By Janet Wight
For many years I had read articles about the world’s largest annual gathering of sandhill
cranes, which takes place from mid-February to early April in central Nebraska. The idea of seeing thousands of cranes at one time intrigued me. I was determined to witness this migration for myself. It was not until our daughters had graduated from high school, however, that my husband, Jeremy, and I had the opportunity to plan this trip.
Last March, we drove to Audubon’s Nebraska Crane Festival in Kearney to see these magnificent birds up close.
Jeremy grew up in Baraboo, Wis., which is the home of the International Crane Foundation (ICF). We had visited the ICF many times over the years and enjoyed learning about all 15 species of cranes. Since 11 of these species are endangered, it was hard for us to envision the enormous number of “lesser” (smaller) sandhill cranes that gather along the Platte River in Nebraska each year. It wasn’t until I started planning our trip that I noticed the website for the festival. It offered many opportunities to view the cranes, along with concurrent sessions where we would have the chance to learn even more about these birds and meet the “craniacs” (crane enthusiasts) who run the event. We registered for the festival and several field trips about two months in advance.
Kearney is a one-day drive from St. Paul. Stopping along the way in Omaha’s Old Market is highly recommended. This charmingly restored neighborhood, complete with cobblestone streets, is located just south of downtown. It is home to many unique restaurants and shops.
Kearney is the type of small city that people tend to drive past while traveling on Interstate 80, but it has several attractions of its own. These include the Museum of Nebraska Art, the Archway Monument and the Classic Car Collection. We were so busy with all the Crane Festival activities that we didn’t move our car during the four days we were there. (Some festival attendees flew into Lincoln and rented a car for the two-hour drive west to Kearney, which is a good time-saving option.)
We were uncertain what to expect once we arrived in Kearney, but we hit the ground running with a half-day birding tour, as well as morning and evening crane viewing sessions. We shivered in bird blinds located on the grounds of Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary and witnessed the spectacle unfolding on Platte River sandbars immediately in front of us. With 400,000 sandhill cranes in the area, the sky was brimming with thousands of birds, collectively producing thunderous calls, as they took off in flight just after dawn or arrived prior to sunset. We marveled at the organization and coordination displayed by the cranes as they collectively decided when to commence and conclude their days, which were primarily dedicated to feeding on corn left behind in the surrounding fields
Although the cranes were undoubtedly the main draw of the festival, the concurrent sessions held their own intrigue. It was difficult to decide which presentations to attend since there were three compelling options for each time slot. The choices included such diverse topics as learning how to distinguish birdcalls, the impact power-line design has on bird populations, and migrating with cranes by volunteering at festivals. (It was similar to attending seminars in college but without homework or tests.) These presentations provided excellent fodder for conversation when attendees were milling around in the lobby or gathering for outings or meals. There were also several inspirational speakers, including actress and author Jane Alexander, who is a member of the Audubon board of directors.
Another enjoyable aspect of the festival was becoming acquainted with our fellow crane enthusiasts. Even introverts had little hesitation engaging in conversations with strangers, since there was so much to talk about. Some participants were very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about birds, and cranes in particular, while others knew very little. They were there simply to witness the impressive migration. Enthusiasts traveled from every corner of the United States to attend the festival, but the majority of attendees were from the Midwest. Some people have been traveling to the annual festival for decades. Others, like us, stumbled across the website and decided to give it a try.
We stayed at the Kearney Holiday Inn, the festival’s hotel headquarters.
There are also several other modern hotels within walking distance. There were a variety of field trips to choose from; most people participated in at least one of these offerings. Overall, the crane festival was an enjoyable, informative and economical vacation.
If you are interested in having a unique experience, witnessing an amazing spectacle, or meeting an intriguing group of like-minded individuals, you should consider attending Audubon’s Nebraska Crane Festival.
Janet Wight is a resident of Como Park, where she lives with her husband and daughters.