March Magic

March Magic

A spring trip to Nebraska combines the subtle beauty of the sandhills with the drama of courting prairie-chickens and the spectacle of cranes by the thousands.

By Ted O'Callahan/Photography by Kim Hubbard
Published: March-April 2010

At the heart of everything is the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary, a 1,900-acre facility with four miles of riverfront. The center director, Bill Taddicken, says, "Most people come thinking they will see something special, but the experience has the ability to touch them in a way they don't expect." Even skeptics are drawn in, he adds. "I remember one man telling me his wife brought him kicking and screaming for his birthday 15 years ago. He hasn't missed a migration since," he adds. "When Audubon began what is now the Rivers and Wildlife Celebration in 1971, there was almost no public awareness outside of the local area that this even happened. And now we have 15,000 people through our doors alone, and last year they came from all 50 states and 46 countries. This phenomenon has become known worldwide." Notes Johnsgard, "The sandhill cranes are the flagship for conservation. In fact, they made it onto our license plates rather than a football player, so that gives you some indication."

Audubon works hard keeping the sand and gravel bars clear of brush, a worthwhile investment in many ways. Richard Edwards and Eric Thompson recently finished a study on Rowe that placed the center's direct impact on the local economy at more than $2 million a year. The same study conservatively estimated that the total economic impact of the sandhill crane migration on the state is $10.3 million annually.

Along the Platte, there are both public and private venues for crane viewing. Rowe has group blinds where visitors can watch the cranes settle for the night on the safe roosts offered by mid-river gravel bars. It also has small photo blinds, including one in which we spend our first night. The simple plywood affair is painted to blend with the blond thatch of the river bank. Because it is closer to the water than the group blinds--just feet from the Platte--we must enter well before the cranes arrive and stay until the last birds take off the next morning. It's cramped with two of us, our cold-weather gear, and a very large camera. But we are front row to everything.

As evening approaches, the first cranes arrive from foraging in the fields. The flow, once started, is almost dizzying, like watching the stream of runners in a marathon. Tens of thousands of cranes land right in front of us, their bodies a light gray, with a patch of red on their foreheads.

Some glide in like planes approaching an airport, rolling their wings into billowing brakes at the last moment. Others look like parachutists, legs dangling, dropping onto a target. Birds jostle for space on crowded gravel bars. Squawks and hops erupt when a new crane lands. Some wade into shallow braids. Birds continue arriving even as the sky darkens. It is hard to take in the mass of cranes right here, yet we know this is happening for miles up and down the river. Of the sandhills' 12 vocalizations, churring and cawing come to dominate. With sounds so soothing, it seems natural to settle in ourselves.

We wake to the rhythmic beating of so many wings it sounds like a train. One crane begins a commotion that clears a stretch of river in seconds. As the birds pass 30 feet above us, we can almost feel the whoosh, whoosh of wings drumming the air. The power of each beat undulates through their bodies, sending a ripple up their necks.

With newfound space on the gravel bars, the remaining cranes gallop about like colts. Singly and in pairs, birds pass, slowly flapping, looking, calling. Finally the last lonely bird takes off. The river looks empty.

The cranes, it is believed, have been coming to this river for thousands of years, but the grand scale is new. Following World War II, modern agriculture led to increased crop yields. This reliable food source, at a critical time of year, brought more and more cranes to the Platte. The wide, flat area also offers the birds some protection from predators. A census in the 1940s put the number of cranes in the spring migration at some 40,000 birds. By the early 1960s that was up to 150,000, a number that grew steadily until the 1990s, when it plateaued and stabilized at about 500,000.

Some farmers recognize that the cranes eat waste grain from the fields prior to planting and that they bring tourist dollars to the area. But water, much of it earmarked for irrigation, is a precious commodity here. Seventy percent of the Platte's water is gone by the time the river reaches Rowe. "Water is everybody's livelihood," Taddicken says. "That makes it a ticklish issue." Still, he is hopeful about the overall efforts to make room for all. "We have the Platte River Recovery and Implementation Program, which is a three-state and federal government agreement to manage the Platte River basin as a whole for sandhill cranes and endangered wildlife such as whooping cranes, least terns, and piping plovers. I think people generally recognize that we have an important resource that we need to protect and that conservation is a part of that puzzle."

On our final night at Rowe, cranes sideslip across the sky, flapping hard, facing nearly crossways to winds that will spawn tornados by tomorrow. From a group blind, we watch birds squat in the water. A few let themselves float slowly downstream, like tubers, their wings splayed on the surface. Their splashes, backlit by the setting sun, turn the droplets into brief diamonds.

Though there are more than 20 of us, the blind is silent. When the slow sunset of the Great Plains is finally gone, it's as if the curtain has fallen on a spectacular show, both exhausting and exhilarating.

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