Established in 1978 as part of a court settlement resulting from the construction of a dam in Wyoming, the Crane Trust acquired land in Nebraska in Big Bend, a region on the Platte River. In 2012, it acquired the assets of the Nebraska Nature and Visitors Center near the major crane flyway in North America and devoted this center to building awareness about cranes. The year-round Crane Meadows Nature Center is about 10 miles southwest of Grand Island, Nebraska, adjacent to I-80. It’s a 5 Compass stop with nature trails.
Each spring, the Crane Trust welcomes about 45,000 tourists who have traveled to this area like eclipse enthusiasts to witness the migration of more than half a million sandhill cranes with crimson crowns. These birds are on their way to summer nesting grounds in Canada, Alaska, and Siberia. They have wintered in Mexico, Arizona, Texas, etc. and pause in this area where 23 visitors are put in blinds to see these cranes leave the river 40 to 60 feet away. These birds are usually in the area for 3 to 4 weeks, and I was told to book by mid-March if I wanted to witness this phenomenon. Most who see it say it’s a life-changing event to observe up-close sandhill cranes that will migrate about 5,000 miles and are in the area to fatten up on grain left in fields and small vertebrates. These cranes still have quite a distance to fly and sleep on sandbars near the blinds. Their predators include eagles and coyotes. This is considered one of the greatest migrations in North America.
Whether you’re there for the spring show or just stopping in to see the Crane Meadows Nature Center, which is a very good idea, take the time to see the film ‘The Great Sand Crane Migration”. You’ll learn about birds, especially cranes, tall grass prairies, the Central Flyway, etc. Fossils of prehistoric cranes have been found in Nebraska. The sandhill variety that visits the Platte River Valley each spring represents 80% of this species total number. They are up to 5 feet tall, have 5 to 6 feet wingspreads, and live about 20 years. Most are lesser sandhill cranes, but their numbers also include greater sandhills, the Canadian variety, etc. The noise of so many birds calling to each other is said to be sometimes deafening.
Whooping cranes spend the winter along the Gulf Coast of Texas and also migrate through central Nebraska between late March and late April. They’re on their way to Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park. Fall migration south occurs from September to late November. They only spend 2 to 3 days here resting and feeding. With a wingspan of up to 8 feet, whooping cranes are the tallest birds in North America, and while their numbers are increasing, they are still rare. There are slightly over 300 in the wild, migratory flock. Another 293 are in captivity. Their total is less than 600. In their Texas quarters they feast on blue crabs, which are fewer in number due to drought conditions.