Rowe Sanctuary, Nebraska

Cranes over the Platte River

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We made the drive out to Nebraska at my friend Scott’s suggestion. “You should come see the cranes out here, I think you’d enjoy it.” he said. Scott and I worked together for 10 years and during that decade the two of us ended up on a fair number of outdoor adventures. The kind where you spend entire days together without the need to do much talking. So, I knew if Scott said I’d enjoy it that I needed to make the 11 hour drive out there. And two years ago, we were set to do so. But then the historic floods came and roads were closed and it was a real mess. So, we decided to put it off a year.


The following year I rented one of the overnight photography blind experiences. You are taken to a 6-foot by 8-foot blind along the river at 4 in the afternoon and you are to remain in that blind until they come get you at 9AM the following morning. Bring what you need to stay warm and sleep (they provide the five-gallon bucket for…well…y’know). But then Covid hit and eventually I received that email I was suspecting, “We’ve closed the blind program for this year and will be refunding your money.”


That made this year all the more exciting. I had been sitting on my computer the second reservations opened and I snagged one for a prime Saturday in March. And so it was we found ourselves in Grand Island, Nebraska checking out Scott’s classic tractors, his shed full of bunnies, and his 1965 truck project. We then did a series of hikes and drives around some of the Nebraska fields. Most of those fields speckled with cranes like someone had shook out a large pepper shaker. Hundreds of them. Thousands. More.


For us Wisconsin folks Nebraska is a bit of a foreign land. The views go on for miles in every direction. There are wooded bands along the rivers that I would suspect look like zippers on a quilt of fields from high above in a small plane. But the openness is very unlike Northern Wisconsin where we are generally hemmed in by trees most of the time and what’s a mile away is a complete mystery. What we consider a large farm field might be somebody’s front yard out there.


Saturday afternoon we arrived at the Rowe Sanctuary near Kearney, Nebraska. They are only partially open because of Covid and because we arrived after the 10-2 hours that they have their trails open there was a gatekeeper that allowed us in while sending everyone else on their way. We were informed we had second pick of the four blinds so we parked and organized our gear in front of the car, the extreme wind attempting to blow any of our lighter gear across the parking lot, and waited for our shuttle to our blind.


Ready to go!

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Rowe Sanctuary Building

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When our shuttle arrived, it was time to decide what blind we wanted. I was confused over how we were to make a decision based on no information but then we were presented with a three-ring binder that had the right, center, and left views out of each blind. We picked blind number one and it turned out the gentleman that was driving us to the blind was from Wisconsin and enjoyed canoeing the Sylvania Wilderness area in Upper Michigan. We had a fairly lengthy conversation about places and things back home.


Then we settled into our new 6’ x 8’ home for the next 17 hours. I walked in, stood up, and banged my head on the 2” x 4” rafter of the ceiling (not the last time that would happen), struggled with figuring out how the windows opened- and eventually got our two chairs set up and all our gear set as tightly along the walls as possible. We dug into our cooler pack and had a sort of snack supper while enjoying the view of the Platte River outside our windows.

Our 6' x 8' home for the night.

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Sunset and the birds are flying!

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As the evening began to descend, we were treated to a beautiful sunset. Wonderful light for photography. However, though cranes had been flying over us for hours heading to someplace northwest of us and apparently landing- none were landing near our blind at all. Clouds of cranes were flying in the distance, and at one point a group of a half-dozen deer worked their way across the river creating the opportunity for a beautiful photo with them in silhouette against the setting sky filled with thousands of cranes.

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I have to admit my frustration with no cranes in front of us. I had imagined we would have cranes landing in front of the blind and me being able to catch some fantastic photos with the golden hour of sun casting glistening light upon their feathers. Here was that golden light but the bird arrival didn’t happen. The sun set- no cranes. The light faded- no cranes.


Then, in the dimness, cranes began to circle above us in an ever-tightening pattern. Finally, though with much too little light left to get the photos I'd hoped for, three cranes landed on the sandbar to our right (In front of our neighbors' blind a few dozen yards away). That seemed to be the trigger. They came in by the thousands. The calling became a deafening din.


With the strong winds we were dealing with the cranes would land like a descending helicopter. They would stretch out their huge wings and make thousands of tiny flight corrections as they played with the wind, and they would descend vertically down into whatever spot they were looking at. They look their way in.


The odd thing about the cranes coming in for the night is that they all seemed to want to land in the same area. Instead of the newly arriving cranes landing on the fringes of the group that was already on the river, the new arrivals would land in the same area the last cranes landed. This forced the cranes already on the river to walk further out to create room for the thousands of cranes still coming in. It created this ever-expanding sea of cranes out in front of us much like pouring oil onto a garage floor. Wave after wave came in. They filled the river to our right, then in front of us, and finally to our left as far as we could still see. By the time it was done I estimated 10 thousand cranes. I have no scientific evidence that this number is accurate in any way. It was an overwhelming number of cranes and facing that, my mind at least, resorts to a wild guess.


The other thing that struck me with the cranes coming in for the night was how they arrived in waves. And, despite knowing that I was looking at what- for me- was an uncountable number of individuals; I couldn’t help but feel this mass was somehow also one entity. That somehow all those thousands of individual cranes also were operating with some sort of mass consciousness. They moved in coordination and called constantly. There was something more going on than I could understand with the knowledge that I have. I can’t prove it or explain it. There’s no science involved with my assertion. But, looking out the tiny rectangular windows of our blind at the spectacle before us- I felt it to be true.



Edit-

When my wife finished work for the day and read my trip report she looked at me and said, "You do know that as you were lamenting that fact that cranes came in after all the golden light was gone I did take an iPhone video as the first ones were landing?"


"Uh, no....I had no idea.  Send that to me so I can add it to the trip report!"

Cranes begin to land in front of the blind.


Eventually it was too dark to see anything anymore. At that point we quietly closed up the windows on our blind and, using the red setting on our headlamps (they request you use no lights in the blinds other than a dim red light so as not to disturb the thousands of birds on the river in front of you) we set up our sleeping pads and bags. It was not easy to move everything one way and the other. Our heads were about on the wall and our feet against the gear packed tightly on the other. But it worked, …it was enough.


Luckily, we were told we could keep our bucket just outside the door of our blind and access it there because the door to the blind didn’t face the river. I had imagined we were going to have to use and keep the bucket inside the tiny blind with us. It was a relief (see what I did there?) to find out that wouldn’t be necessary.


Soon enough we were inside our snug zero-degree down bags attempting to get to sleep with thousands upon thousands of cranes calling in the dark and the 40mph winds howling through the nearby tree tops. We were told the blinds were new this year and, as someone who does some building projects myself, I would say they did a great job. The one improvement they could make is with the door. For some reason, instead of a sheet of plywood, they made the door out of vertical boards. The lumber has dried and shrunk leaving ¼” gaps between the boards. The wind found its way through those cracks and wafted over us the whole night. We were warm and happy enough, but the perfectionist side of me couldn’t help but have my last thoughts as I drifted off to sleep be ways to stop that annoying draft that was rolling over the side of my sleeping bag.


There was a no-light middle-of-the-night bucket run but mostly we slept better than we expected. Once in a great while, all the crane calling would stop. But mostly it was one here, answered by another, then a small group answering, and repeat. Long before dawn we packed up our sleeping gear by dim red light and reset the chairs, tripod, and cameras. Then I put my hand on the first blind window, turned off my light, and slowly and quietly slid it open.

Taking photos in the dark- I could only see shapes when I took this photo.

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You could see dark shapes out in the river. Thousands upon thousands of them. The sun was another 45 minutes from peeking over the horizon. I had high hopes of close-up photos with beautiful golden morning light at this point but I was taking photos in the dark the best I could just in case. I had the monitor on the back of the camera turned off so it wouldn’t light up my face in the darkness and scare the birds. So, there was no way to tell if I was getting any usable photos or not. Sadly, a full half hour before any real light all the birds in front of our neighbors' blind suddenly took flight in a roaring and raucous symphony. We don’t know if it was coincidence or if it was something our neighbors did that set them off. But, no matter the cause, I was very disappointed to see the cranes beginning to leave long before there was enough light to take photos.

Cranes take-off pre-dawn.

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That first group taking off set off the reaction. Within a short while 95% of the cranes were gone. I took as many wild shots with my camera as I could. I say wild because I had my ISO set at ridiculous numbers and even with that my shutter speeds were nowhere near fast enough to freeze any action. It was too dark for autofocus so I was furiously turning the focusing ring myself. It was desperation photography. Click and hope. But there was very little hope.

A little more light but still much too dark for good photos.

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Some cranes return.

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A small group of birds returns- almost dawn now.

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More birds came and landed. Perhaps some that left circled back again. All the birds were struggling to make progress against the strong and unrelenting winds. They would fight to stay in one place while attempting to fly into it only to give up and take a 45-degree angle against it in order to make forward progress. These returning birds gave me some opportunity for a few photos with better settings- but still nowhere what I would have liked. Then, eventually, there was a large take-off and no birds remained in front of us at all.

And then there were none...

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We were still entertained the entire morning with flyovers and calling. Occasionally a huge wave of birds would fly low over our blind. We greatly enjoyed the morning. Around 8:30 we could hear the ATV outside our blind. There was a knock on our drafty door and soon we found ourselves back at the car and on the road again.


The sounds of the morning.

In the end it was one of those lifetime experiences that you will never forget. 17 hours experiencing a natural spectacle from only a few yards away. Perhaps things didn’t work out perfectly for the photos I was hoping to take. But in the end, someone will get those type of photos. That morning will happen. It wasn’t me this time.


Considering we only had one night to spend in the blind we managed to have a very good one. Well worth the long drive each way. We pulled into home around 9 PM after driving the whole day. We were happy to be home and to see our springer Otca and we both agreed sleeping with the cranes was a wonderful experience.

Map of Rowe Sanctuary

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