Spring Break is upon us, at least if you attend the University or local schools. It is the annual pilgrimage where winter-weary Laramie folk head for warmer weather or at least opt for a change of scenery.
Some plan for Spring Break travel weeks, and even months in advance. Others are almost caught by surprise with only the desire to get away, but with no idea on where to go on short notice. Here’s a recommendation.
One of the most magnificent spring migrations in North America is underway. The heart of this awe-inspiring spectacle is just a five hour drive from Laramie. Head east on Interstate 80 for 365 miles to Kearney, Nebraska to view the sandhill crane migration.
The cranes migrate annually from their wintering areas in Texas and other southern regions to points as far north as Alaska and eastern Siberia. In order to reach these destinations, cranes must build up enough energy to complete their long journey and to begin breeding. For the cranes, the Platte River Valley in central Nebraska is the most important stopover on this migration. As many as 600,000 of the birds visit the area each spring. The river provides the perfect spot to rest, and the nearby farmlands and wet meadows offer an abundance of food.
Imagine the scene: hundreds, if not thousands, of cranes, ducks and geese crowding the marshes, wetlands and river’s edge. It’s like a scene from National Geographic.
The best viewing is from one of the blinds maintained by the Audubon Society at their Row Sanctuary just outside Kearney. Birders from across the nation flock to the site beginning in early March and lasting through the first week of April. According to Bill Taddicken, director of the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary, they’ve have visitors from around the globe.
“We normally have birders from at least 50 countries,” Taddicken said. “This is the only place in the world with so many migrating cranes at one time. Our viewing blinds are quite popular.”
Getting a reservation for either a morning or evening slot in the blinds can be tough on short notice. As of the start of the week, openings for the upcoming week were available with booking online. Cost is $40 per person with the event lasting 2 to 3 hours.
Due to the need to stand quietly in the chill of night, the groups are mostly adult. There is no official age limit, but Taddicken said they recommend no children under age 12. On their website they also offer recommendations on attire and, before the hike into the blind, go over camera restrictions. It is important that no camera lights are visible that might startle the cranes and cause them to flush.
If slots aren’t available, there are still public viewing areas along the river. These areas typically have more distance between the viewers and the birds, but they still offer an amazing experience. The best part is when thousands of cranes take off at daylight. The din is deafening when, as if on some silent signal, the birds lift off all at once.
There’s plenty to watch during the day as well. The cranes move from the river’s edge to the cornfield stubble. The birds graze the fields in large flocks. Using binoculars and spotting scopes, viewers might even catch the male birds in their dancing displays. In their antics to prove they’re the biggest and baddest bird around, the birds stretch their wings, pump their heads, bow, and leap into the air.
Camping offers a unique experience; the birds may be at rest but they’re far from silent. On short notice, campsites can be scarce but motel rooms in Kearney typically have space even for those booking at the last minute.
There are also rather minimalist blinds that are quite rustic where wildlife photographers actually spend the night in hopes of getting closer to the cranes at sunrise. These are likely booked but, to make reservations and see all the options, go to: www.rowesanctuary.org.