Outdoors: Where to see the sandhill cranes

Cranes will be in the Platte River Valley in great numbers within the next few weeks. Those wishing to view these beautiful birds have plenty of options and areas to view them from.

If you love watching cranes, you’re in luck — the spring migration has begun. Every year from the about the middle of February to mid-April, over 500,000 Sandhill cranes make their way from Texas, New Mexico and Mexico to breeding grounds in Northern Canada and some as far as Siberia.

After traveling several thousand miles from the start of their trip, the cranes need rest and a good food source to refuel their bodies for the rest of their journey, and the Platte River Valley is the perfect stop-over area for them.

While here, cranes will deposit up to a pound of fat, providing energy to complete their migration and to initiate nesting. About 90 percent of their diet consists of corn and 10 percent is made up of invertebrates like earthworms, snails and insect larvae found in the wet meadows of the Platte valley. Invertebrates are a key component to egg development; without it, egg shells are weak and brittle and survival rates decrease.

Viewing sandhill cranes can be done by driving highways and backroads, but there are a few safer alternatives.

Buffalo Bill State Recreation Area has several locations to view cranes that are easily accessible from a vehicle by pulling over to the side of the road. As you turn off Buffalo Bill Avenue toward the camping area of the SRA, cranes will typically utilize the meadows on either side of the road. There is also a designated pull-off area near the west end of the SRA where signs about the cranes can be read and viewing can be done from a vehicle.

There is also a horse trailer blind placed along the fence south of the pull-off area in the SRA that overlooks a meadow frequently used by cranes. Cranes use this area several times throughout the day; blind users will need to park near the signs in the parking area and walk a short distance to the blind.

A river blind is available for the public to see cranes flying the North Platte River at the SRA. This blind requires a short hike on a path starting at the camping area running adjacent to the river. Late evening is the best time to use this blind. A 2018 park permit is required to enter the SRA.

Another public crane viewing blind is located at the North River Wildlife Management Area.

Directions to the WMA are: from Hershey drive north on North Hershey Road 3 miles to Wildlife Road, turn right and go almost 2 miles east on the gravel. The furthest east parking lot on the WMA boundary is the best parking area to use to get to the blind.

Getting to the blind requires a half-mile hike from the parking lot over mostly level terrain but water resistant footwear is recommended. Small signs with reflective tacks show the way along with solar lights on part of the cut path. The blind has room for about eight adults. Crane viewing etiquette is listed in the blind as well as a sign-in sheet for users. No permits are required to use this free blind, but funding for wildlife management areas comes from the purchase of habitat stamps. Hunters purchase the stamp as part of their hunting permits, but birders, hikers and others that utilize these areas should consider helping maintain these valuable wild places. Stamps cost $25 and are available online at outdoornebraska.org or the Nebraska Game and Parks office and local vendors. Help keep these public areas available for years to come by purchasing a habitat stamp.

All the viewing areas are first-come, first-served. The public should dress accordingly for the weather and abide by crane viewing etiquette.

1. Stay in the blind or vehicle.

2. Do not approach or harass birds.

3. No camera flash or lights from phones/tablets during low-light times.

4. Get to the blind before birds land in the evenings and do not leave until dark at night.

5. Morning users should arrive in time to get to the blind before the sky starts to lighten up and plan on staying until all cranes leave the river.

6. Be courteous to other crane watchers.

7. Always stay on designated paths and do not cross property boundary onto private land.

By following a few rules we can all enjoy the cranes while they are here and we can ensure that the voice of the sandhill crane is heard for many years to come.

For other crane viewing locations, call or visit the web sites below:

» Crane Trust Nature and Visitor’s Center near Alda. Information: cranetrust.org or call 308-382-1820.

» Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary near Gibbon. Information: rowe.audubon.org or call 308-468-5282.

» Fort Kearny State Historical Park and State Recreation Area, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission near Kearney. Information: 308-865-5305.

Hunter education

There is a Hunt Safe session from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. on March 13 at Mid Plains Community College north campus, 1101 Halligan Drive in North Platte. Youth ages 11-15 wishing to attend the Hunt Safe session should start the online course now. This class will allow youth ages 15 and younger to spring turkey hunt during the youth shotgun season, which is April 7 to May 31. Youth that will be archery hunting during the spring turkey season do not need bowhunter education.

Certification is easy: Study for free as long as you need with the online course material at outdoornebraska.org, take the online test and once you have passed the course pay a $29.50 vendor fee, then attend and pass the two-hour Hunt Safe session with a certified hunter education instructor before getting the hunter education certificate.

For those 16 and older, the comprehensive online course allows you to complete the hunter education requirements online by studying materials, passing the test and paying the vendor fee. After passing the test a hunter education certificate will be available for printing. Hunters ages 12-29 need hunter education to spring turkey hunt during the spring turkey season. The regular shotgun turkey season runs April 14 to May 31.

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