Birding Nebraska: Cranes, Pelicans, and Prairie Chickens

Photo by Brad Mellema Read more about birding in Nebraska at https://www.offbeattravel.com/nebraska-birding-cranes-pelicans-prairie-chickens.html

While I expected my first birdwatching tour to begin in a dark blind, first I was directed into a brightly lit room and preemptively chided. "Nothing happens in the viewing blind that hurts my cranes," said Karen Krull Robart, glaring around the room. After 12 years of watching out for these birds, Robart, special events manager of the Crane Trust in Grand Island, Nebraska, feels justifiably possessive. The light from your cell phone? Conversations above a whisper? Expect ejection from the blind. And if your camera looks like it might even think about flashing, she's happy to cover it with black electrical tape.

Welcome to birding. A few days in Nebraska and I increased not only my appreciation of birds, but tripled my knowledge of birdwatching etiquette.

The trip was well worth the stern lecture. Every year between March and early April more than 500,000 sandhill cranes converge at Nebraska's Platte River, fattening up on corn waste to fuel their migration to Alaska, Canada and Siberia. For nature lovers, the sight and sound of thousands of these four-foot-tall birds landing, dancing, sleeping, squawking, and taking off in great clouds is a spiritual experience. Without passionate defenders like Robart, the cranes' habitat would shrink to nothing.

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Crane Viewing

Did I mention birding starts early?

Afraid I would oversleep, I set two alarms and ordered a hotel wakeup call for 4:30 a.m. And I did this three days in a row, which for a non-morning person like me is a real accomplishment.

Two early mornings were spent crane viewing, one at Rowe Sanctuary in Kearney, and the other at the Crane Trust. Both had roomy, comfortable blinds -- or as comfortable as you can get on a cold morning -- with room to stand or sit. Rowe had a portapotty outside the blind. At the Crane Trust, birdwatchers just have to hold it. Coffee drinkers, beware.

When you're looking out a blind at a huge number of moving cranes it's hard to count them. But our guides at Rowe -- Kearney resident David Hull and Gail Mayo, who'd come all the way from Fairbanks to volunteer for three weeks -- estimated 80,000 birds were in the sanctuary the morning I visited.

The Crane Trust, about 40 miles from Kearney, is newer to the tourism biz than Rowe, having been strictly a scientific and research facility until four years ago. Chuck Cooper, CEO since 2010, gave my group a personal tour. The former pharmaceutical VP played up Grand Island's rivalry with Kearney. "They claim to be the sandhill crane capital of the world" he said. "But we have more birds."

Under Cooper's direction, the Crane Trust recently built two cabins on its secluded land. They now offer a three-day crane safari, which involves crane watching in the VIP blind, hiking, tours guided by scientists, lodging in the new cabins and an up-close look at the bison herd the trust is reintroducing to the prairie.

Photo by Brad Mellema Read more about birding in Nebraska at https://www.offbeattravel.com/nebraska-birding-cranes-pelicans-prairie-chickens.html

Prairie Chickens

While cranes are big business in Nebraska -- Cooper estimated they bring in between $10 and $25 million per year -- prairie chicken tourism is just taking off. A dozen years ago, Angus Garey discovered a lek on his cattle ranch outside McCook, Nebraska. A lek, Swedish for party ground, is where male greater prairie chickens strut their stuff to wow the hens. Over the past four years, Garey has developed Prairie Chicken Dance Tours. For $100, visitors get an orientation to prairie chickens, transportation to and from the blind on Garey's property, a few hours of chicken viewing and breakfast at a local diner.

Prairie chickens are private birds. About 17 inches long with a 25-inch wingspan, they spend most of their lives hidden in tall grass on undeveloped patches of land. They only come out into the open when it's time to attract a mate. Unlike cranes, the prairie chicken has no organization devoted to its welfare. Garey calls the chicken an "underbird." "Their habitat is where nobody goes," Garey said. He claims 95 percent of the people in McCook have never seen a prairie chicken.

We quietly walked to the prairie chicken blind under a cold, clear, starry sky. The blind is an old cattle stock car with black net over the windows so the prairie chickens can't see in. We sit still in the freezing dark. Just before dawn, we hear it: the distinctive three-note booming of the male prairie chicken, which sounds like somebody blowing over the top of a bottle. As the sun comes up, we see half a dozen males, vying for dominance. As they boom, bright orange air sacs inflate on the sides of their neck and two feathered antennae called pinnae raise up on the backs of their heads. They do a funny foot-stomping run, taking short steps, sometimes hitting each other's chests and flying up with a great fluttering of wings.

Booming is a call to hens, and usually it works. At orientation, Garey told us that when a hen walks through this group of strutting males, "it's like Raquel Welch walking through a junior high boys' PE class." Alas, during our visit the hens were a no show. After a couple of hours, the chickens, worn out, flew off to get on with their day.

White Pelicans

Several other types of birds also migrate through central Nebraska, including white pelicans. The North Shore Marina in Republican City is a good place to see them. I caught a boat ride with Jan and Keith Rodehorst, owners of the marina, to see about 30 pelicans up close.

At peak times, hundreds bob on the Harlan County Lake. Pelicans are usually associated with the sea, but when it comes to breeding they're prairie birds. This gang was headed for Canadian prairies to breed and nest. In January, Jan said, hundreds of bald eagles fill the bare trees when the lake is frozen, taking advantage of fish trapped in the ice.

Nebraska is often dismissed as a flyover state. But take a tip from the birds and land for a while. Getting up at dark-thirty to sit in nature -- chilly, quiet and greatly outnumbered by large birds -- stops the usual whirl of modern life cold.

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Teresa Bergen lives in Portland, Oregon and writes about health, fitness and travel. She's the author of Vegetarian Asia Travel Guide. In addition to writing, she teaches yoga and group fitness classes. You can learn more about Teresa at TeresaBergen.com

Photos courtesy of Brad Mellema

Published: September 22, 2015


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