Central Nebraska's Crane Convention - Leisure Group Travel

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Central Nebraska's Crane Convention - Leisure Group Travel

on location: midwest ❖Groups of all kinds, not just hard-corebirders, enjoy one of mid-America’sgreat annual wildlife spectaclesBCentral Nebraska’sCrane ConventionNebraska DED Photosundled in layers of thermal clothing, yourfeet tucked into warm boots, you findyourself shivering in the early-morningdarkness inside a quiet wooden shack.As you wrap the fleece blanket tighteraround you—your Thermos of coffeeand binoculars nearby—you may askyourself what you are doing in themiddle of Nebraska in the pre-dawn ofan early spring day.Then, you hear it. It starts slowly—asa quiet roar—and builds to an unimaginablevolume. As the sun crawls over thehorizon bringing first light, the deafeningsound is joined by a breathtakingsight: thousands upon thousands ofsandhill cranes waking up, shufflingabout and calling out in their plaintive,trilling call. Soon, throngs of the majesticbirds take flight, darkening the earlymorning sky.It is an astounding wildlife spectaclethat can only be truly appreciated inperson.Each year between late February andmid-April, more than a half millionsandhill cranes descend on the PlatteRiver Valley in Central Nebraska to restand recharge en route to their summerbreeding grounds in Canada, Alaska andSiberia. The cranes—a species in existencefor more than nine million years—are drawn to the valley’s abundant foodand shelter from predators.Feeding on waste corn found innearby fields, the cranes will gain up toa pound of weight during their stay inNebraska. It is weight the birds will useto complete the final portion of theirnorthern migration. Without it, thejourney would be impossible.During the six-week period, nearly80 percent of the world’s sandhill cranepopulation passes through the area. Inaddition to cranes, more than 10 millionducks and geese, majestic bald eaglesand possibly the endangered whoopingcrane migrate through the area.LeisureGroupTravel.com December 2011 35


Wildlife Viewing in NebraskaGroups traveling to Nebraska for thesandhill crane migration should seizethe opportunity to discover other wildlifeand explore the natural beauty of the state.Hundreds of American bald eagles callNebraska home. Viewing spots include:• Kingsley Dam Eagle Viewing Facility atLake McConaughy near Ogallala.• Gavin’s Point Dam and Lewis & ClarkState Recreation Area near Crofton.• Nebraska Public Power District’s J-2Hydroplant south of Lexington. For details,visit http://outdoornebraska.ne.gov/wildlife/guides/migration/eagles.aspAmerican white pelicans beginreturning from their winter feedinggrounds along the U.S. Gulf Coastto take up temporary residence at HarlanCounty Reservoir near Republican City.on location: midwest ❖The cranes, in turn, draw thousandsof spectators from around the world toexperience this amazing scene.A crane tour will likely involve somebrushes with wintery weather andprobably isn’t for the group that enjoyssleeping in and reading the paper overcoffee before starting the day. However,don’t think this trip is only for seriousbirders. The sandhill crane migration isa chance to marvel at the wonders ofnature and can include as much, or aslittle, birding as a group desires.Begin the tour by heading to GrandIsland or Kearney to give your groupa bird’s-eye view of this phenomenon.Visitors can observe the largest concentrationof cranes during morning orevening blind tours when the cranes areleaving and returning to their river roosts.Morning trips begin before dawn,Arrival dates can be as early as lateFebruary up through early April. (harlantourism.org/activities_trails/birding.php)Crescent Lake National WildlifeRefuge near Oshkosh has the third mostdocumented number of bird species inthe country. Observe sharp-tailed grouseon their dancing ground throughoutApril, while peak songbird migrationoccurs mid-May. (fws.gov/crescentlake)Fort Niobrara National WildlifeRefuge south of Valentine is home to theGreat Plains bison, the black-tailed prairiedog and elk. View wildlife up-close in adrive-through exhibition pasture.(fws.gov/fortniobrara)Lee G. Simmons Wildlife ConservationPark and Safari near Ashland is a fourmile,drive-through exhibit open Aprilthrough October. Visitors feel like they’reon an actual safari, coming face-to-facewith elk, white-tailed deer, bison, pronghornantelope, wolves and waterfowl.(omahazoo.com/exhibits/wildlife-safari-park)Spring Creek Prairie Audubon Centersouth of Lincoln includes more than 350plant species and 170 bird species onmore than 600 acres of rare, native tallgrass prairie, springs, wetlands andponds. (springcreekprairie.org)as viewers have to be in the blindsbefore the sun rises, and evening tripsstart before sunset. The blinds, unheatedwooden structures with rectangularviewing holes, provide panoramicviews of large flocks of cranes.The Nebraska Nature & VisitorCenter near Grand Island offers guidedblind tours, guided sunset tours on itsfootbridge, an interpretive center, naturetrails and a 35-foot-tall observationtower.Your group can also reserve guidedblind tours at the Rowe Sanctuary andIain Nicolson Audubon Center nearKearney. This wildlife sanctuary hasexceptional educational displays and anindoor viewing area.Fort Kearny Recreational Areaprovides a different viewing experienceat sunrise or sunset. An old railroadbridge spans the river, allowing you towatch cranes as they fly overhead.Day-time excursions can be plannedand offer the opportunity to see thecranes feeding, preening and dancing inthe fields.Avid birders may want to observe theprairie chicken spring courtship rituals.Male prairie chickens, found in thegrasslands of Central Nebraska, performan intriguing courtship display characterizedby stomping feet, towering leapsand resonant booming noises.Other travelers may want to learnmore about the cranes at any number ofart exhibitions, museum displays, eventsand festivals, including the 42nd annualRivers and Wildlife Celebration fromMarch 15-18—the nation’s longestrunning wildlife festival.Some groups may get their fill ofbirds after viewing the cranes. Fortunately,the area boasts many appealingattractions.Visit Grand Island to experiencepioneer life at the Stuhr Museum ofthe Prairie Pioneer, which includes an1890s railroad town. Grand Island hasa variety of art galleries, specialty storesand interesting restaurants such asSin City—where the burgers are sinful.Fort Kearny State Historical Park,a good place for crane viewing, appealsto military history buffs. Located on theThe Stuhr Museum of the PrairiePioneer preserves Nebraska’s past.36 December 2011 LeisureGroupTravel.com

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