Sandhill cranes

Sandhill cranes leave their roost on the Platte River at dawn Thursday morning. View is from the Central Plains Natural Resources Richard Plautz viewing deck.

On Sunday, I returned home from a five-day get away to central Nebraska to once again take in the sight and sounds of thousands of Sandhill cranes roosting along the Platte River. I have made a number of trips to the Ian Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary near Gibbon over the years and each one has been memorable. While I always hope to come home with a rich catch of photos, each trip is more for the sensory experience than the exposures. I take photos for the same reason others might go fishing. A bad day of fishing (or photographing) is better than a good day at the office.

Most years, I reserve a photo blind or sign up for tours in conjunction with the Audubon Kearney Crane Festival. To make sure I get a spot, I generally make reservations in January. This year, I had no idea what my schedule would look like in March, so I decided to wing it and just see what viewing opportunities I could find at public access sites along the Platte River.

Cranes from bridge

Overnight snow fall covers trees and camper at Fort Kearney SRA.

Last week, I camped at Fort Kearney State Recreation Area, which is literally within walking distance of some of the best crane viewing around. The footbridge over the Platte River on the hike-bike trail offers excellent viewing and photo opportunities. The trail links the park with the Great Platte River Road Archway Monument and other attractions in Kearney. While you won’t get the up-close shots you might get from a blind at Rowe Sanctuary or the Crane Trust near Grand Island, the panoramic view of the river from the footbridge early in the morning and at sunset can be spectacular. At dusk, massive flocks of cranes fill the western sky as they prepare to roost on the sandbars. The site and sounds of vast numbers of cranes bugling and honking as they approach the roosts in the evening or leave in the morning is extraordinary.  

Another outstanding site is the Central Plains Natural Resources Richard Plautz crane viewing deck located 1.5 miles south of  I-80 Exit 285 (Gibbon).  The site provides a parking lot away from busy traffic and is handicap accessible.

Cranes from bridge

Morning flight of Sandhill cranes from footbridge near Fort Kearney SRA.

Each year, the number of cranes usually peaks at around a half million at the end of March and the first week in April. The number of visitors who flock to central Nebraska from across the U.S. and around the world peaks about that same time too, but not this year.

Due to visitors canceling travel plans and coronavirus concerns, The Crane Trust Nature and Visitor Center closed last week and cancelled all tours.  On Sunday, Rowe Sanctuary closed down for the season and canceled all remaining tours. The annual Audubon Crane Festival scheduled to begin on Friday has also been canceled. This would have been the 50th year for the Kearney crane celebration.

Fort Kearney State Recreation Area and the Fort Kearney Historical Park were still open as of Monday, but that may change.  An attendant at the Historical Park said that a meeting is scheduled to determine whether the parks would remain open or shut down. 

Sandhill cranes

Sandhill cranes leave their roost on the Platte River at dawn Thursday morning. View is from the Central Plains Natural Resources Richard Plautz viewing deck.

As with the closings and cancellations in Omaha and Lincoln, the cancellation of crane-related tours and activities in central Nebraska will have a devastating effect on the local economies and Nebraska tourism.

Joe Burns is the main photographer for the Washington County Pilot-Tribune and Enterprise.

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