It’s dark and chilly but you dressed for the occasion. Not sure what to expect, you peer through openings in your rough, van-type structure. Early morning’s first light reveals what looks like islands in front of you on the Platte River. As the sky turns a rosy hue you realize the islands really are sleeping cranes. First a few fluff up their feathers and take off. But as the sun rises the sky turns dark with hundreds of rising cranes.
It is late afternoon. You are waiting inside a windowed structure. A few birds fly towards you and land on the river a short distance away. Then, silhouetted against the setting sun, hundreds of cranes fill the glowing sky and land just outside where you are madly snapping photos.
It’s mid-March, the peak of Nebraska’s spring sandhill crane migration when hundreds of thousands of these graceful birds stop on the Platte River on their way north, mostly to Alaska. They fatten up on un-harvested grain in nearby corn fields for their long journey north but the river is a safer overnight stop from predators than the fields.
Nearly half a million cranes fly into Nebraska from late February to early April but peak time is mid March. People come from all over the world to witness the phenomenon.
You can spot cranes eating in the fields from your car during the day. But the best experience comes from snagging a reservation in a blind for the landing at dusk or the early morning rise either at the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary in Gibbon near Kearney or the Crane Trust in Wood River near Grand Island.
Their blinds are adjacent to the birds’ favorite Platte River night stays. However, the birds are wary of humans so the experience starts at the Rowe Sanctuary and Crane Trust where guides explain the dos and don’ts (no flash photography) and take you to your watching spots. You have to be in the blinds before the birds wake if doing an early morning visit or in late afternoon if watching for the incoming flight at dusk.
Some folk do both and explore central Nebraska’s terrific 1800s to turn of the last century recreated villages and museums between their crane watches.
Fly into Omaha Eppley Airfield and rent a car. You will have an easy 2.5 hour drive on I80 to Grand Island or to Kearney about half an hour further west. Both towns are just north of the Interstate on historic Lincoln Highway (US 30 in Nebraska). Dedicated in 1913 it was the first highway to cross the US and went from NYC to San Francisco.
You might want to start in Kearney to stop at the Great Platte River Road Archway Museum that spans I80. At the Archway, an unusual, fun.museum, you see vignettes about the area that begin in 1848 with Fort Kearney. Take Exit 275 if coming from the east. The Archway is at 3060 E 1st St, Kearney, NE 68847.
What to do between crane watches
You are in the Nebraska plains, the frontier land that inspired author Willa Cather who grew up in Red Cloud. So imagine you’ve put on your bonnet or cap and step back in time.
Mosey over to Pioneer Village at 138 E. US Highway 6, Minden, NE. It’s nearly 30 buildings, ranging from a Pony Express Station and General Store to a farm machine building and one room school house, would easily fill half a day.
However, leave time to visit the Classic Car Collection at 3600 E. US Highway 30, Kearney. It has vintage autos from the early 1900s and rare custom cars from the mid 1900s.
East of Grand Island is the wonderful Plainsman Museum, 210 16th St. in Aurora off US Highway 34. The main building has recreated shops and the grounds include a blacksmith, school and home.
Food and lodging
Grand Island is a fairly large town with lots of food and lodging choices. However, the Crane Trust outside the city has a few legacy cabins with a B&B type arrangement and special excursions so you can stay close to the Platte River and its cranes. Crane Excursion reservations go quickly.
For other restaurant and lodging suggestions go to the Grand Island Convention and Visitors Bureau.
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