Nebraska: The Final Chapter

By Joe Sebastiani: Members Program Team Leader

The final post about the Delaware Nature Society trip to Nebraska in March.

Cows, Cranes, and Trains.  That is the sound of a morning on the Platte River near Kearney, Nebraska, at the Rowe Audubon Sanctuary.  Slush-ice flows down this prairie river as we watch thousands of Sandhill Crane wake up.  Many are still sleeping, but enough are awake to produce an overwhelming throaty, garbling, trumpeting chorus.  Juvenile cranes are squealing to their parents.  In the distance, cows are “moooooing.” Cross-country trains are blaring their horns at an otherwise remote and quiet crossroad.  Ahh, the sounds of a central-Nebraska dawn in late March.

The group studies Sandhill Cranes that are waking in the Platte River which turned into "slush-ice" overnight.
The group studies Sandhill Cranes that are waking in the Platte River which turned into “slush-ice” overnight.
The temperature overnight was in the low-20’s and the Platte River turned to flowing “slush-ice” as the cranes slept.  Many birds walked around with rings of ice on their legs.  Upon take-off, some of the cranes pulled their legs up under their bodies like landing gear being retracted into a plane.  This was an indication that it was still fairly cold.  Usually cranes fly with their legs outstretched behind them.
Sandhill Cranes taking flight from the Platte River to feed in a nearby cornfield.
Sandhill Cranes taking flight from the Platte River to feed in a nearby cornfield.
Cranes are entertaining to watch in the morning on the Platte River.  They dance, hop, bugle, fight, play, court, and communicate right in front of you.  As you look up the river, it is cranes as far as you can see.  Nowhere else in the world can you get to see so many cranes in one location.  As the sun rises higher, more and more birds droop their heads to each other, indicating that they want to fly.  Group by group, they head off to feed…building energy for the remainder of their migration to Canada, Alaska, and Siberia.

Our trip had come to a conclusion, and it was the best one out of the four I have led to Nebraska.  All we had to do was drive from Kearney to Omaha and catch our flight home.  Route 80 is not particularly exciting as it sets a straight course through an endless sea of cornfields. 

In late March in Nebraska, it is rather alarming when the person next to you in the vehicle starts yelling “Big White Bird!  Big White Bird!”  Either someone is having a baby in a nearby town and it is being delivered by a stork, a domestic turkey has escaped a local barnyard, or you have an honest to goodness wild bird on your hands.  White Pelicans are big, but we saw those.  This level of excitement was certainly something new, so I turned my head quickly…yes, there it was, a Whooping Crane in a cornfield along Route 80!  Mayhem ensued in the van.  Cameras and binoculars were retrieved from packed bags.  Arguments started on where we should go to most effectively view the bird. 

I stepped on the gas and the next exit was not close enough for us.  I have a feeling the 75 mph speed limit was broken.  Back on Route 80 heading west, we scanned for the landmarks we memorized to indicate the correct cornfield.  There it was!  The Whooping Crane had moved to the center of the field with its travelling companions, the much smaller Sandhill Crane.  Onto the back roads we went.  We found a good spot, got out of the van, and glory!  A Whooping Crane in the spotting scope!  It will be hard to beat the Delaware Nature Society 2009 trip to Nebraska.  Join us on our trip in March of 2010 as we try.

Heat waves and distance made good photography impossible, but there is was, a juvenile Whooping Crane feeding with Sandhill Cranes in a Nebraska cornfield.
Heat waves and distance made good photography impossible, but there it was, a juvenile Whooping Crane feeding with Sandhill Cranes in a Nebraska cornfield.

 

Five very happy participants looking at a Whooping Crane.  There are less than 300 of these birds in the wild.
Five very happy participants looking at a Whooping Crane. There are less than 300 of these birds in the wild.
Upcoming Delaware Nature Society programs include: Comparative Wildlife Anatomy, May 21; King Ranch Grassland Birds, May 27; Bird Nest Biology at Bucktoe, May 27; Reptile and Amphibian Foray, May 29; Shorebird Migration and Horseshoe Crabs on Delaware Bay, May 30.  Visit www.delawarenaturesociety.org for registration details. 

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