Sandhill cranes rule the roost in Nebraska each spring – Boston Herald

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I’m a full-fledged “craniac” now that I’ve spent four days awestruck at one of Earth’s most epic animal migrations — on, of all places, the wind-whistling prairies of central Nebraska.

Every year — perhaps dating back eons — about 500,000 sandhill cranes roost along the Platte River, swooping down in spellbinding squadrons and resembling both prehistoric pterodactyls and the flying monkeys from “The Wizard of Oz.” Deeply stacked in shallow water and on sandbars, the cranes’ deafening cacophony will absolutely blow your mind — at times their nonstop racket sounded like raucous crowds cheering gladiators at Rome’s Coliseum.

World-renowned anthropologist Jane Goodall, who has crane-watched here for 20 seasons, compares the feathered phenomena to the famed wildebeest migration in Africa. I too felt I was on another continent instead of in the Cornhusker State (and birthplace of Kool-Aid).

First, a little of the big birds’ background, before I divulge stringent “crane etiquette” and how to secretly spy on them with guides (and binoculars) in viewing blinds and the great outdoors. How amazing is this: Fossils place a close relative of sandhill cranes in Nebraska some 10 million years ago when since-extinct rhinos, camels and elephants roamed what was then the region’s savannas. It’s believed the sandhill cranes have migrated through this area for thousands, even millions, of years.

And on they continue, these long-necked, spindly-legged, four-foot-tall, steel-gray miracles with wingspans of six feet, yellowish-orange eyes, cherry-red patches on their foreheads, life partners, and dance moves galore. From late February to the start of April the cranes, largely arriving from Texas and Mexico, stop to fatten up in Platte River Valley cornfields for their arduous journeys to nest in Siberia, Canada and Alaska.

“It just drops your jaw on the ground,”  camouflage-clad 50-year-old corn-bean-and-sod farmer Chad Gideon enthused about the spring fling. We were about to walk on a dirt trail of his agricultural sprawl to an open-air viewing spot about 50 yards from where the birds would roost. Cranes easily spook, so we’d be out of sight and silent except for my chattering teeth in the biting 28-degree cold.

Several years ago, Chad, a colorful friendly character, started bringing tourists to this crane-ogling position on his property ( Chad is an avid duck hunter but, go figure, he swoons over sandhill cranes. (Note: It’s illegal to even disturb cranes in Nebraska.) I’d come to the Platte River Valley in mid-March — usually the peak time for crane numbers — and this sunset would be my first-ever crane show. The action always centers on sunset, when cranes return to rest on the river after the day’s foraging, and at sunrise when they take off again to peck at leftover harvests in the fields.

We patiently waited. And then, the ancient avians began streaming in, the opening act of a spectacular 90-minute grand entrance by thousands. They descended in waves — in lines of just three birds, in V-shaped formations of 40 or more, in U patterns, in squiggles, this way and that, over our heads, from sides in opposite directions, their wings underneath glinting from the sun’s reflection until they comically landed with two dangling feet in the masses. What looked like storm clouds miles away were actually swirls of more cranes coming one after another. Their thunderous, simultaneous Jurassic Park-like sounds were nothing you could imagine — piercing trills, bizarre trumpeting, booming rattles, drawn-out “karooooo, karroooo.”

At one point, magnificent cranes glided past a nearby large nest and the head of a bald eagle peeked out. Another time, a lone white swan gracefully touched down among congregating cranes and seemed perfectly welcome. Incoming cranes soon streaked across blazing fuchsia and neon orange skies. As nighttime fell, the prairie’s leafless cottonwood trees transformed into a dark fairytale forest; the cranes were barely visible but surreally clamored on. It was magical, it was primal and heck yes, it was emotionally stirring.

The next evening, I crane-gawked in the Crane Trust’s heated VIP observation blind that was nicely supplied with red and white wine. A nonprofit conservation group, the 45-year-old trust focuses on restoring and protecting the cranes’ habitat and offers a host of public programs. (One afternoon at the Visitor Center, the daughter of Muppet creator Jim Henson gave a free crane puppet performance.)

You can book a guided two-hour unheated blind tour for dusk or dawn along the Platte River on the trust’s Wild Rose Ranch. However, I joined the two-night, three-day VIP Experience which includes multiple viewings, a stay in an onsite cottage, shared catered meals, hobnobbing with wildlife biologists, documentary shorts accompanied by dessert, and a bison “safari” on the ranch’s 5,000 continuous acres. It was crane dream camp with two dozen like-minded new pals and cool, knowledgeable counselors.

This is where I realized the plumaged stars mimic Fred Astaire. Their amusing dance repertoire includes the “single-wing spin” (think of a spinning figure skater), “tuck-bob” (bobbing body with coiled neck), “bow,” “curtsey,” “minuet,” “jump-rake” (leaping crane kicks out toward dance partner) and more. Also sandhill cranes are monogamous, traveling in families with the kids and sometimes grandparents.

Crane Trust president Brice Krohn told me he’s seen migration-watching tourists in tears. “When I talk to people all over the world to explain what we have, it’s hard to put into words. Wherever you’re from in life and whatever your views are, at the end of the day, it really does down deep spark something within you. I feel it vibrates your soul.”

Like I mentioned, sandhill cranes are keen-eyed anxious birds, but then they’re legally hunted in 17 states, and a camera lens may look like a gun. If they sense anything amiss, all the cranes could soar off in a panic which is dangerous for them. So, as instructed, we switched our phones to airplane mode and lowered the brightness to prevent light from reflecting on our faces, and taped down flashes on cameras. Depending on how close the birds roosted we could be 50 to 100 yards away.  An hour before the crane activity, in single file we mutely followed guides on a short dirt path to two enclosed VIP blinds that had small hinged openings in plexiglass windows.

And then the eco-extravaganza unfolded on America’s Serengeti.

To back up, for my human self, flocking to Nebraska’s bird Shangri-La proved simple. I flew into the small airport in Grand Island, which is about 25 minutes from the Crane Trust ( and 45 minutes from the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center’s crane-viewing Rowe Sanctuary (, which is closer to Kearney’s regional airport. Either way, plan to rent a car. When you take a birding break, in Grand Island make sure to visit the impressive Stuhr Museum, where you can play with a 19th- century ping pong set and scrutinize the natal home of Grand Island native and Oscar-winning actor Henry Fonda.

During the day, nature buffs used their vehicles as blinds to peep on cranes scavenging in cornfields and trying to put on 20 percent of their body weight for their lengthy trip north. By the way, I found those unending, flat brownish-gold prairies not boring but temporarily enchanting, a Zen change from asphalt jungle cities. And how charming that passing motorists, even strangers, always give each other the “farmer’s wave” to say “hello” with one upright index finger. (The first time I thought a guy flipped me the bird.)

On my last Heartland morning, bundled up in pre-dawn darkness, I stationed myself inside a chilly Rowe Sanctuary observation blind with a volunteer wearing electric heated mittens and a “Keep Calm and Crane On” T-shirt under her puffy coat. Another tourist sported a “Certified Craniac” pin from the gift shop. At first, we only heard the cranes until their faint silhouettes appeared. Glued to my binoculars for the fourth straight day, I soon zoomed in on thousands of sandhill cranes along the river as far as I could see.

More than once, contingents of cranes abruptly lifted off in black swarms, a domino effect of chaotic flapping wings. They returned, though, perhaps initially scared by a predator such as a coyote.

Interestingly, two strolling deer cut a path directly through the throngs of cranes and the birds didn’t freak out. When a beaver swam in the river across from the cranes, dozens of them sauntered over and marched squawking alongside the furry intruder.

Best of all, during this 90-minute sunrise-plus pageantry,  gregarious cranes again crazily danced, jumped in the air, preened, strutted, gyrated and tossed twigs at mates for fun. Finally, groups of this wondrous species pointed their elongated necks toward one direction and, in dramatic sequences, as they have for millennia, took flight.

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