How was your recent trip to Rowe Sanctuary?

My ears are still ringing from the continuous and raucous din from the hundreds and thousands of sandhill cranes that we saw and heard(!) during our overnight stay in a small blind on the edge of the Platte River.  Bob Waldrop and I were on a six-day quest to photograph sandhill cranes during their spring migration and what better way to witness this than spending a night in an unheated plywood box without lights or heat in 35-degree weather. Did I mention the toilet was a bucket? Why would anyone want to experience this “luxury” next to a river filled with roosting cranes? The answer, to be one with nature, in the middle of a huge crane migration with all its defining sights and sounds. It was awe inspiring!

The blinds were part of the Rowe Sanctuary which is located on the south edge of the Platte River about 15 miles southeast of Kearney, Nebraska and is operated by the Audubon Society. Audubon holds many acres of land along the river, a visitor’s center, several public viewing blinds, and four overnight photography blinds which can be reserved and “rented” for overnight stays. The overnight blinds, located very close to roosting locations, are very popular and generally fully booked during the spring migration. Volunteer guides use 4-wheelers to transport people to the blinds in late afternoon and back to the visitor’s center in the morning after the birds have leave the roosting area.

The Kearney area is considered a world class sandhill crane viewing location and the surrounding corn fields are a critically important feeding area for cranes, geese, and the 300 endangered whooping cranes during their spring migration. Birds that winter throughout the southern portions of the U.S. follow a historic migration pattern that funnels vast numbers to the Platte for up to six weeks of fattening-up before they head off to wide ranging breeding areas in Canada, Alaska, and Siberia. It is estimated that half a million cranes pause here in March and early April during their migration and is the greatest crane concentration in the world. Aerial counts done along a 70-mile portion of the Platte River indicated there were over 200,000 cranes in the area shortly before our visit. We saw cranes flying and feeding everywhere as we drove around the sanctuary and surrounding farm land. We also had the opportunity to observe and photograph other birds, deer, and one beaver during our visit.

During the day, the cranes feed in corn stubble fields, returning to the river just before dark to roost.  In many locations, the Platte is braided and very shallow, providing an ideal roosting environment for the birds. The old-timers used to say the Platte was “an inch deep and mile wide,” which is only a slight exaggeration. The Rowe Sanctuary is in an ideal roosting location and is used by thousands of birds. The birds return in small groups or as large “clouds” of swirling birds and “parachute” down to the water to join others in tightly packed groups that huddle in a few inches of water. We found that some birds returned in the waning moments of daylight, making it too late for photography. But the sounds and sights were wonderful.

The Crane Trust, which is a non-profit organization located about 30 miles east of Kearney, also has viewing platforms and blinds that are available for photography. The organization has a great visitor’s center near the river and helpful staff. Their main function is scientific study and habitat protection along the 70-mile stretch of the Platte for the benefit of migrating birds.

Other than the blinds, the photography consisted of driving farm roads in the area and photographing from the car. Nearly all the fields were private property and the cranes could not be approached, but decent feeding shots, and occasionally flight shots, could be obtained from the car with our longest lenses. Unfortunately, the weather during our stay was not helpful for photography due heavy cloud cover most of the week. We lost a full day due to rain and had only a half day of sunshine.

One last note: While Nebraska is not usually thought of as a place that is friendly to wildlife, ironically it is the only state in the nation that does not allow hunting of sandhill cranes. Maybe the cranes know?