Spring has finally sprung in Chicagoland! If you look to the sky, you’ll occasionally see hundreds of sandhill cranes, geese, ducks, and other migrating birds as they travel north (from their winter homes in northern Mexico, Texas, New Mexico, and other places) to their warm-weather breeding grounds in the upper Midwest, Alaska, and Canada.
The sight of migrating birds in the sky has always moved me—even if it’s just 20 or so geese flying in their familiar V-shaped formation. It’s nice to know that some cycles of nature remain after human actions over the past 100+ years have caused nearly 500 animal species to become extinct as a result of overhunting and the destruction of prime natural habitat. The migrating birds also help humans mark the passage of seasons. Seeing and hearing these beautiful birds tells us that change is in the air. Winter or spring is coming, and we better get ready. It makes me feel good to know that this time immemorial migration continues in the skies above America, Canada, and other countries throughout the world.
Cranes are some of the most impressive and beautiful migratory birds. Some cranes—such as sandhill cranes—are numerous (although they’re still vulnerable to habitat loss), while others, such as the whooping crane are endangered. (The whooping crane only lives in North America and is its tallest bird, with males approaching 5 feet when standing erect.) In some cultures, cranes are symbols of happiness, good fortune, and eternal youth because of their fabled life span of a thousand years. Cranes don’t live that long, of course, but they can live to more than 35 years in the wild. It’s kind of cool that birds that passed over my head when I was in high school still may be doing so this spring. Way to go cranes!
I hope that you will take some time to visit the Chicago Botanic Garden, Morton Arboretum, Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary, our beautiful forest preserves and wildlife refuges, and other places to view the migration. But if you’re looking for some adventure, there’s a place that you can visit right now where you can see tens of thousands of cranes and other migratory birds as they stop for a few weeks to rest and refuel. In all, more than 600,000 sandhill cranes, the occasional whooping crane, and other birds take a breather along the Platte River in Nebraska during March and early April on their way to their breeding grounds in the north.
If you’ve never seen tens of thousands of birds in one place, you should head to Nebraska if you can in the next few weeks—or plan to visit next year. I’ve never seen the crane migration in Nebraska, but I have seen tens of thousands of birds resting and feeding, mid-migration, at the Bosque del Apache Refuge National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. It’s an awe-inspiring and humbling experience to see so many beautiful birds in one place. I have to admit that when the cranes, geese, and other migratory birds suddenly took off en-mass during my visit, their sudden synchronized motion and the deafening sound of tens of thousands of flapping wings and bird calls was so surprising to this city guy that I was left wonderfully speechless and in awe.
I hope to travel to Nebraska next year to see the cranes but, in lieu of reporting on an actual visit, I did the next-best thing: talk with Wendy Bailey, the Director of Operations at the Crane Trust Nature & Visitor Center in Wood River, Nebraska, about this great bird migration. The organization is “dedicated to the protection and maintenance of critical habitat for whooping cranes, sandhill cranes, and other migratory birds along the Big Bend Region of the Platte River Valley through sound science, habitat management, community outreach, and education.” You should definutely check out its website for a wealth of information about the crane migration; details on its visitor center, tours, and conservation activities; and much more.
Q. Can you tell me about the crane migrations in the Big Bend Region of the Platte River Valley? Why do so many birds stop in this area? How long has this migration occurred?
A. The cranes have migrated through this area of the Big Bend Region of the Platte River for thousands of years. They pick this area to migrate through because they need wide open spaces, wetlands, food sources, and a river to roost on at night to keep them safe from predators. Typically, people are in awe of seeing so many cranes. More than 600,000 cranes migrate and roost on the Platte River for often up to three weeks, to rest, refuel and congregate before flying off to their breeding grounds in the north. When they arrive in this area their plan is to feed because they have to gain 20 percent of their body weight to make it to their next destination.
Q. What type of activities are available for children at the Visitor Center?
A. At the Visitor Center, we have an animal display room where children can see animals that are found on the prairie. We also have bison that can be viewed while walking down to the channel, with two footbridges leading to 10 miles of walking trails. There is plenty to see on the trails, and our gift shop stocks pamphlets to help families recognize wildflowers, grasses, and trees found on the trails.
In the daytime during March, the cranes are out feeding on corn in the neighboring corn fields, and the Visitor Center can provide information on where the cranes can be found that day. This would be a good opportunity to take children under age 12 to see them.
Students and children also find great interest and excitement in volunteer work at the Trust. We have a history of working with local student groups to complete service learning projects. These projects both help Crane Trust staff to complete our mission as well as educate, inform, and engage youth. These activities are generally customized by age group and fit the immediate needs of the Trust. For example, Wood River High School students have come and regularly cut the invasive red cedars that encroach on hundreds of acres of native prairie each year in Nebraska. The Grand Island chapter of Roots and Shoots has assisted us during multiple years on weeding and seeding our native flower garden, and helped with butterfly counts. Scouts have participated in service-learning projects.
Q. What has the weather been like this season?
A. The weather this crane season has been very extreme, from freezing cold and snow storms to now rain. The cranes keep arriving like they always have though. The Crane Trust spends all of the months outside of March doing land management practices. We disk the Platte River, we hold prescribed burns, and we graze the land. Each of these activities encourages the cranes to keep migrating through this area.
We have blogs that will keep your readers updated on the current crane counts, and you can also sign up on our website for a newsletter to keep updated regarding our land management activities.
Q. There have been many news stories about extensive flooding in Nebraska, Iowa, and other states. How are the road conditions near the Trust, as well as on its grounds?
A. We have been telling visitors to check on the 511 Nebraska website for current road conditions, but we encourage visitors to come out to see the cranes because lots of cranes are arriving. The Crane Trust was lucky that the land here only suffered flooding in a small area and the only action that we had to take was to move a herd of 100 bison onto a different area of the prairie.
Looking for migratory birdwatching spots closer to Chicagoland? If so, check out my next post for some great suggestions.
Copyright (non-interview text) Andrew Morkes
Copyright (interview) Wendy Bailey/Crane Trust Nature & Visitor Center
Main photo at top of the page (thousands of birds in flight and at rest): © Kate Miyamoto, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)
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