'America's great migration:' Thousands of cranes meet along Nebraska river

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Right now, visitors from around the world are flocking to the banks of the Platte River near Kearney, Neb., to see what Bill Taddicken, director of the Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary, calls “one of the last great migrations remaining” on Earth. From March through early April, about 600,000 sandhill cranes — nearly 90 percent of the world’s total sandhill population – will make a stop at the Nebraskan river, something of a pit stop on the “Central Flyway,” their path to breeding grounds in Canada, Alaska, and as far away as Siberia.

“It’s America’s greatest migration,” Taddicken told FoxNews.com. “Cranes are revered around the world. The Japanese use them for wedding ceremonies, for instance. People have a special connection to the cranes, and just to see this much life all over the place at one time really touches people.”

The scene along the Platte is a sea of life. Since, just as the cranes congregate, so do people across the spectrum of cultures and walks of life.  Taddicken has a particularly close view of the spectacle. The Rowe Sanctuary works with other local groups to conserve the cranes’ roosting habitat as well as protect the nesting habitat for interior least terns and piping plovers, and its offices are situated mere feet from the riverside view.

Taddicken said that people from about 54 different countries and all 50 states come to Nebraska to view the birds that fly to Nebraska from Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Mexico. The cranes visit the site to store up on fat reserves before they make the trek up north for mating season.

Taddicken said that Audubon’s conservation work is crucial in maintaining this particular bird population. Audubon maintains 2,400 acres of land, doing what they can to mitigate damage caused by man-made water regulation — the river has lost about 70 percent of its flow over the past century due to reduced Coloradan snowmelt and human diversions in its path. Taddicken said that his organization works in concert with other groups on the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program, which is a collaboration between Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, and the Department of the Interior to conserve the 310-mile-long river.

Just as the river itself is crucial to the economy and way of life of the people who live alongside it, the crane migration is a major boon to Nebraska, and the small city of Kearney. Migration-watchers bring in around $10 million in annual revenue.

So, what’s the appeal? For Taddicken, who grew up in central Nebraska, there is nothing quite like seeing the mass of cranes along the river.

“The first time I encountered it, I was blown away by the magnificence of the spectacle. One time a lady kind of berated me about the fact that I said it was going to be ‘life changing.’ She didn’t think it could ever be that impressive,” he said. “After spending some time out there, she came back and apologized. She’s now been a volunteer with us every year for the past 12 years.”

This year, the migration peak is about one week off schedule. Taddicken said that next week should see the annual bird meeting at its height.

What strikes Taddicken most is the sound. He said that at one time, you can stare out and see up to 100,000 cranes massing together, “speaking” with one another. Their collective sounds can be heard from a mile away.

“They are all talking at one time, and it’s truly an audial and visual experience,” he added. “It can be enjoyed by people without sight. It can be seen by people without hearing. It’s just an amazing spectacle.”

Taddicken stressed that it is important the conservation work on the Platte River continue.

“It’s a huge benefit not just to the economy, but to the people here,” he said. “There’s a saying that ‘when the birds thrive, the people prosper.’ ”