by Cadell Walker, Director of Philanthropy for The Nature Conservancy of Kentucky
After working at The Nature Conservancy for many years, I am familiar with the annual Sandhill crane migration which takes place a few states away in Nebraska – smack dab in the middle of the country. This year I had the honor of witnessing this annual wonder first-hand.
I arrived in Grand Island, Nebraska on a Monday evening and upon debarking the plane was treated to hundreds and hundreds, maybe thousands, of snow geese. I saw more near the hotel, where they congregated at a makeshift wetland caused by recent flooding. Pictures couldn’t do justice to the sheer numbers of waterfowl, especially the distinct sound….and the smell. I suspected that maybe they were the opening act for what was to come.
After settling in, I attended a presentation by the Conservancy’s Nebraska State Director, Mace Hack, who spoke about Sandhill crane migration. I learned that this annual gathering attracts more than 500,000 Sandhill cranes – about 80 percent of the world’s population – to Nebraska’s Platte River each spring. In fact, their arrival queues local residents in to the official beginning of Spring.
Why Nebraska? Evidently the state offers perfect conditions for Sandhill cranes embarking on their long journey to locations as far north as Alaska and Siberia. Waste from farm fields and small invertebrates inhabiting the river and surrounding marshes provides lots of opportunity for putting on the weight required for the trip. It is not uncommon for a Sandhill crane to add 20 percent to its weight during a two or three week visit to their Platte River Sandhill crane resort.
The Platte River also provides Sandhill cranes with good protection at night. Wide and shallow, the river allows the birds to stand in the water and avoid coyotes and other predators. Come morning, they return to the fields in communal song after a safe night’s sleep.
This year, due to the cold winter, there were fewer Sandhill cranes than usual. But the show was no less spectacular. After driving along some country roads, we reached the bird blind located on the Conservancy’s property. Then came the magic. After one of the most spectacular sunsets I have ever seen, we witnessed thousands of Sandhill cranes, Canadian geese, snow geese and bald eagles in front of the blind and they stretched out for miles and miles beyond the horizon.
As night fell and the Sandhill cranes left for their posts in the river, our group quietly departed through a cornfield lit by the moon and stars. I left not only with a check mark next to an item from my own personal “bucket list,” but with pride in being part of an organization which plays a role in conserving river habitat critical to wildlife. I couldn’t wait to return to Kentucky to focus in on our own unique species and places back in the Bluegrass State.