfect combination of temperature and winds to get them dancing in the river at sunrise, that beautiful light.”
With snow on the ground, we layered up to meet the birds at sunrise with their boisterous morning calls and rapturous lift-offs, then again at sunset as the birds flocked in to hunker in river shallows for the night. By dark, there were so many birds with long beaks tucked into their rusty-colored, mud-painted feathers that their overnight masses mimicked islands in the Platte.
Rocky Mountain alpenglow is stunning. But a prairie sunset is a formidable contender, especially when that interminable blaze includes waves of stately sandhill cranes rolling off the horizon, entertaining you with awkward landings in the river at your toes.
Put a long winter drive to Nebraska on your must-do adventure list. It’s a classic and surprisingly accessible American safari, and spring’s sandhill crane migration is undoubtedly spectacular enough to rival any other great migrations on Earth.
If you go:
Drive | Kearney, Nebraska is a 7.5-hour drive from Steamboat. Once you get there, you’ll need a car for your crane safari anyways.
Sleep | There are many perfectly decent chain hotels near the highway that make pre-dawn and late-returning crane viewing convenient. If history and atmosphere are your gig, a room at the 1888 Heritage House with its most convivial hosts is highly recommended (www.airbnb.com/rooms/15256246).
Watch cranes | Reserve a spot in a blind at Rowe Sanctuary (www.rowe.audubon.org) or the Crane Trust (www.cranetrust.org). Even better, do it at least twice – one sunrise and one sunset, because they are distinctly different experiences and you’ll be accompanied by a diehard crane expert. Head out early or late onto the raised walkway at the Plautz Viewing Platform near Gibbon (www.cpnrd.org/crane-viewing-sites) or the Fort Kearney bridges which cross the Platte River (www.outdoornebraska.gov/fortkearny).
Drink | Coffee at Kitt’s (www.kittskitchen.com). Beer at McCue’s Nebraska Taproom, where it’s all about cool craft beer, cider and kombucha brewed all over the Cornhusker State. (www.mccuesnebraskataproom.com)
Visit | Stroll through 200 impeccable (and entertaining!) historic cars at Kearney’s Classic Car Collection (www.classiccarcollection.org). Step back in time at the Frank Museum, a stately 1886 home on the National Register of Historic Places that was one of the first houses west of the Missouri River to be wired for electricity and featured steam radiators and indoor plumbing before it became the Nebraska State Tuberculosis Hospital (www.unk.edu/offices/frankhouse).
Cheer | Catch a game at Kearney’s ice arena, home to the Tri-City Storm, a Tier I junior hockey team in the United States Hockey League. This the one-time team of former hockey pro, Steamboat native and current Steamboat Youth Hockey Association Director Ryan Dingle.
Can’t get to Kearney?
Keep Nebraska on your wish list, but spend some time watching the Yampa Valley’s local sandhill cranes in the meantime. “I remember when I moved to Steamboat and was just driving around. I heard a crane and I was ecstatic,” says wildlife photographer Abby Jensen, who quickly signed on as a Colorado Crane Conservation Coalition board member. “One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that awareness in the community has grown exponentially. I’ve seen cranes foraging along the Core Trail. They seem to be happy here. And I like to think it’s because they know what we’re doing for them.”
The Yampa Valley’s greater sandhill cranes start arriving in mid-March, and many nest along the length of the region’s river corridors throughout the summer. The 10th annual Yampa Valley Crane Festival (slated for Sept. 2-5, 2021) coincides with the fall migration as cranes from the north return to New Mexico – this time is “peak crane” population for the valley.
Erin Gelling is the brand-new Colorado Crane Conservation Coalition program director. She’s currently finishing a master’s in rangeland ecology, and you may recognize her as the human embodiment of Sandy, the crane fest’s big bird mascot. “The more I learned about cranes, the more fascinating they became to me,” says Gelling, whose scientific focus to date has focused on greater sage grouse, but who is looking forward to leading the coalition toward local scientific crane studies, environmental education, citizen science and habitat projects in the coming years. “I’m still learning,” she says. “Cranes are really incredible creatures. The thing I love about them is their flamboyant behavior.”
This year the entire world will have an intimate opportunity to observe our local cranes. Spring 2021 ushers in a brand-new Sandhill Crane Nest Cam, funded through two grants from the Yampa Valley Community Foundation, allowing a camera to livestream from a known sandhill crane nest in the Yampa Valley. Watch the cranes swap spots on the nest, rotate eggs and, hopefully, hatch their chicks.
As for Nebraska, Gelling hasn’t seen the great crane migration yet. As a field biologist, peak cranes in Kearney has always conflicted with the season for trapping sage grouse or counting leks, plus the busiest days at ski school. “One day,” she says hopefully. In the meantime, she says that our local sandhill cranes, a small but mighty population compared to Kearney, have already inspired pages and pages of ideas to further crane intrigue here in the Yampa Valley.
Find a link to the Sandhill Crane Nest Cam and more about the Yampa Valley Crane Festival at www.coloradocranes.org