Every spring Nebraska's central Platte River valley hosts one of the most remarkable wildlife spectacles in North America: sandhill crane migration. More than 500,000 cranes will descend there to rest and refuel before continuing their journey north.
One popular place to view these birds is Fort Kearny State Recreation Area, located southeast of Kearney. At dawn and dusk, visitors can walk the park's hike-bike trail to a bridge over the Platte, where birds gather to roost in the river. And during the day, the cranes take to the surrounding fields to find food. The visitor center at Fort Kearny State Historical Park – adjacent to the SRA – acts as an information center for crane viewers, offering tips on where to find the birds.
Park superintendent Joe Blazek says this is perhaps the greatest advantage to viewing cranes at Fort Kearny: all the information that's available. “We know where the cranes are,” Blazek said. “We'll guide you and tell you where you can have the best chance of seeing the cranes. It's better than being on your own.”
The visitor center is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The admission fee is $4 for adults, $1 for children ages 3 to 12, and free admission for children ages 2 and under. Guests also can watch a 15-minute video presentation on the cranes and learn more about their migration journey.
Another advantage to viewing cranes at Fort Kearny, Blazek said, is the range of viewing experiences available. Besides watching the cranes feeding during the day, visitors can see as many as 20,000 birds roosting in the river at night from the Hike-Bike Trail bridge. The bridge is one-third mile from the parking lot, and the best viewing times are a half hour before sunrise and sunset. The trail is flat and paved, Blazek said, and it isn't a strenuous walk.
Blazek offered a few tips for those planning to view the cranes from the bridge:
• Dress appropriately. “This time of year, we get all kinds of weather. One day it'll be 70 degrees and the next day it'll be a blizzard,” Blazek said. “I would pay attention to the weather and make sure you're ready for the elements.”
• Bring binoculars.
• Observe crane viewing etiquette: Keep your voice low and avoid sudden movements; wear darker colors; no flash photography.
• Crane numbers typically reach their peak in the third week of March, though cranes can be viewed from early March to early April.
• Crane viewers have available to them 120 campsites at Fort Kearny SRA.
• A Nebraska state park entry permit is required at Fort Kearny SRA and SHP. Daily permits are good until noon the next day, and cost $6 for residents and $12 for nonresidents. You also can purchase an annual permit, which is $31 for residents and $61 for nonresidents.
For more information about Fort Kearny SRA, visit OutdoorNebraska.org or call 308-865-5305.