Where the birds are: Nebraska offers a peek at cranes in the Plains

At a prairie way station, bird-watching soars

From late February to mid-April each year, an 80-mile stretch of the Platte River in south central Nebraska becomes a way station for maybe half a million sandhill cranes. The ungainly birds fill the horizon with their flapping wings and fill the air with their rich, rolling calls.

As much as 90 percent of the world's known crane population passes through here, stopping to fatten up on loose kernels from last autumn's cornfields.

Local communities, particularly Kearney and Grand Island, plan weeks-long events to celebrate the birds' arrival. Wildlife tours, seminars, films, and arts and crafts exhibitions are all part of the festivities. The events have long drawn bird-watchers from around the world, but today, many attendees are sophisticated travelers who have tired of more popular destinations and are looking for something different.

The cranes can be seen in virtually every local cornfield during the day – feeding and performing colorful courtship rituals – and roosting in the shallows of the river from sunset to sunrise. The birds favor the Platte and its tributaries because they are "braided" with sandbars, creating the shallows that allow the resting cranes to hear any predators splashing toward them.

Three types of sandhill cranes visit Nebraska: The greater sandhill weighs 9 to 15 pounds and will summer anywhere from Illinois to Vancouver. Canadian sandhills weigh 9 pounds or less. Lesser sandhill cranes are 3-1/2 to 4 feet tall, weigh less than 9 pounds, and have wingspans of 6 feet. All types look a bit drab – gray with beige on their backs and wings. The red or reddish-orange areas in front and above their eyes provide the only touch of color.

Among the best crane-viewing locations are the blinds at the National Audubon Society's Lillian Annette Rowe Sanctuary near Gibbon, where first light reveals cranes filling the shallows as far as the eye can see. At sunset, visitors watch the birds' raucous return.

Although the birds are often just yards away, a pair of binoculars is useful for dramatic close-ups of their behavior. To take photographs, you'll need a tripod and long telephoto lens to get tight shots of individual birds.

Along with the cranes, some 10 million ducks and geese descend upon the area each spring. It's the greatest avian show many visitors will ever see. Numbers alone, however, do not tell the full story.

Eric Volden, the resident naturalist at the Crane Meadows Nature Center, near Alda, will point out where visitors may find one of the whooping cranes that have been visiting each year. Such a sighting is a bit of an event, since there are fewer than 200 left in the wild. The stark white plumage and sheer size of a "whooper" make it fairly easy to spot among its sandhill cousins.

The area is also rich in history, much of it chronicled at the Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer in Grand Island. It features a typical railroad town of the 19th century: its residences, places of business and worship, parks, and squares. Though authentic to the area, virtually all of the buildings have been moved to the site – among them the tiny dwelling where Henry Fonda was born. A Stuhr benefactor, Fonda paid to have the home moved to the museum grounds. He also agreed to be the featured narrator on the museum's introductory video.

Stuhr's re-creation of the area's pioneer past has been done with such attention to detail that it has served as a location for three Emmy Award-winning TV productions: Willa Cather's "My Antonia," Hallmark Hall of Fame's "Sarah Plain and Tall," and PBS's "Home at Last."

Nearby Hastings provides some interesting background to a subject dear to many kids and kids-at-heart: Kool-Aid. Kool-Aid was created in Hastings in 1927 by Edwin Perkins, who, as a child, was an insatiable tinkerer with formulas of things to drink. There are relevant displays at the local museum and at the convention and visitors' bureau, including some of the early bottles that held pre-mixed Kool-Aid.

But the main attractions are the birds. For the sandhill cranes, an extended visit to Nebraska is a spring ritual. In fall, most birds stop only for a day or two, so the numbers aren't nearly as great.

• For more information, contact the Nebraska Tourism Office at 1-800-228-4307, or see http://visitnebraska.org.

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