The crowd grows quiet of its own accord. In the absence of speech, the only sounds are the click of a camera shutter, fabric rubbing against itself and a susurrus of Sandhill Crane calls.
The Iain Nicolson Audobon Center at Rowe Sanctuary, located near Kearney, Nebraska, provides visitors a unique annual spectacle from February 15 to April 15. In this space of time, thousands of Sandhill Cranes stop over in the Platte River Valley while on their northbound migration. The location is ideal for the cranes to recover and revive before the flight into Alaska and Eastern Siberia, where they will copulate and lay two eggs.
The Platte River plays a central role for cranes and crane watchers alike. The river is braided, meaning it contains several streams that intersect and cross one another as they move across the flat landscape. The result is extremely shallow areas and plenty of sandbars—exactly the conditions in which cranes prefer to sleep to avoid predators such as coyotes.
The cranes are scattered and irregular at best in the daylight hours. The evening is when the cranes gather in the middle of the Platte River. The Platte is where Rowe Sanctuary has its blinds: long sheds with rows of portholes facing the river. Visitors can attend evening or morning viewings. Two volunteers take guests down a short path to one of three blinds, giving them warning not to make loud noises, use flash cameras or stick arms out of the portholes. Cranes are hunted in every state besides Nebraska and are wary of humans and their guns.
During the evening viewing, visitors arrive at the blinds before the cranes, giving the photographers time to set up tripods and everyone else to find a porthole and make sure their phones are turned off or on silent. Few want to be the person whose ring scares away the cranes.
The volunteers answer questions while visitors mill about the portholes and zip up coats against the dropping temperatures. The setting sun and passing ducks act as openings to the main event.
The cranes begin to arrive from the east, crossing over the blinds in Vs and groups of two or three. People still themselves when the repeating “churr” picks up volume and frequency. Eyes lift to find the birds’ shapes. Cameras spring to action. None of the cranes initially choose to land in the blinds’ stretch of river, instead swooping low over the wind-ruffled stream before veering off to another part of the Platte. A few viewers wonder whether any will land nearby, mentally urging the low-flying cranes to billow their wings, splay their legs and land like parachutes into the river.
The cranes and trees grow blacker in silhouette against a sky vivid with orange and pink. When a group of cranes does land, they settle too far upstream and too late in the evening to be seen clearly. The viewers make do with watching more cranes fly under emerging stars. Both seem to come in incalculable numbers.
The walk back to the parking lot is identified by cold winds, skies heavy with stars and red-tinted lights. Cranes can’t see the red light and aren’t disturbed by its presence.
The cranes have traveled from their wintering grounds in areas such as Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Their main goal while in Nebraska is to gain weight for the journey north. During the day, flocks scatter across the surrounding farmland, ignoring cows and staying a safe distance from the road as they pick over agricultural fields. The cranes are omnivores and eat whatever they can, mainly corn and soybeans left on the fields. Snails, grass seeds, worms, grubs and small snakes are all fair game. By the time they leave, the cranes gain 20 percent of their weight.
The Rowe Sanctuary considers the cranes their most important guests. The area is vital for the cranes’ health as they migrate, and every effort is made to keep them unstressed by human activity. Most of the Sanctuary’s revenue comes from the crane season, allowing it to continue programs for the rest of the year. Kearney too receives welcome tourist dollars from the crane watchers. The Sanctuary information desk offers discount cards for Caribou Coffee. A crane, its red patch flaring, looks out from beside the logo.
Images of the cranes are nearly impossible to miss in the area. They appear as anything from framed photos to rhinestone on sweaters. Seeing the actual cranes at close range can almost feel surreal. Somehow the familiar red patch and tail ruffles take a new dimension when placed on a living crane.
This close range is offered to guests willing to wake before dawn. The procedure is the same as the evening viewing, though the cranes can be heard as visitors approach the blinds. They appear as huddled masses in the predawn light. Most have their heads tucked in sleep, though there are enough up and about. Calls carry across the shallow river; low sonorous sounds from adults and the higher trills of the juveniles. As the light grows, the birds become louder and more active.
Several engage in courtship behavior, bowing and performing a leap accompanied by a few strong flaps of the wings. These crane dances can also be performed to relieve stress or build bonding between monogamous pairs. Sometimes cranes leap forward with extended, clawing feet. These leaps are not courting in nature, but aggressive. The juveniles are usually the individuals displaying courtship or aggression
The two volunteers point out these behaviors as they walk up and down the blind. Carl, one of the volunteers, points out a white speckled individual in a whisper. The speckles are a sign of partial albinism, he says, then lends his binoculars to the unprepared so they can get a better look.
The sky turns lighter and cranes can be seen flying overhead. The group near the blinds froths with flapping wings until, without warning, a mass of cranes lifts into the air. The sound is deafening. They crowd the sky and split into two general groups, one headed upstream and one down. Still, plenty of pairs, threesomes or single cranes take their own directions.
Later, the two volunteers explain that they were expecting the entire group to leave the river. Instead, a good number remain in the water. They’re still lingering as their human viewers depart. They may be full from a good season of feeding, the volunteers explain, or the rough winds may convince them to stay put for a time. It’s unusual, both agree.
The unseasonably warm winter has sent several cranes on their way earlier than usual. A small group has even stayed in the valley all winter. Still, nearly all will be gone by April. It will then be another year until the cranes come calling.