March Madness continues for Nebraska: 2019 sandhill crane migration is a record-breaker

March Madness continues for Nebraska: 2019 sandhill crane migration is a record-breaker
Cherly Opperman teaches photography workshops at the Crane Trust in Wood River, Nebraska. She captured this scene at sunset Tuesday as sandhill cranes made their way to roost on the Platte River. CHERYL OPPERMAN

Cranes in Nebraska are reveling in their own March Madness.

The sandhill crane migration through the Central Platte River Valley not only is at its peak, it’s at an all-time high.

“It’s been a crazy March, unlike anything we’ve ever seen. It’s March Madness. It’s really nuts,” said Chuck Cooper, CEO of the Crane Trust near Wood River. The sanctuary is prime roosting, feeding and breeding ground for cranes en route to their northern nesting grounds.

“We have 40 years of records, and nothing has ever resembled this,” he said.

Andrew J. Caven, director of conservation research for the Crane Trust, put the count in week seven of the migration at a record-breaking 659,870 plus or minus 61,378 between Chapman and Overton.

That’s nearly double the number of birds reported in week six (326,400 plus or minus 72,000) and more than 60,000 ahead of last year’s peak count.

“This is the largest crane roost in the world,” Cooper said. “People are getting a great show.”

Bitterly cold, snowy weather at the top of the month all but stalled the migration of the first wave of cranes through Nebraska.

“It was like going through three different climates in three weeks,” Cooper said. “We had an 80-degree temperature swing, from minus 12 to 70 degrees.”

Caven had predicted a strong finish for March. And, indeed, springlike temperatures this week sent numbers soaring with early migrating eastern birds — delayed a bit by the cold — and later-migrating western birds (right on cue) arriving at about the same time, Caven said.

Habitats managed by the Crane Trust and Audubon Nebraska’s Rowe Sanctuary upstream at Gibbon are so packed that birds are spilling onto less-preferred areas along the entire 82-mile survey area. That’s good news for motorists along Interstate 80.

“You can drive for 80 miles and see cranes the whole time — in fields, meadows, rivers, even overhead. So that’s kind of exciting, when they start to use everything that’s available, even the stuff they don’t like that much,” Caven said.

Crane watchers with cameras and binoculars are out in droves, too.

Even though the great migration is drawing to a close, it’s a spectacular show.

So much so that the Crane Trust is extending viewing opportunities through April 6, a week longer than usual. As of Thursday evening, there were vacancies April 4 and April 6 for overnight VIP crane viewing experiences that include lodging, two blind tours and meals. (To check availability, call the Crane Trust nature and visitor center, 308-382-1820, between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m., or visit www.cranetrust.org).

There still were a few openings for guided crane viewing experiences at Rowe Sanctuary, too, said education manager Beka Yates. Caven’s estimate put the crane count at 218,000 along the sanctuary’s 6-mile stretch of the Plate River. “That’s the most-ever counted on our bridge segment,” Yates said.

To inquire about viewing at Rowe, call 308-468-5282 between 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. As of Thursday, a decision had not been made on whether to extend the viewing season beyond April 7, Yates said.

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