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The Great Sandhill Crane Migration

A Lesser Sandhill Crane gives Zach the stink eye!
A Lesser Sandhill Crane gives Zach the stink eye!

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A Visit to the Rowe Sanctuary in Nebraska!

During the peak season of March 2022, I visited the Audubon Rowe Sanctuary in Kearney, Nebraska. This Audubon sanctuary is known for hosting between 750,000 and 1,000,000 Sandhill Cranes during the spring migration. To me, the Rowe Sanctuary is one of the 7 Wonders of the Natural World. There are not many places you can see 3 ft tall birds in numbers close to one million individuals, in a single place, at a single time. To many, it seems almost sacred. When you speak to the volunteers at the Audubon center, you hear stories of traveling thousands of miles each year to volunteer for their 10, 15, or over 20th year. The kind of dedication it takes to volunteer as an almost full-time job is impressive... until you see the spectacle. Then you realize how much of a privilege it would be to sit in the crane blinds almost daily, every spring migration.

I arrived in Kearney quite late on a Saturday night with few options for lodging. Camping at Fort Kearney SP or SRA is always a good choice, but with temps below freezing, I was not prepared for camping in such temperatures. Instead, I found an outdated roadside motel, similar to the opening scene of any 90's scary movie, and I went to sleep for four short hours. Why only four hours? You have to beat the cranes to the sunrise. As the sun comes up, if you are still and quiet, you can witness the flocks of cranes departing their night roost on the Platte River. However, if you are not fortunate enough to get a blind or be on private property, you are at the whim of fellow crane admirers. My advice? Get a blind at the sanctuary. Between dogs and babies being out in sub-freezing temperatures, the cranes were deterred from the public viewing areas. Simple measures could be taken by Fort Kearney SRA, but there is not a massive investment in the area by the state of Nebraska for the cranes. Even with the inconsiderate masses that scared away the cranes, I got to enjoy a morning liftoff with a good friend. It was a cold, windy, crane-filled sunrise.

I lek it lek that, (I lek it lek that)

A less than stellar road to see a lek in Nebraska!
A less than stellar road to see a lek in Nebraska!

After the morning liftoff, I led the smallest convoy to a location that has previously held a small Greater Prairie-Chicken lek. It was not a road for 2wd, but luckily this convoy had capabilities for the deeper sands of the road. It took a single trip up and back on the road lined with native grasses, but as the convoy was returning to the starting point, I spotted three Galliformes (gamebirds) flying across the road. I traced their flight path back to a hill where a lek may find the morning sun warmth that encourages the goofy dances of these fantastic birds.

A Greater Praire-Chicken flies off of a lek in Nebraska.
A Greater Praire-Chicken flies off of a lek in Nebraska.

On the crest of this sun-covered hill, I saw a single bird bent over, orange sacs inflated, with what appeared to be two horns protruding from the top of its head. While they are not actually horns but feathers, they still give a convincing look! Faintly, I could hear the low, deep whistling sound that is produced from this breeding display. Some refer to this spectacle as booming, so I guess you could say I witnessed the purest form of the term 'boomer.' And what a boomer it was!

Through the tall native prairie grasses, I could see this lone 'boomer' Greater Praire-Chicken on its lek!
Through the tall native prairie grasses, I could see this lone 'boomer' Greater Praire-Chicken on its lek!

An unusual crane sighting

After enjoying this single bird show, I went back to enjoy some cranes. Upon doing so, I was fortunate enough to use the new roadside crane blinds! These are easy pull-up locations that use some crude but effectively built viewing and photo blinds. While photographing the top crane in this post, I started looking through the rest of the flock. Upon reaching the furthest part of the blind, I saw a darker crane, and I decided to investigate further. (Quick side note, if there is a blind, do not view and photograph cranes OUTSIDE the structure. It may scare the cranes, hence the point of a blind. I definitely saw this happen. Ugh.)

A melanistic Sandhill Crane next to a normal-looking Sandhill Crane.
A melanistic Sandhill Crane next to a normal-looking Sandhill Crane.

While photographing this crane, I initially thought this bird was stained or possibly oiled. However, upon closer inspection, I have decided that this individual is exhibiting a pigment condition of excessive melanism. We refer to these individuals as being melanistic. The excess melanin pigment makes the bird appear darker, including feathers and bare parts. That is what this individual showed, which is what helped seal my suspicions! If I am wrong, and this bird was involved in some incident, reach out and let me know!

If you are unfamiliar with Sandhill Cranes, you may be tempted to see larger cranes or rusty-stained cranes and assume you are seeing different age classes. However, size is not useful for aging cranes during spring migration. There are no juvenile cranes in the flocks at this point, as baby cranes will not be hatched for many more months. What you might be seeing in size differences is related to the subspecies the crane belongs to. Greater and Canadian Sandhill Cranes are larger than the diminutive Lesser Sandhill Crane, which makes up most of these large migratory flocks. You can learn more about each using the links provided.

A Goodbye

Leaving Rowe Sanctuary is never fun. But, after a day filled with cranes, prairie-chickens, and live videos, I was forced to put the cranes in my rearview mirror. However, if you have the opportunity to stay for multiple days at Rowe Sanctuary, go to an evening landing as well as a morning liftoff. They are very different experiences but both will leave you in awe. Which is how I always leave. In awe.


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