Malatya Haber Crane Watch Festival is March 21 to 30, 2014
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Crane Watch Festival is March 21 to 30, 2014

SANDHILL CRANES—A flock of sandhill crane leap into the sky from their nighttime refuge at the Iain Nicholson Audobon Center at Rowe Sanctuary near Gibbon, Neb. Here, hundreds of thousands of sandhill cranes come together each March to feed off grain from nearby farms on their way north to summer habitats. The crane influx brings thousands of tourists to the Central Platte Valley each year. (Journal photo by Larry Dreiling.)

It may be nearly a year away, but the Kearney, Neb., area is already in the planning stages for its third annual Crane Watch Festival. Kearney touts itself as the "Sandhill Crane Capital of the World."

The Central Platte River Valley—roughly a 90-mile stretch from Lexington to Chapman—is an important resting area for millions of ducks, geese, sandhill cranes, and other species during their annual migrations. The region is the pinch-point of the Central Flyway, which is one of four North American flyways followed by waterfowl and shorebirds on their annual trek from northern breeding grounds to wintering habitats and back again. The others are the Mississippi and the Atlantic and Pacific Flyways.

The Central Flyway is associated with the Great Plains, lying generally between the Rocky Mountains on the west and the Missouri and Mississippi River Valleys on the east. Flyways consist of migration routes, which are lanes of travel for particular species.

In a flyway, the routes of different species overlap geographically and chronologically. Species using the Central Flyway include, in addition to sandhill cranes, trumpeter swans, tundra swans, Canadian geese, greater white-fronted geese, and canvasback ducks. Bald eagles, whooping cranes, herons, and other species also migrate through the Platte River area but over shorter distances.

In March, 80 percent of the world's half-million sandhill cranes roost on islands in the braided channel of the Central Platte, coming from Mexico, Texas, and New Mexico. The cranes use the sandbars in the river for nighttime refuge and disperse to nearby fields to feed during the day. They leave the river after sunrise and return at dusk.

During the month a sandhill crane stays along the Central Platte, it will deposit up to a pound of fat, which provides the energy necessary to complete the migration and initiate nesting. About 90 percent of their diet consists of corn while the remaining 10 percent is made up of invertebrates such as earthworms, snails, and insect larvae. It has been estimated that the cranes consume nearly 1,600 tons of grain during their stay that would have been volunteer corn the following spring.

Before there was corn, cranes ate starchy tubers from a variety of aquatic plants such as nutsedge, a species once abundant in the widespread wetlands bordering the Platte before European settlement. Now about 75 percent of these wetlands have been converted to croplands.

The cranes still forage in the remaining wetlands, which are part of the Rainwater Basins. These are made up of playa lakes formed in shallow depressions that are common throughout the High Plains. More than 60,000 of these playas occur in parts of Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas, and Nebraska.

The Central Platte Valley is abuzz with tourists from all over the world each March to see the morning skies darken as the crane awake from their refuge on the sandbars and swarm out to meet the day and fill their bellies full of spent grain in order to ready themselves for their springtime journey northward.

Area hotels fill and restaurants open long before sunrise during the time the cranes refuge as crane enthusiasts flock to see these wonderful creatures as they take wing each morning.

The City of Kearney invites these enthusiasts to town to enjoy the community through barbecues, pancake feeds, art exhibitions, nature workshops, a carnival, fun events for kids and much more.

For more information, visit

Rowe Sanctuary and the Crane Trust are the best places for visitors to view the cranes while they are on the river, in the early morning, as they leave the river, and dusk, as they return for the night. Both places have observation blinds (as well as more Spartan photographic blinds).

Away from the river, the cranes are everywhere in fields. It is common for people to stop on the roadside and watch the cranes. Fort Kearney State Historical Park has several blinds that can be set up in nearby fields, so that viewers can be closer to the cranes as they are feeding.

Rowe Sanctuary near Kearney and the Crane Trust property near Grand Island are two of the best places for visitors to view sandhill cranes during their annual spring migration—one of the top ten animal migration spectacles in the world, according to ethologist Jane Goodall, who, while she's more famous for her work with gorillas, comes to the area nearly every year to study the cranes.

Rowe Sanctuary is owned and managed by the National Audubon Society. The property includes 1,300 acres of river habitat and adjacent wetlands, as well as woodlands and mixed-grass prairie. During the spring migration, Rowe harbors more than 70,000 cranes nightly. Access to a blind at Rowe Sanctuary is by reservation. Contact for more information.

The Crane Trust is a private, nonprofit organization established in 1978 as a result of a court agreement between the Missouri Basin Power Project, which was proposing to construct a dam on a tributary of the Platte, on the one hand, and the State of Nebraska and the National Wildlife Federation, who jointly objected to the project because of likely impacts to wildlife and irrigation downstream, on the other.

The Crane Trust was established to administer an endowment funded by a payment from the Missouri Basin Power Project. Income from the endowment is used to acquire land and conservation easements in the Big Bend region of the Platte. It is also used to fund habitat management and restoration. Contact for information on tours and for group blind reservations.

Away from the river, the cranes are everywhere in fields when the sun is up. It is common for people to stop on the roadside and watch the cranes. Fort Kearny State Historical Park has several blinds that might be set up in nearby fields, so that viewers can be closer to the cranes as they are feeding.

For more information on viewing sandhill cranes, visit

Larry Dreiling can be reached by phone at 785-628-1117, or by email at

Date: 5/13/2013


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