KEARNEY, Neb. -- Just before sunrise, in the hourglass heart of the North American continent, the temperature has dipped to 15 degrees on the Platte River.
I’m shivering in a wooden blind, even with layers of fleece and foot warmers to ward off frostbite. It’s late March and it shouldn’t be this cold, not even for Nebraska’s Great Plains. Across the frozen landscape, the sun begins its ascent into a blush-colored sky, and slowly on the river dark shapes begin to stand and stretch and flap.
An ancient, natural avian spectacle is about to happen here at the Rowe Sanctuary near Kearney. Here, the sandhill cranes are awakening, untold thousands of them, their silhouettes barely visible in the pre-dawn light. From the mist, a cacophony of cackles, calls and coos rises with each passing minute, the cadence increasing with daylight.
For the cranes, waking from a bitterly cold night on the swift river, sunrise brings feeding time. Up to a half-million birds will rise over the fields and fatten up on the waste corn, most of it leftover from the harvest months earlier, before returning to the river at sunset to slumber again.
During that time, the cranes will look for mates, striking poses, bending and preening for a few moments of passion on the prairie, sandhill-style. For the nosy birdwatcher — that would be me — it’s worth a 15-degree morning just for that spectacle.
I’m in Nebraska to see the annual migration of the cranes passing through the Platte River Valley from their wintering grounds in Texas and Mexico on their way to Canada and Siberia for the breeding season. I’m in the blind, a shed really, anticipating the massive breakfast liftoff.
That surreal moment comes sooner than I expect. A pair of scalawag eagles have caused havoc among the birds, and suddenly synchronized clouds of blue-gray cranes lift to the skies in a furious attempt to escape becoming the predator’s next meal.
The eagles dive into the mass of birds, sending flocks of cranes going every which way. The bright early morning sun was occluded by the wing-tracks of 10,000, 20,000, maybe 30,000 birds.
And just like that, they are gone, to return late in the evening, long v-shaped columns of birds coming and coming like a never-ending freight train.
About 70,000 cranes zip through the Rowe-Kearney area each night during migration along the Central Flyway, one of four routes across the United States that most birds, waterfowl like ducks, geese, and more than 300 other bird species follow annually.
The birds stay in the Platte River Valley for about three or four weeks, consuming enough calories to bulk up their body weight about 20 percent for the lengthy flight north.
Earlier in the day, a ghostly field of snow geese, probably a bit of a nuisance to the Midwesterner, is a magical occurrence for a Southerner like me. The sight of so many geese just adds to my glee.
The migration is amazing. The cranes are huge, up to 5 feet in height of gray plumage, sporty red cap, and some serious attitude. Their wingspan easily reaches 6 feet.
Sometimes whooping cranes, that rarest and most beautiful bird, come too, following the same migration route.
In another early morning jaunt to see the birds at the Crane Trust, the sound of a single-engine airplane mixes with the racket of sandhills.
As it comes into sight, Brad Mellema, once director of the Crane Trust Nature and Visitor Center, speaks in a low whisper so as to not disturb the jittery birds: “If it circles, that means they’ve sighted a whooping crane.”
Watching the plane intently and hoping it would circle back, I was disappointed as it puttered on westward, signaling the whoopers were nowhere to be found.
All in all, the sandhill cranes gave a five-star performance.
“Cranes have been moving up and down this highway for centuries,” says Michael Forsberg, renowned nature photographer and author, as he speaks of the migration. “They’ve seen the rise and fall of civilizations.”
Like those who travel to East Africa for the Great Wildebeest Migration of Kenya and Tanzania, birdwatchers flock from all over the world to climb aboard the crane train from late February until April. Peak time is about the last two weeks in March.
“It’s a place where you have to linger,” says Forsberg. “The more you stay here, the more you want to stay. It’s not just a great gathering of birds but a great gathering of people.”
And a great gathering of prairie chickens in a lek — Swedish for crazy chicken mating on the wide open prairie or something to that effect. To see them dance, puffing up, strutting, stomping, dancing, and singing under the wide open prairie is just Plains fun.
Prairie chickens are not chickens, explains Mellama. “They are a grouse.”
Grouse or chicken, the sounds are amplified and you can hear every peep and flutter for miles around.
The Rowe Sanctuary can arrange it all for you, but you have to be up at the crack of dawn again, as the early prairie chicken bird gets the corn.
To see this wondrous crane occurrence that National Geographic calls the greatest wildlife phenomenon in the United States is just remarkable. I’m not a bird expert, only a lifelong admirer of all winged creatures, great and small. Perhaps, like me, you’ll come away from the migration all insane for cranes.