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Nebraska's Annual Sandhill Crane Migration

You don't have to fly to another continent to see an epic migration in progress. There is one place in America that hosts what might be one of the last great wildlife migrations we can still witness.
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Due to overgrowth of civilization, there are few epic wildlife migrations left in the world. The ability to see wildlife in their natural migratory pattern elicits visions of Africa and the great wildebeest migration, which some say is in danger as well. But you don't have to fly to another continent to see an epic migration in progress. There is one place in America that hosts what might be one of the last great wildlife migrations we can still witness.

Each March and April, half a million Sandhill Cranes fly through Nebraska making this state unique in its offering for animal and bird lovers, including legendary anthropologist Jane Goodall, known for her work with the chimpanzees in Africa.

If you're looking for something new to do, visit Nebraska now through mid-April and be in the only place in the world where you can see an annual migration of such cranes in one place.

There are two nature centers that offer guided tours for the people who flock here from all over the world to witness it, the Nebraska Nature & Visitor Center or the Audubon's Rowe Sanctuary. Visit both centers, like Goodall has each year for the past decade. We hear that her friend Dave Matthews has been here with her to see the cranes and Sigourney Weaver and Tom Brokaw have been here as well.

But the real stars here are the lovely Sandhill Cranes. We spoke to both centers to get the lowdown on this annual event, which began early this year, due to the warmer weather. This time of year both centers each can see as many as 30,000 visitors who are here for this natural event.

You may have seen some photos of this migration in National Geographic. At CarsTravelFood, we named this one of the Top Three Places to Visit in Nebraska, and we're in good company. "I've had National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore say this is in the top five places he's ever been," says Bill Taddicken, of the Rowe Sanctuary. "Jane Goodall comes here annually. She has a trip this year where people can join her."

From mid-March through the end of April, when the last of the birds should fly away, these ancient birds are here to rest on their way back north for the summer. They are one of the oldest species on the planet, if not oldest, says Taddicken. These cranes go back 10 million years, as seen in fossils found in Nebraska.

They rest in the Platte River at night, so people go to the river before the sun rises and at the end of the day. "They've been wintering in various places and they all gather in this small 90-mile strip of the Platte River, they forage and use the river for shelter," says Brad Mellema, of the Nebraska Nature & Visitor Center. "They're a land-based bird. The river is shallow so you have sandbars and these sandbars are surrounded by water, so it's a very safe place to sleep, and the water is vital."

Part of why they fly through Nebraska is that this is a major agricultural region and they fill up on a lot of the waste corn that is here. "They're great birds, they make a lot of noise and they're fun to watch, so we get a lot of people and it really is an interesting congregation of wildlife and people," Mellema says. "I've watched wildlife for years and I've never seen anything like this. It's really gaining in popularity."

If you visit the Nebraska Nature Center, they offer public decks to view the birds as well guided tours that take people out to the river in the morning or evening. "What happens during the day is the birds are in the fields and at night they all come back to the river at the same time, so for about an hour you have squadron after squadron of birds after another," Mellema says.

Last year this center had 30,000 visitors from 40 countries and all 50 states. They offer guided river tours in the morning or evening. Or you can do the evening footbridge tour, which is right behind the center. The cranes don't come as close but they do fly over and you can see the river.

The Rowe Sanctuary has been here since 1974, and they own 1,900 acres of the Platte River habitat that are preserved for cranes and other wildlife. The Rowe Sanctuary also offers morning and evening guided tours through March and the first half of April. They also have about a mile of hiking trails open during crane season.

"This is the only place in the world that this many cranes get together and people come from all over the world for this migration," says Bill Taddicken, of the Rowe Sanctuary. "Last year we had people come from 54 different countries." They've come from as far away as Tajikistan.

Taddicken points out the significance of cranes in many different cultures.

"The Japanese believe cranes are a symbol of long life and since they mate for life they are a symbol for the wedding ceremony. The Russians believe the cranes took the souls of dead soldiers to heaven," he says.

Rowe Sanctuary has four viewing blinds, that hold 30 people, which keep people hidden from the birds. In the morning people go out while it's still dark. They stay until the birds leave the river for the day.

"The birds stand in water all night for protection from predators and then shortly after first sunrise the birds take off," Taddicken says. "In the evening we watch the birds come back into the river. There are 75,000 to 80,000 birds in a five-mile stretch. If you've seen the scene in Wizard of Oz when the monkeys fly in the horizon just filling the sky, this is what it looks like."

More than the scene, it's the collective loud sound they make that is so noticeable. "The crane's voice can be heard for over a mile. It's such an ancient sound I can't say it sounds scary, these cranes have been here for 10 million years," Taddicken says.

Besides the half million Sandhill cranes that land here in the spring, several million snow geese show up around the same time. "It just adds to the excitement," Taddicken says. But Taddicken points out this remains the only place in the world where the Sandhill cranes gather in these numbers.

Other Things To Do
What do people do in between the break of dawn and sunset while the cranes have scattered for the day to feed? Many will drive along the river bank and corn fields, since Nebraska has a high percentage of corn fields.

They also visit nearby Pioneer Village in Minden, which has the largest private collection of Americana. There are 28 buildings on 20 acres with 50,000 items of historical value and art such as original Currier and Ives prints.

People who come to crane watch usually stay in the nearby towns of Kearney, Grand Island or Hastings, while Lincoln and Omaha are the two nearest large cities. Grand Island is 15 minutes away from the Nebraska Nature & Visitor Center.

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