Sandhill Cranes and Hooded Cranes in Nebraska

Sandhill Cranes Nebraska April 2011

Sandhill Cranes Nebraska April 2011

Every year tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of birds migrate along the Platte River, particularly between Kearny, Nebraska and Grand Island, Nebraska.

My man and I are completely enamored with the Sandhill Cranes. We have trekked to Bosque del Apache, south of Albuquerque and to Monte Vista in south-central Colorado regularly. But until last year we resisted going to the largest gathering grounds of the Crane flocks on the Platte River. Let’s face it – going north in March isn’t that alluring, the weather is cold-to-nasty and it is a hard 6 – 7 hours of steady driving.

Last year though, the stars aligned and we went to the sandhills of  Nebraska, from which the Cranes take their nam. We saw between fifty and a hundred thousand Sandhill Cranes – that is an educated guess – it’s hard to count them when they won’t hold still – and we felt like it was a gift of the gods to have the privilege.

We found out on that trip that at the tail end of the Sandhill Crane flock the western flock of Whooping Cranes also came through that same stretch of territory! We put it on the calendar.

The Whooping Cranes are extremely endangered, the western flock consists of 278 birds this year. The eastern flock numbers 106. That’s all of them. In the world.

We arrived in Nebraska in cold fog and rain. Barrelling east on I-80 we began seeing the Sandhill Cranes in the fields as we approached Kearny. As you can imagine in that kind of weather at that time of year we had our pick of the camping spots. LOL! Layered up from long johns and boots out to a ski jacket and gloves, my teeth chattered as I peered through the binoculars, admiring the Sandhills, the Turkeys, the Snow Geese and even the yellow-headed blackbirds. Alas no Whooping Cranes. Through the end of Thursday and all of Friday we scanned and searched and loved all the gorgeous birds, but no Whoopers.

Then on Saturday we woke to dense fog, but when it burned off around 11 a.m. the temperatures shot up to the 80s! We went to Rowe Sanctuary, one of the conservation and education centers and bought some short sleeved T-shirts as we were dying from the heat. While there we heard, that while the main Whooping Crane flock was lagging, a couple of scouts had been spotted in the area! We went out and searched and drove and searched some more – no dice.

Then around 5:00 we stopped at the Nebraska Bird Observatory just outside of Grand Island and a guy there said one of his friends had just stopped by with pictures of a Hooded Crane – taken an hour before in a field a few miles away. Note: Hooded Cranes are only seen in Japan and sometimes China, this dude was lost. We had nothing better to do so we went to the site and started searching bird-by-bird for the Hooded Crane.

A Hooded Crane - at least it wasn't a snipe.

A Hooded Crane - at least it wasn't a snipe.

We did not see it. Of course at that time we didn’t know what the Hooded Crane looked like (all of our bird books are for western hemisphere birds) other than like a crane.  So we slowly made our way back to camp, but now we were looking for two kinds of cranes and we knew there was only one – out of 50,000 – that was strange.

It sharpens your eyesight searching in that way and sure enough we spotted a Whooper! That bird was wily, lurking in the back of the main flock of Sandhills, fading into the brush at the slightest provocation, ducking down in case our binoculars or camera could be fatal. But we both saw the bird and sat watching for almost an hour.

We headed off again and just as we turned toward our camp, a flock flew in with another 2 Whooping Cranes in their midst. Both sightings were just at dusk and pictures were not an option. The startling white Whooping Cranes stand out in the brown/grey of the Sandhill Cranes so once you spot them there is no doubt of what you are seeing. They stand a bit taller too.

There you have it probably more than you ever wanted to know about our adventure to find a Whooping Crane, but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

Whooping Cranes Across Time

Whooping Cranes Across Time

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