Top Ten Spots for Spring Birding

Central: Seeking the Lost Language of Cranes: The Platte River Basin, Nebraska

For eons, one of the heralds of spring has been the northward migration of sandhill cranes from winter retreats in the Southwest toward their breeding grounds in northern Canada, Siberia, and Alaska. And here in the tall-grass prairies of Nebraska, along a 50-mile stretch of the Platte River from Grand Island to Kearney, the cranes—half a million of them—take a weeks-long break en masse, creating one of the world's most captivating wildlife spectacles.

With their six-foot wingspans, stately bearing on land and in flight, and reverberant bugling, sandhills and other cranes always seem to embody the spirit of the wild. Their behavior during their stay in the Platte River Basin is constantly engaging. As they feed in the corn and alfalfa fields during the day, males and females periodically engage in the wing-waving, teetering courtship dances for which cranes are famous; when by some mysterious synergy they decide to leave their nighttime roost for the fields, the visual and aural commotion of thousands of cranes trumpeting and laboriously taking flight overpowers the senses. And each day's birding holds another exciting promise: You might get lucky enough to glass a whooping crane or two among the sandhills—there are about 150 of these magnificent birds left in the wild.

Birders stake out the spectacle every year in great numbers; festivals such as Clay Center's Spring Wing Ding, Kearney's Rivers and Wildlife Celebration, and Grand Island's Wings over the Platte are mobbed, and if you want a place at a choice blind, you'll have to reserve early.

Just the Facts

Birding Hot Spots: From late February through March, a driving trip along any of the Platte Basin's roads will offer field after field packed with sandhills. There are also two sanctuaries to pencil into your crane-watching itinerary: the Crane Meadows Nature Center near Grand Island, and the Audubon Society's Rowe Sanctuary near Kearney. Don't miss a worthy side trip to the"rainwater basins" between Lincoln and Grand Island south of I-80, and south of Kearney; these seasonal wetlands are visited by large flocks of geese and ducks early in the migration, and by shorebirds later on.

More Great Plains Outdoors: Parts of Nebraska are also excellent eagle-watching areas, and if you head north into South Dakota, you'll have an array of scenic drives to choose from, along with wild places such as the Black Hills and Badlands National Park.


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