Imagine seeing wall-to-wall sandhill cranes, numbering at least 200,000 strong, wading in the shallow water of the North Platte River. These elegant 3-foot tall birds with their stilt-like legs stand shoulder-to-shoulder along sandbars and the shallows of the North Plate River in central Nebraska. There are sometimes as many as 10,000 cranes per half mile as the birds migrate through the narrow flyway each spring.
That’s the type of scene Laramie resident Tim Banks witnessed several mornings in March during his three weeks working as a guide for Road Scholar, a nonprofit organization that provides adventures for life-long learners around the globe.
Banks was with his group of bird enthusiasts in a blind maintained by the Audubon Society and located at its Rowe Sanctuary near Kearney, Nebraska.
“It is an amazing experience,” Banks said. “We get to the blind in the dark and wait for the light. If we’re lucky, we’ll see hundreds of cranes up and down the river. About sunrise, they start leaving, and it is truly a sight — and sound — to behold. It is awe-inspiring.”
Banks, an avid wildlife photographer, decided to take his crane viewing up a notch when he had a free night between Road Scholar sessions. He reserved a night in one of three overnight river blinds maintained by Crane Trust, a nonprofit organization that protects and maintains critical habitat for sandhill cranes. The Crane Trust is located about 40 miles east of Kearney, near Wood River, Nebraska. While a bit pricey at $250, proceeds go to the Crane Trust to assist in its conservation efforts.
The blinds offer a chance to get especially close to the cranes as they come to the river in the evening, stay the night, then leave at about sunrise the next day. Because of the close proximity to the cranes, those in the blinds are required to spend the night as it is impossible to leave without disturbing the birds.
Banks wasn’t expecting the Ritz and he was prepared for rustic conditions. The 8-feet-long, 4-feet-wide and 6-feet-tall plywood structure that comprised his home for the night wasn’t a surprise. Still, it was a bit cramped, and the chilly and drizzly weather kept the comfort level on the low side.
In spite of the rather primitive conditions, Banks was excited. His hope was to both watch and photograph the interesting social interactions of the cranes.
“They’re a very social species,” he said. “There’s the dancing as part of the breeding display but they are also interesting in their interactions. They are very aggressive and territorial with threat postures and behaviors. My hope was to get some good photos of those types of behaviors. As it turned out, that didn’t work out.”
Banks was taken to the blind by a Crane Trust volunteer at around 5 p.m. He brought gear to keep him warm through the night. No heaters, stoves or even lights are allowed. The only addition provided in the wooden box was a covered latrine pail. Banks was disappointed to discover toilet paper was not a part of the package.
“The blind is small,” he said. “While they allow up to two people to stay in one, I can’t imagine having room for a second person.”
Banks knows such an experience is a roll of the dice. The evening was a bust for photography due to overcast skies and poor lighting. He hoped morning would be better.
It was a long night. Because of irregular construction, the wind came through cracks in the blind’s corners and around the windows.
The structure lacked a floor, so Banks slept on the damp ground but, luckily, he brought a tarp that helped keep him dry.
The neighborhood was noisy. Cranes calm down at night compared to their din upon arrival in the evening, but there is noise all night long. The squawking increases as dawn approaches.
Banks was disappointed, as he looked out at first light, to discover the cranes were across the river, about 70-100 meters away. It was still overcast and misty so, once again, it made for poor photography.
Banks said there is never a guarantee with wildlife but the blind itself could have been more user-friendly.
“The windows were at a height where I either had to crouch or kneel,” he said. “There was no way to really get comfortable. I decided it was designed and built by someone who doesn’t like photographers.”
Banks remained in the blind until a volunteer came to get him after the cranes flew off for a day of feeding in the nearby fields. In this case, it wasn’t until about 9:30 a.m.
“It was a bust for me,” Banks said, but he admitted he would consider trying it again next year.
He knows now, though, to bring his own toilet paper.
Amber Travsky earned master’s degrees in wildlife biology and exercise physiology from the University of Wyoming. She runs her own environmental consulting company, as well as a martial arts school. She authored “Mountain Biking Wyoming” and “Mountain Biking Jackson Hole,” both published by Falcon Books. She is the tour director and founder of the Tour de Wyoming bicycle tour, which crosses the state every July.