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Life on The Platte River with Deb at Kearney, Nebraska
An Overview of the Sandhill Crane's Temporary Home
From February to mid-April, a birder’s place to be could be Kearney(pronounced "Carney"), NE. Touted as the Sandhill Crane Capital of the world for forty-five years, it is home to half a million Sandhill Cranes on the Platte River during this time frame. These cranes will not be “in-your-face,” but they are definitely recognizable from a short distance. Blinds can be purchased through the Rowe Sanctuary at the Audubon Center during the day, as well as overnight for various fees, and the cranes can be seen on sandbars much nearer than the general public will ever hope to get. However, unless you book these coveted spots in January, you will not have a chance to get closer photographs of the Lesser Sandhill Crane subspecies.
Visitors are welcome, but should remain in their cars and definitely not take it upon themselves to venture on private property. These beautiful cranes are temporarily gaining weight and resting in order to go to their breeding grounds in the Arctic and subarctic, a long and grueling flight.
Where to See Birds
Not only will you see Sandhill Cranes in the area, there are other attractions for any discriminating birder. Nebraska hosts several pristine and important wildlife areas, like the Plautz viewing site on Elm Island Rd. As a matter of fact, this was the only location where I was able to observe the Yellow-headed Blackbird for a short time. Do take note that these blackbirds are often with other blackbirds, who are very gregarious, so watch your flocks carefully.
Sandhill Cranes can be seen in this area during sunrise and sunset, where they will settle on sandbars for the night. The Platte River is no more than a foot deep, but up to a mile wide in certain areas. You might even be fortunate enough, also during sunrise and sunset on the railroad bridge hike/bike trail to observe these birds as they fall in during the evening or arise during the first light of morning.
The Nebraska State Bird, the Eastern Meadowlark, will provide many chances for observation. This tall, brown bird avails itself in grassy country. When surprised, it will take flight, showing conspicuous white sides on a short tail with shallow and snappy wingbeats and short glides. When the bird perches on fenceposts or similar, the chest shows a beautiful lemon yellow, crossed by a black “V.” These birds favor pastures, prairies, edges of marshes, and meadowland.
Also to be observed, is the very similar Western Meadowlark. Both species are nearly identical, but the western variety is paler above and on the flanks, as well as more streaked with a buff color. The yellow throat reaches the malar area behind the bill, and the real clincher is when the bird becomes vocal, as the call is much different.
Almost across from the Rowe Audubon Center is a small private pond, with several varieties of ducks, like the American Wigeon the Blue-winged Teal, and the Mallard. Nebraska offers many natural birding areas, due to the fact that it is in the wheat and corn belt, so they are a number of fields and undisturbed areas where these priceless birds may rest and recover from the long flights that they endure.
Cottonmill Park, A Local Birder's Paradise
Another valuable area that should not be missed is Cottonmill Park, west of the University of Nebraska. It is good sized, and hosts songbirds as well as waterbirds. If you meet the right people, you could even be directed to the nest of a Great Horned Owl. Easily seen are the White-breasted Nuthatch, warblers, Downy Woodpeckers, Tufted Titmouse, Belted Kingfishers and their nest cavities. These observations were made in only a couple of hours, so many treasures were not even seen in the park. It is also easy to see Sandhill Cranes overhead.
Perhaps you have been enticed with what Nebraska has to offer in the spring. Take a chance, as you may not be able to see the Lesser Sandhill Crane variety, unless you travel elsewhere.
Keep your eyes on the ground and your head in the clouds. Happy birding!
© 2015 Deb Hirt