The alarm went off at 5am on Saturday morning at the plush LaQuinta in Kearney, NE. I managed to get out the door without rousting either my spouse or my dog. My goal was to weasel into one of the blinds at the Rowe Sanctuary to see the Sandhill Cranes as they left the safety of the Platte River to hit the fields and fatten up for the migration north. I had called a couple times and everything was booked but figured I could talk my way into one if I showed up at 5:45, solo and with a sad tale of how I missed the opening the night before due to a spring Colorado blizzard (true story) that slowed us down. My backup was either the foot bridge at Ft Kearney or the Elm Island parking lot. Both had lots of cranes to see but were not roosting spots, just flyby areas en route to the fields where they fed for most of the day. There were a pile of people there but a combination of cold temps and a steady north wind did its job; it culled out a few of the fair weather crane viewers and I was in!
A short film was shown and we were led out to the blind in the dark with flashlights with red filters. We were instructed that no talking above a whisper and that nothing, especially telephoto lenses and hat brims could protrude outside the blind. Cameras were not allowed until the green light in the blond came on. We could hear the infrequent crane call from time to time as we walked the half mile or so to the blind and the woman next to me whispered that she hoped we would see a few cranes. We arrived at the blind in the cold dark morning and I reflected that this was my first time ever in a blind pre dawn without a shotgun or rifle. As it got slowly lighter, it was a very overcast day and never got really bright out, the marsh grass and cattails that we thought we were seeing sway in the wind turned out to be several thousand roosting Sandhill cranes. The woman's question was answered, now the question was when and how they would leave the river. As the first few began to take off the crane cacophony became louder and louder. The cranes like to spend the night on sandbars in the middle of this particular spot in the Platte, a river that one pioneer described as "A mile wide and an inch deep". This gives them excellent protection from predators like coyotes, foxes, and cats that jerk cat owners let run wild. At around 6:45 or 7:00 the cranes began to leave in huge numbers. Some just moved around a bit and flew over to their neighbors but there was mass exodus as well. I tried to estimate numbers but gave up. I had counted a group of 100 birds and tried to extrapolate that to the massive raft of cranes in front of me but it was impossible. The official count of birds in the refuge was 210,000, down from the 400,000 a week and a half ago. I guessed roughly 15-20,000 in front of us but who knows?
We stayed until around 9am and there were still lots of cranes in the river. As I drove out of the refuge I saw hundreds in the fields dining. The Iain Nicholson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary owns 1,150 acres of prime Sandhill roosting area. Due to dams up river the area is threatened because the snowmelt does not flood the river and wash out the tree seedlings and other vegetation along the river, which results in cover for the predators I detailed above. The habitat is shrinking and Rowe/Nicholson is doing strong work to protect and expand the area under their jurisdiction. Below is a story by a NY Times reporter, definitely not fake news I can attest, that was there about the same time I was. I gave them a few extra bucks out of both gratitude and awe in addition to my blind fee, a Rowe T-shirt, and some crane cards and a pin for Kathy. I can only hope that some of the Sandhills that I see in the field off Bark Bay Road and nesting in Bark Slough are some of my buddies that took off Saturday morning to stuff themselves in the fields. I think when I paddle out there I will simply assume that these are my Nebraska buddies up for a visit.