Finally…A Place to Count Cranes on the North Platte River
Opening Up the Landscape
In March of 2007, several of my colleagues and some volunteers set out to do something that had not been done before, at least not along the North Platte River. We hoped to get a count of the number of Sandhill Cranes coming into roost on the North Platte River within a 3 mile stretch of the river east of the Hershey North Platte River bridge. This stretch included two miles of river on the North River Wildlife Management Area (WMA) and an additional mile of river to the east on some private land that we had worked on with grant funding from the Nebraska Environmental Trust Fund.
Clearing Russian olives and eastern red cedars, along with a few cottonwoods close to the river’s edge was done to “open up the landscape” in hopes that more cranes would roost in that stretch. We had also cleared all trees from a small island on the WMA. Located within the Platte Confluence Biologically Unique Landscape, as identified within the Nebraska Natural Legacy Plan, this stretch of river was an important starting point for work that we hoped we could continue up and down stream.
We arrived at North River WMA two hours before sunset, found places to “hunker down” out of sight but close enough to see the cranes landing in the river. The show wouldn’t start for some time, and waiting in anticipation made an hour seem like a whole day. Fortunately there were other things to look at. White-tailed deer and Wild Turkeys are common in this area. Once we settled in, they began to move around, giving us great looks at them as they fed and then drank from the river. A flock of Greater Prairie-chickens, coming from the hills two miles to the north flew overhead and over the river, heading to the same crop fields that the cranes were feeding in. Mallards, Northern Pintails, Gadwalls, American Wigeons and Green-winged Teal zipped past us from time to time and we observed some “courtship flights” by the pintails, where one hen leads many males on amazing chases, trying to find out which male is “the fittest”. The last one by her side gets to stay there, at least until the next courtship flight. Cardinals, juncos, sparrows and various woodpeckers made their presence known with call notes, and on occasion some of them would pop up nearby to look at us. We could tell that they were like “we can see you….we know you’re still there…..” which was honestly entertaining in its own way. Bald Eagles, Red-tailed Hawks and gulls passed by from time to time as well, along with a Great Blue Heron or two.
In the distant crop fields we could hear muffled calls of Sandhill Cranes and occasionally we would see a small flock take flight, only to land again. “Any time now” we thought. The muffled calls of the cranes got progressively louder and more consistent. The birds were getting ready to start the show. And here they came…sort of…Sandhill Cranes do some interesting things as they head to the roost. They all take flight from the crop fields or other feeding areas, circle around, head towards the river and then land in a distant field or meadow. I call this “staging”, I don’t know if there is a technical term for it or not, but they fly closer to their roost site, but then sit down for a bit. The sounds now were consistently loud as they had gotten closer. Then it started with small groups of 10-20 birds working towards the river, coming in just higher than the trees along the river they approached and then turned to follow the river downstream and out of sight. Soon there were groups of 50-100 doing the same thing, as if they saw that the “scouts” had successfully dropped into the river bed. In a manner of minutes from the first groups there were now thousands of birds in the air, circling above the river, some choosing to head up or down stream, others descending into the shallow river channels in front of us. As the sun set and light began to get dimmer, more and more birds came in. It seemed as if each group came in lower than the last. Some of them were so close to us in the air that we could literally FEEL the rattling calls hit our chests. As they continued to approach, the birds in the river progressively got louder, partly due to an increase in the number of birds calling, partly due to “excitement” of the birds increasing, and partly due to the approaching darkness calming all other sounds. Some dancing was observed from time to time, but the show really consisted of the approaches, circling and arrivals.
By dark, we had estimated that 30-35,000 birds had flown past us or landed within the three mile stretch of river. Birds continued to come into roost well after our eyes decided that it was too dark to see them anymore. Fortunately in the near total darkness, we could still see the trail to follow back to the vehicles, or at least for a couple hundred yards towards them until we could turn on a light (cranes will spook and fly if lights are visible from their roosts). As a Great Horned Owl voiced his approval of us leaving the riverside, we headed back to our vehicles in the parking lot. We shared our collective stories from several different spots along the river. A raccoon here, a possum there, and many deer and turkeys were observed. And WHAT A SHOW on the cranes, wish everyone could enjoy the show here!
See It For Yourself
Now people have that opportunity! We have set up a public crane viewing blind on the SE corner of North River WMA. It is available on a first come, first served basis and has room for about 8 adults and supplies. There is a new parking lot on the NE corner of the WMA and a ½ mile long trail to get to the viewing blind. From Hershey, head north on N Hershey Road 3 miles, then turn right and go east 2 miles on Wildlife Road. The parking lot will be on the south side of the road. We have a map and a set of rules that is available upon request via email at email@example.com. This is truly a show that all outdoor enthusiasts should see at least once. Trust me when I say it will be time well spent.
Biologist, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission