Birding at the Audubon Rowe Sanctuary is indescribable for one reason: cranes. Registration opens every January, so early winter is the time to plan!
Okay, fine. I said the site was indescribable, but I’m going to describe it anyway. Yeesh. Tough crowd.
Technically, the name of this site is the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary, but the title would NOT fit. Wowza. However, just like the number of characters in the name of this amazing Audubon center, the cranes that can be seen here are found in surplus! (Because ya know, there are surplus letters in the name of the center.) If you want to learn more about crane identification before you visit, check out our article!
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Hotspot Name: Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary
Managing Organization: Audubon Nebraska
Facilities: Restrooms, Trails, Picnic Area, Bird Blinds, Bird Feeders
Fees: Free Admission
$50 for morning/evening tour and blind
$100 for a photography tour
$250 for photography blind
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If you plan to visit, you will want to bring a spotting scope. Our recommendation:
To see a full list, click here!
eBird Hotspots for the Audubon Rowe Sanctuary
There are ample places to bird in and around Audubon's Rowe Sanctuary. Make sure to give a couple of the local hotspots a visit during your time there.
Rowe Sanctuary - https://ebird.org/hotspot/L374619
Bassway Strip WMA - https://ebird.org/hotspot/L561191
Plautz Crane Viewing Deck - https://ebird.org/hotspot/L508636
Windmill SRA - https://ebird.org/hotspot/L998394
Rowe Pond - https://ebird.org/hotspot/L5677088
Fort Kearny SRA - https://ebird.org/hotspot/L5677088
Fort Kearny SRA Bridge - https://ebird.org/hotspot/L1111719
Fort Kearny SHP - https://ebird.org/hotspot/L516594
When to visit the Audubon Rowe Sanctuary
The best time to visit Rowe Sanctuary is in the spring. From March 8th to April 1st, you can view peak crane migration. However, to enjoy the largest concentration of cranes, visit during the last week(s) of March. The best time to get a glimpse of Whooping Cranes in the area is during the first week or two of April.
Number of bird species at the Audubon Rowe Sanctuary
The Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary has a bird list of over 230 species of bird! The official checklist kept by the sanctuary lists 224 species, but eBird data indicates 232 species have been documented within the bounds of the site.
Notable birds at the Audubon Rowe Sanctuary
Wood Duck, Sandhill Crane, Whooping Crane, Upland Sandpiper, Piping Plover, Interior Least Tern, Black Tern, Red-headed Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Willow Flycatcher, Bell's Vireo, Blue Jay, Sedge Wren, Marsh Wren, Gray Catbird, Brown Thrasher, Eastern Bluebird, American Goldfinch, American Tree Sparrow, Harris's Sparrow, LeConte's Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow, Bobolink, Baltimore Oriole, Dickcissel
Audubon Nebraska also hopes to improve the habitat in and around the sanctuary to attract and benefit Greater Prairie-Chicken and Henslow's Sparrow as well. If you want to be directed toward a local Greater Prairie-Chicken lek, contact the sanctuary staff or volunteers. Or, reach out to me, and I can send you some tips! (I take an annual trip to see the Sandhill Crane migration!)
How to birdwatch around Audubon's Rowe Sanctuary
If we are all being honest, you came to Rowe Sanctuary to see the cranes. So, we will focus our birding information on seeing this wonder of the natural world. First, when planning your visit, book the morning blind tour at a minimum. Why? The morning takeoff is an overload of the senses and will lodge itself into your memory. FOREVER. I cannot emphasize this enough. DO A MORNING BLIND TOUR! There is also an evening blind tour, but we personally find the morning tour to be our favorite. Want to book it? Click here!
However, if you cannot do a morning blind tour for some reason, make sure to spend a morning or an evening at either the Fort Kearny Bridge or the Plautz Crane Viewing Deck. These will provide great views of the morning takeoff or the evening roost returns. Both of these are still spectacular and give you the crane bumps. (Crane bumps are like goosebumps but created from spectacular crane viewing.) If you want to spend time watching cranes 'dance,' driving the roads with cornfields can offer great glimpses from your vehicle. You may even get lucky and find a Common Crane!
After you have done ample crane viewing, take the trails around Rowe to enjoy some riparian passerines (songbirds), then head towards Fort Kearny SRA and Fort Kearny SHP to enjoy the trails of those recreation and historic sites. You will still be able to enjoy cranes passing overhead at all these birding sites, so do not be dismayed.
Reading list for the Rowe Sanctuary
Learn Sandhill Crane Natural History - https://amzn.to/3A34psv
Identify Sandhill Crane Behavior - https://amzn.to/3qtHxPW
Cranes of North America and the World - https://amzn.to/3qvbOxA
Life as a Baby Sandhill Crane - https://amzn.to/3GwHOan
Birding the Nebraska Sandhills - https://amzn.to/3I3qOZu
How many cranes migrate through the Platte River?
This is a tough flocking question. However, according to USFWS, the Central Platte River Valley abundance estimate for the Sandhill Crane in 2021 was 782,642. The 3-year average abundance estimate for this area was over 910,000. These are not all concentrated near Rowe Sanctuary. However, the sanctuary typically has the greatest morning roost concentrations due to the river roosting habitat. This is not the total Sandhill Crane population for North America; it is merely the largest population made up of two to three subspecies. Over 80% of this population bottlenecks through the Central Platte River Valley.
Bring a camera like the Sony RX10 IV!
To see a full list, click here!
What is the total population of Sandhill Cranes?
Why must you ask the toughest of questions? Ugh. However, the total population of Sandhill Cranes in North America is likely 800,000 to over 1,000,000 birds. Why is it a tough question? Because these are very broad estimates across multiple crane populations!
Watch the Sandhill Cranes Live!
Sandhill Cranes Flight Migration Video
Visit the Iain Nicholson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary
Finding the Rowe Sanctuary is fairly easy, but after spring rains or snows, you may need a 4x4 vehicle to travel down the gravel roads that provide access. To reach Rowe Sanctuary from Kearney, take I-80 eastbound to exit 285/Gibbon/Lowell Rd. Then turn south (right) onto Lowell Rd (10C) until you reach Elm Island Rd, which is on the west side of Lowell Rd, after you cross the Platte River. Follow this road to the entrance!
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