Sandhill Cranes and Kearney Nebraska
Trilling. The sound of thousands of cranes coming home to their temporary sanctuary in the shallow waters of the Nebraska Platte River Valley. Very showy, and noisy, they are.
I’d wanted to witness their migration for some time. I knew I’d fall in love with their in-person beauty when we planned this quick, one-night stand in Kearney Nebraska for the middle of March. I’d seen their regal photos that captivated me. What I didn’t anticipate was the sound.
Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology tells us that “Sandhill Cranes give loud, rattling bugle calls, each lasting a couple of seconds and often strung together. They can be heard up to 2.5 miles away and are given on the ground as well as in flight, when the flock may be very high and hard to see. They also give moans, hisses, goose-like honks, and snoring sounds.”
They’re also are among the world’s oldest living birds. And one of Mother Nature’s most successful life forms. They’ve outlasted millions of species (99 percent of species that ever existed are now extinct).
I truly love birds. Some for their plumage, some for their grace and beauty in flight, and some for their facial expressions (I like to tell myself they’re interacting with me.) What I didn’t expect was to fall in love with the sound of a flock of Sandhill Cranes.
Chris and I headed out to Kearney early on a Friday morning. We made a breakfast date with an old friend who shares our love of the Pepper Pod which just happens to be off I-76 (our chosen path to Kearney) in Hudson, Colorado. It’s been around since 1913. Part of the charm of eating there is seeing their customers interact, both with the staff and with each other. It’s obvious many have been dining here for a long time — the kind of ambience you can’t buy. Makes me think the spirits of some of their prior guests are circulating among us.
I was born in North Platte, just west of Kearney, Nebraska, and moved with my family to Denver (my mom’s hometown) when I was two years old, Though I have no memory of life in Nebraska, I feel ties to this journey from my current home, to the home of my paternal ancestors in the Platte River Valley. There were many a mile my parents and siblings spent on this road between their two hometowns.
After reconnecting with our friend and filling our stomachs, we set back out on I-76, In preparation for this road trip, I’d downloaded all episodes of “Mississippi Goddam”, a true crime podcast recommended by our daughter. It did not disappoint, and, it pretty much filled the five hour drive to Kearney.
A couple hours later we were in Julesburg, a small town in northeastern Colorado. Chris has had an affinity for Julesburg for some time, no doubt in large part to the AMC Series “Hell on Wheels.” It is said that Julesburg was the town in reality. I’m immediately reminded this is exactly why we love road travel. Chris said something about stopping in Julesburg. I did a quick search on yelp.com and found a museum that looked interesting.
The Ft. Sedgwick Museum in Julesburg is a small museum jam-packed in all kinds of history: Native American, pioneers, wild west. I completely geeked out to the stories off the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. As we wandered around the collection, a charming volunteer gave us a personal tour. She told us we must see the Old Ford Garage that was right next door.
At that point, another pair of curious people wandered into the museum. She handed us the keys to the Old Ford Garage and asked us to let ourselves in and “be sure to turn the lights on so we could see the original gas pumps all lit up.” We did exactly that, and found it to be a delightful museum as well. Even has Lee Keizer’s barbershop preserved! She joined us with the other two travelers within ten minutes or so. We returned the keys to her and left feeling enriched by the whole experience. This is the Heart of America.
We drove the remaining two-three hours listening to “Mississippi Goddam” with renewed energy after a nice physical and intellectual break from driving/sitting. Came into Kearney about 4:30, and decided to have an early dinner before going to the hotel. Found the Coppermill Steakhouse (on yelp, of course) which was exactly what we wanted.
We checked into the Microtel Motel in Kearney by 5:30 pm. I’d made the reservations through www.booking.com. Have to admit I didn’t do my due diligence in cross-checking reviews on any other websites. Our room decor looked a bit tired. Though it was very clean. And for the 10 hours we were in the room, we slept well in a very comfortable bed. Above all else, the staff was very nice and gave us information on where to watch the Sandhill Cranes, what time to be where, etc.
Matthew, the manager-on-duty helped us with our plan that first evening, setting us out for the sunset show of the cranes as they return from eating and snacking in the dormant fields that surround this area. They come to rest for the evening in the shallow sands of the south branch of the north fork of the North Platte, or was it the north branch of the South Platte? I could’ve looked it up, but frankly, I enjoyed just basking in the moment and simply going where we were told.
There are a host of things to immerse in during this crane migration in Kearney. Because it was our first migration experience, we decided we just wanted to see it in a public viewing area. Matthew directed us to the Plautz Crane Viewing Platform just south of I-80 as a great place to simply enjoy the birds. We joined a good number of other humans at about 6:00 pm. As we were parking, we saw some shadowy cranes in the fields surrounding the platform in our binoculars.
Surprisingly, I noticed the unusual quiet of the humans as we awaited the anointed moment of flight. We spoke in hushed tones that gave it an air of respect for these cranes.
The sun put on quite a show for us as well. It helped that the skies were clear, even though the temperature was a bit below freezing. The veteran observers were equipped with chairs, and blankets, heavy coats, hats and gloves, binoculars, cameras. Note for the next migration road trip.
The Sandhill Cranes flew in close to 7:00 pm, initially there were just a few groups of six or seven swooping around. Chris said it was as if they were checking us out, and that once they were satisfied there were sufficient humans in attendance to witness this call of life, they began their performance in earnest. The thunderous announcement as the thousands upon thousands returned to their sanctuary gave me goosebumps. It seemed as if some were riding thermal waves that gave the appearance of surfing. It all lasts but a few minutes, inspiring us to return early the next morning.
Which we did, of course, returning to the exact same spot. After dragging ourselves out of bed at 5:30 am to make it to the viewing platform by 6:15. Once again, the sunrise was a precursor to the beauty of awakening life, the growing crane calls every bit as mesmerizing as the evening before. The trilling kept growing in waves of varying tones. It was reassuring to experience this in a time when Mother Nature seems to be telling us, in the forms of fires and horrific storms, that she’s unhappy with our care of the planet.
The choir of thousands and thousands of cranes vocalizing, their bodies filling the sky with the sun’s early morning reflection on the underside of their bodies was breathtaking. Sandhill Crane trilling en masse (click on this link for a small sampling)
After the cranes dispersed, we made our way to the car, still in a state of awe. We drove along a dirt road parallel to the viewing platform, heading east. No human structures around. And then… Chris noticed quite a stand of the cranes stopped in one field, and then I saw more on the other side. I had the feeling they were checking the field out to see if it was worth their time. Within a few minutes, they started their sounds and took off. Maybe they were checking it out for their return that evening.
After we witnessed such wonder, we stopped for a bite before we hit the road. Good Evans in Kearney was very busy, and I understand why! We took a seat at the bar. It’s a great place to sit to read people as they work and we enjoy really good food. They just so happened to have a homemade blueberry pop-tart as one of their specials. Oh my… we’ll return just for that!
Our less than 24-hour adventure to experience the magnificence of ancient/modern life felt like a complete immersion. And we are both grateful. Next time: I want to try some of the crane activities Kearney offers, like viewing them a blind.