Plains and Cranes
Placed in the heart of America, Nebraska has boundless grasslands, which is used for the major industries of the state, beef, pork, corn and soybeans. Farming and ranching engage most of the some 2 million residents, but there are many other reasons to visit this Great Plains state.
As beef farming is a major industry in Nebraska, all local restaurants serve copious amounts of beef steak for very reasonable prices. With so much choice, it’s hard to pick a favorite, but must highlight Alley Rose in Kearney, where their 16-ounce prime rib can be had for a mere $18. The town of about 30,000 is known for the trains that cross through the downtown area every seven minutes, for a total of 190 trains over a 24 hour period!
Our trip took us to McCook, in the far western region of Nebraska to view the Prairie Chickens. They are difficult to find in the wild and it is quite a procedure. You have to climb out of bed before dawn to settle into one of the blinds, which is basically a horse trailer with portholes, to view the chickens. It is quite a ritual, as the males puff themselves up, strut, fight and dance on the lek (the traditional display ground) and begin trying to attract a mate. There is usually only one female for every 10 or more males, so they all have to flaunt their best. This show goes on for a couple of hours and lasts for several months. However, the real highlight of Nebraska tourism is viewing the Sandhill Cranes, which draws upwards of 30,000 people each year to reserves like the Crane Trust Sanctuary in Wood River near Grand Island, and the Audubon Society’s Rowe Sanctuary in Gibbon near Kearney. Crane season lasts for six weeks from the beginning of March until mid April, and the very shallow Platte river features the largest gathering of Sandhill Cranes in the world during their Spring migration from wintering on the Gulf Coast to their summer time breeding grounds in Northwestern Canada and Siberia.
For a mere $35, you can spend three hours watching over 400,000 cranes as they all chatter in unison before taking off in great groups headed for surrounding corn fields.
They spend their days eating corn left from harvests of fields near the river, building their strength for the long flight north; at night they sleep islands in the river perched on one leg. Before dawn, the murmuring begins and thousands of Cranes begin filling the skies as they head off for a day of feeding.. Flash photography and talking is not permitted in the blinds (viewing stations) as this will scare the birds away.
The Audubon Row Sanctuary and the Crane Trust Sanctuary (both charitable organizations) offer the best viewing opportunities with blinds located very near the birds. The Crane Trust offers overnight packages priced at $1,000 a night, including a private cottage, all meals and multiple Crane viewings.
Devoted bird watchers will also enjoy a drive south from Kearney to the Harlan Reservoir near Republican City to see the White Pelicans who are also returning to the state at this time of year.
Once the bird viewing is over there are numerous heritage museums dotting the countryside where you can view early 19th century history with all its artifacts.