In March, somewhere having crossed the intangible line from Tallgrass Prairie into the Southern Great Plains, I head west into Nebraska on I-80. My destination: the Platte River to see the gathering of sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) that stop over on their spring migration from wintering refuge in the south to breeding grounds in the north—one of the largest gatherings of wildlife in the world.
As I approach Grand Island in the late afternoon, I’m not paying much attention but then realize I’m seeing sandhill cranes in adjacent fields. Crops, primarily corn, were harvested last fall, and so the cranes are free to feast on the waste grains left behind by the big harvesters.
Most cranes that stopover on the Platte are the subspecies of lesser sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis canadensis). When they eventually arrive in the north, most will stop to nest and breed in Canada’s Northwest Territories and Alaska, but many thousands of lesser sandhills, compelled by race memory, follow ancient routes across Canada, Alaska, and the Bering Strait into Siberia where they breed and raise their young.
In fall, they make the 4,000-mile journey back to wintering grounds in the U.S. southwest. Without the pressure of breeding on the northward journey, the cranes do not stopover on the Platte River in great numbers on the trip south and, in fact, take their time returning in the fall. While the cranes average 50 miles a day in spring, they loaf along while caring for young at 20 miles a day in fall.
Some greater sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis tabida) that nest in Canada and some parts of the U.S. Rocky Mountains as well as Canadian sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis rowani) that primarily nest in Canada are also among the arrivals at the Platte River stopover on their way north. However, while they differ a bit in size and weight, I find the three sandhill subspecies difficult to distinguish when viewing them at a distance in the fields.
Sandhill cranes are surprisingly heavy bodied to be so tall, over three feet, with greater sandhills topping four feet. Wingspans reach six feet. Gray plumage on the body, usually with a brown wash like a mud stain on the feathers, which it is in fact; the cranes daub themselves with mud and decaying marsh vegetation to provide a bit of camouflage to their already somewhat dun color. With feathered white throat and a red crown patch of caruncular skin, sandhills are easily distinguished from other long-legged, long-necked birds, such as herons and egrets.
Occasionally an endangered whooping crane (Grus americana) might also be seen migrating with the sandhills and stopping over on the Platte, the name coming from their “whooping” call. Standing as much as five feet tall with a wingspan of seven feet, the whooping crane is the tallest bird in North America but also one of the rarest. Never an abundant bird, the whooper became nearly extinct in 1941 when there were but 15-20 individuals. Intense recovery efforts have brought back the population—over 300 in migratory flocks and an equal number of birds in captivity for breeding and reintroduction.
I first turn south using a map I earlier downloaded and follow Platte River Drive. I pass flock after flock of cranes in the fields, occasionally “dancing,” a body language they use to converse. Many of the dance steps have been given names, such as “the bow,” “the grand-stab,” “the jump,” and “the stab-grab-wave.” Through dancing, they communicate arousal, argue over dominance, and bond with their mates. All I can discern in their dancing is the sheer joy of being a crane.
I stop at a viewing area and get out of the car, being careful not to make any noise or sudden movements. I have no idea how skittish the cranes might be. But they pay me no mind, and so I snap some photos, watch a few as they stop eating long enough to dance, and then drive on.
Coming to a junction with Alda/Juniata Road, I turn back north and cross the main channel of the Platte River, passing the Alda Roadside Viewing Site on the left. Here an elevated wooden walkway on the north shore of the river will be good for watching the cranes as they come to the river in the evening. Continuing on, I soon cross a small braid of the Platte and, just beyond, turn into the Crane Trust Nature & Visitor Center on the right.
The Crane Trust was established in 1978 as a non-profit organization working to protect and preserve habitat for migrating waterfowl along the Big Bend of the Platte in south-central Nebraska. This bend of the river is the focal point for the Central Flyway stopover where flights of birds form an hourglass shape. Birds flying north from Texas, New Mexico, and northern Mexico converge on this 70-90 mile stretch of the river, and after providing needed food and rest, the stopover sends them on their way to spread out once again on their way north, following their migratory instinct.
I pull in to the Center and manage to make a reservation for a guided morning outing to a blind two days hence. Lucky for me they have an opening—they’re usually booked days, sometimes weeks, in advance.
I ask why I’m not seeing many ducks and other waterfowl among the cranes. Martha, a volunteer at the Crane Trust, tells me that a couple of weeks earlier, “snow geese numbering two million came through.”
“Two million!”—one of the few times an exclamation point is appropriate.
She also mentions that ducks, pelicans, and other waterfowl can be seen in the Rainwater Basin to the south where several hundred wetlands cover tens of thousands of acres. Along with this stretch of the Platte River, the Rainwater Basin is also part of this stopover for migrating birds following the Central Flyway. The numbers are staggering: more than three million snow geese (Anser caerulescens), four million mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), nearly a million each of white-fronted geese (Anser albifrons) and pintails (Anas acuta), and a multitude of other migrating birds. Along with the cranes on the Platte River, the area hosts seven to nine million birds each spring, a concentration of birds occurring perhaps nowhere else in the world.
In the evening, I return to the Alda Roadside Viewing Site and mount the walkway at the shore of the Platte. I’ve read that the cranes fill the sky at dusk as they leave the fields within a two- or three-mile radius. After a day of foraging, the birds instinctively come to the river as the day wanes to stand in shallow water or on sandbars in the midst of the river. The ideal roost is a submerged sandbar surrounded by a moat of deeper water and a 360-degree view so a coyote or bobcat can be easily seen.
A little early in my eagerness, I see nothing yet. Other crane watchers arrive, and we all patiently wait for the coming.
The cloudy evening sky has just a sliver of light near the horizon where the sun has set. I strain to see something. Slowly at first, the cranes begin flying in from the west, faint specks in the sky. Then wave after wave come our way, billowing to the east. With binoculars, I can see the distant sliver of sky filled with birds on their way, many in loose V formations like geese.
Cranes pass overhead emitting riotous calls as others approach in the distance. Although when migrating the cranes fly a mile or more in the air, they are only one or two hundred feet high for the short flight from fields to the Platte. Downriver, we see where they are about to settle down, first in circles, a whirlwind of birds with each calling out to maintain contact with family members. Eventually, a few are brave enough to descend on the river, their legs dangling beneath them, ready to alight on a sandbar. The lead finally taken, the rest follow to settle in the water. With 400,000 cranes, estimated by aerial surveys earlier in the week, I watch for an hour as the cranes keep coming in swarms in the descending darkness.
On the appointed day, I arrive at the Crane Trust before dawn, wearing a heavy coat against the ubiquitous cold wind of March. Linda is to be our guide. We follow in a caravan to the end of a gravel road where we unload in the dark and follow her flashlight to the blind, a long shed with Plexiglas windows on the riverside; slots cut out and rigged as small doors can be opened for viewing. We settle on benches in the dark. Once again, waiting, typical for birdwatchers. We hear a few “honks” but cannot yet see anything.
Linda warns to not stick our zoom lens through the Plexiglas openings if we will be taking photos. The cranes have become wary traveling through states where hunting is allowed.
Slowly the night gives way to a gray dawn and we begin to see the silhouettes of cranes. They are not as close to the blind as I had hoped, but I’m sure everyone thinks that no matter how close the cranes may be. As the sky lightens I see that I’m looking at thousands of cranes. A strip of gray on the far side of the river I realize is not shore, but more cranes. A few take to the air, then others follow until a multitude lift to the sky, headed for grain fields.
The cranes will repeat the cycle everyday for a couple more weeks, putting on weight for the flight north and the strenuous breeding season. The trigger for continuing north seems to be lack of food as the field grains are depleted but also the retreat of ice on the Dakota rivers and lakes so the cranes will have open water for brief stopovers on the trip north.
I had heard talk of prairie chickens to the north in the Sandhills. Recommendations were I should look at Calamus Outfitters at the Switzer Ranch. I called and made a reservation.
From Grand Island, I head northwest on the Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway (Hwy 2) and enter the Nebraska Sandhills, for which the cranes are named. The Sandhills are grass-stabilized sand dunes covering about 13 million acres of north-central Nebraska, the largest area of grass-covered dunes in the Western Hemisphere. In the 1840s and ‘50s, wagon trains heading west followed the Platte River where it branched off from the Missouri River, which became the preferred way to Oregon and California. As the pioneers ventured up the Platte, they encountered the Nebraska Sandhills that at a distance looked like mountains. But, as A. B. Guthrie, Jr. described the settlers’ encounter in his Pulitzer-prize winning novel, The Way West,
As they drew closer, … the hills shrank, until at last they were just piles of sand forty to sixty feet high, blown up by the wind and held together by cactus and thistle and, Evans saw as he rode into them, by fine grasses that his horse kept tugging for. … He thought he knew what he was going to see, but now that his horse stood on the summit, he couldn’t believe. He couldn’t believe that flat could be so flat or that distance ran so far or that the sky lifted so dizzy-deep or that the world stood so empty.
I turn in toward the ranch at the sign for Calamus Outfitters and check in at the office where Sue Ann Switzer assigns me a small cabin. The ranch has been in the same family for five generations. In 1904, Congress passed the Kincaid Act that allowed homesteaders to each claim 640 acres in parts of Nebraska where small farms were not economical. Wasting no time, Sue Ann’s grandfather and great-uncle staked their claim in the Sandhills the same year. The serious drought in the 1930s that produced The Dust Bowl in the heart of the Southern Great Plains forced many Kincaiders to abandon their land. Those that stayed realized they had to protect the grasslands, not plow it under for crops, and instead raise cattle through management practices adapted to the ecology of the Sandhills. As a result, most of the Switzer ranch remains intact, little changed from the time of the original homestead.
As the Switzer family grew, there was the question of whether traditional ranching would provide for all. Son, Adam, wanted to return to the ranch with his family and had the idea of attracting paying visitors by founding Calamus Outfitters, initially as a hunting location that soon morphed into a family-oriented destination for outdoor recreation, including bird watching—greater prairie chickens (Tympanuchus cupido) and sharp-tailed grouse (Tympanuchus phasianellus) the main attractions.
In a perhaps unusual move for Nebraska ranchers, the Switzers partnered with the World Wildlife Fund to provide support in conserving the land through sustainable ranching and to promote a conservation ethic in the Sandhills. With the buffalo gone, one of the objectives is to keep grazers on the land, although now using cattle to mimic the buffalo’s contribution to maintaining prairie ecology. The WWF works throughout this region to preserve the landscape and the ranches of the Great Plains.
I walk to my cabin, which I have all to myself although it would sleep at least six. After settling in, which consists of throwing my bag on a bed, I head for the ranch house for dinner. About a dozen other guests have already gathered as I enter the dining area. Sue Ann’s husband, Bruce Switzer, joins us while we’re sampling appetizers. Switzer is impressive, a big man with handlebar mustache and wide-brimmed black cowboy hat.
“They had to compete to get to do the video,” Switzer says, speaking of the folks from Day’s Edge Productions who got the job from the World Wildlife Fund. “The winners showed up with hair down to their shoulders. And shorts and sandals in April. In April! (emphasizing that it was still too cool for shorts and sandals). I said to myself, ‘What’ve we gotten ourselves into.’ But they were good people, treated us well, and did a great job.”
At one poignant moment in the video, Switzer says,
We were aware the prairie chickens and the grouse were there. But we never took the time to sit down and watch them. We took people out for the first time, and I really didn’t know what to expect. The sun come up and the chickens started booming, it’s like, “My God, look what I have missed all my life.”
After dinner, I feel like a walk and head up a sandy road that circles behind the cabins. I’m quickly into the rolling grass-covered Sandhills. New spring grass has not yet emerged, so I wander through tall rust-gold mixed-grass of last year’s growth. A slight wind ripples through the grass, transforming the prairie into an undulating ocean of grass.
Willa Cather tells the stories of Swedish and Bohemian settlers in her novels, O Pioneers and My Ántonia, based on her experiences growing up in Nebraska from the age of nine when her family moved there from Virginia in 1883. In My Ántonia, orphan Jim Burden tells of his childhood friend, Ántonia, from the time he comes to Nebraska at the age of ten to live with his grandparents. When he first sees the Nebraska grasslands,
I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running. … I wanted to walk straight on through the red grass and over the edge of the world, which could not be very far away.
I set the alarm on my iPhone and am up at 5:30 the next morning. Dressed in several layers, as recommended, I walk through the dark to the office at 6:00 where the group is gathered for the outings. Dividing into two groups according to our choice, chickens or grouse (I’ve signed up for chickens), we load up in old school buses. In about half an hour, we stop just downhill from three old school buses that are used for the blind. Our small group walks by flashlight up to the bus on the left. Inside, the bus seats have been taken out, and in their places we take folding chairs and move them up to the window openings; the windows have been taken out. Again the warning to not stick camera lens through the openings.
We settle, and all is quiet. We don’t talk. We need to be quiet so the male birds will feel safe to come in.
Slowly it begins to be light. We’re looking out over a lek, as the mating display ground is called. The term, lek, seems to be short for the Swedish lekställe, surely originating with Swedish immigrants who settled the plains.
The male prairie chickens come to the lek in the spring to strut their stuff and challenge each other for the center of the display ground, basically showing off for the female and hoping to be chosen to mate.
As if on order with first light, the males fly in to land on the lek and begin their display. After a little warming up, some males raise their long head feathers, puff out their orange air sacs to make a booming noise, and stomp their feet, warning off other males and displaying for any females that may appear.
At one point, a hen shows and makes her way through the fifteen or so males, easily spotted as the one not making a display while sizing up prospective mates. By whatever characteristics the hen is looking for, it seems none of the males are up to her standards. No mating occurs. When mating does occur, most hens make their nests within two miles of the lek so that if the mating is unsuccessful or the eggs are lost to a predator, they can return to the lek to try again, for the males are there each day during the March-April season. Prairie chickens do not migrate and return to their lek year after year.
After a time, we leave the chickens to their ritual, which will go on most of the morning, and return to the ranch. Checking out, I tell Sue Ann, “It’s great you’re willing to put up with all of us, so we can also enjoy your ranch.”
“Well it helps us support the family and keep the place. It’s hard keeping and managing it. We have to fight off transmission lines and pipe lines. We managed to get a transmission line moved, unfortunately on to someone else. Sometimes ‘they’ listen, sometimes not. The birding has really been good. People coming to see birds really get it, you really do.”
With numerous efforts to protect The Sandhills and the Southern Great Plains (see sidebar), we may yet be able to save at least minimal habitat to sustain a Great Plains wildlife corridor that’s alive with its millions of migrating birds and perhaps in time bring back thundering herds of bison. As Paul Johnsgard says in A Chorus of Cranes, “They are here in part to remind us that there should always exist a few wild places on earth where only very special animals can survive.”
© Russ Manning. All Rights Reserved.
An ebook of much longer text and complete references for Southern Great Plains: The Central Flyway can be downloaded from amazon.com.