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Near dusk, another good viewing time, the cranes will gather on the sandbars in the river, reversing their grand morning exit. The further they are from the river banks, the lesser their chance of getting attacked, so the sandbars in the middle of the river fill up first, with the birds jostling for a good place. If a predator tries to get close, the water acts like an alarm system and alerts them of any danger. And the cranes can fight back; their talons and beak are surprisingly effective at taking out a fox, bobcat or coyote.

For pioneers making their way west during the 19th Century, the Platte River was known as being “a mile wide and an inch deep”. As a braided river, typified by shallow, meandering channels separated by sandbars, it is an ideal crane habitat. But today, only the Big Bend portion of the river can support the large crane population. Over time, the channel has been altered, wetlands drained and the flow of the water controlled and diverted for use in nearby cities and farms. This means the spring floods that cleared the river of vegetation no longer happen, making it difficult for the cranes to use the length of the river to roost out of range of most predators. This makes for spectacular and guaranteed crane viewing, but also means that ongoing projects, including clearing vegetation off the sandbars with heavy machinery each year, are needed to protect this last stretch of habitat, not just for sandhill cranes but also for the endangered whooping cranes who migrate through the area around the same time, and of which there are only 300 left in the wild. As important as the Platte River is for the cranes’ survival, the birds do not stay in the area long. After putting on some weight, when they feel a warm updraft of wind beneath their wings sometime around early April, it is time to continue moving north. And it will be another year before they all return.

Rowe Sanctuary runs crane viewings ($25 per person) every morning and evening from 2 March to 7 April when the crane numbers are at their peak (reservations required); before or after those dates head to the public bridges along the river to see the birds. You can celebrate the birds and learn more about them at the Nebraska Crane Festival from 21 to 24 March, hosted by the Nebraska branch of the Audubon Society. And Kearney hosts the Crane Watch Festival between 22 and 31 March, with events such as tours to the viewing blinds and crane cake decorating contests.

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