Weekend Trip to Kearney | Fort Kearny State Recreation Area & Historic Site | Sandhill Crane Migration | March 2021
Almost exactly a year ago, we found out that we would be moving to Nebraska. After the initial freak out and call my family, I googled “things to do in Nebraska,” and one of the first things to pop up was “watch the spring migration of the sandhill cranes.” At this point, I was all alone on an island and navigating those early days of the pandemic, and the idea of just road tripping to the middle of nowhere with Curtis and Charlotte to look at birds sounded perfect. Now here we are, one year later, and we were able to make that trip happen!
The sandhill crane migration in Nebraska takes place every year from around February until April, with mid-to-late March usually being the peak. Cranes spending the winter spread across the South of the US and Northern Mexico (including as far West as Arizona) and then migrate North in what is considered one of the last ‘Great American Migrations’ funneling through Central Nebraska due to the abundance of water and food on their way to Northern Canada, Alaska, and even Eastern Siberia.
We did a little research to make sure this year wasn’t completely off, and then planned a little weekend road trip to central Nebraska. We read that the cranes typically spend the days feeding in the fields, and then make their way over to the Platte river for the night around sunset. With this in mind, we decided to take our time driving out and back from Kearney, set up camp near the Platte river, and spend the sunset and sunrise watching the cranes.
We left Omaha on Saturday morning, driving West on I-80. We took the interstate to York, then exited and stuck to highways for the rest of the trip. Our first courthouse of the day was in York, for York County. This was the least exciting building for this weekend, but we still gave it the courtesy of a walk-around (mostly for Charlotte’s sake because we had been in the car for over an hour).
Next up, we took US-34 to Aurora and stopped to see the Hamilton county courthouse. We took another walk around the block, then continued to Grand Island. Here we saw what was probably our favorite courthouse of the day, however the sun was right behind it so I don’t have great pictures to prove it. At this point, we began taking US-30 to Kearney. When we were driving from Iowa to Arizona back in 2015 we had taken US-30 from Cedar Rapids all the way to Grand Island, and today we clinched another stretch from Grand Island to Kearney. The best part about avoiding the interstate today was that we were able to see some flocks of sandhill cranes feeding in the fields along the highway!
Once we made it to Kearney, we drove South to our intended campsite for the night in Fort Kearny State Recreation Area. We were fortunate to have such temperate weather for camping in mid-March, however this meant that the campsite was quite full — mostly full of RV’s, because we’ve learned that camping in state parks and recreation areas just means “see how many RVs we can pack into this small space for profit.” Case in point, almost every ‘primitive’ (read: without an electric hookup) was converted to an electric site over the fall/winter, a point commiserated by both the park staff and us. Oh well, we were just happy to have a $20 spot to set up our tent.
Since we were tired of driving at this point and just wanted to walk, we decided to walk a mile to Fort Kearny State Historical Park. We took a trail that ran along the border of the recreation area to a dirt road, which then led us to the fort. Along the way, we saw many more cranes in the fields on either side of us, and watched from a distance while they flew in small groups from one side of the road to the other. We became familiar with their cry, one that we would be hearing a lot more of throughout the night and the next morning.
Curtis: In the 1840’s, during the peak trans-continental migration of the Oregon, California, and Mormon Trails (very few people cared to settle Nebraska then), the Government took a vested interested in defending and assisting settlers on their move West and established Fort Kearny (the ‘e’ in the town name was added later) in 1848. The fort became a major stop along the trail with small communities built up nearby and other, later trails deliberately making stops. The fort’s role was so much on the supportive side that a palisade wasn’t even constructed until the end of the Civil War and the beginning of hostilities with the Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapahoe, and other Plains tribes during the Colorado War. And while the fort supplied and supported some of the cavalry fighting further West in Colorado and Wyoming, and provided a place of refuge for occasionally displaced settlers, it itself never saw action. Completion of the Union Pacific Railroad on the North Side of the Platte and a lull in hostilities against the Plains Tribes signaled the end of the Fort which was dismantled and closed in 1871. Today, under the Nebraska State Parks system, the land is platted out to show where the foundations of buildings were, and a mock palisade is built on the earthworks of the old palisade.
Jess: Back at the campsite, it was shaping up to be a rather windy evening. We made plans for how we’d view the cranes — we decided we’d stay close and walk over to the nearby pedestrian bridge over the Platte River for sunset. But because we didn’t know what to expect, we thought we’d get there over a half hour early in case the cranes came early, and to get a spot in case there were a lot of people. We made some canned soup for dinner, then hung out playing games in the tent until 6.
Up until this point, we were unsure of how we’d handle Charlotte while around the cranes. We weren’t concerned about how she’d react, because unlike us she doesn’t seem to care much about birds, but worried that the professional bird watchers would judge us for brining our dog. In the tent, she was sleeping all curled up in a ball on our pillows and we thought we could just sneak out, but as soon as she caught on to the fact that we were preparing to leave she got excited. It was then that she discovered, for the first time in her 5 ½ years of camping, that she could stick her head through the zippers and open the door. That’s when we decided we’d bring her — we could always bring her back if things didn’t work out.
We walked through the campsite to the pedestrian bridge, and confirmed that dogs were allowed on the ‘bird etiquette’ info board. We walked a ways down the bridge passed other people who were starting to gather here as well, and found a spot where we could be on our own. We sat here together for over a half an hour, waiting for something to happen.
Honestly, we didn’t know what to expect, we imagined that we were here to see the cranes fly over to the Platte and settle in for the night. We waited and waited, but the official time for sunset arrived and not much had happened. We could see large flocks of cranes far off in the distance to the East, but it didn’t look like they’d be coming any closer. We were starting to question whether we had made the right decision. Some people who seemed like locals pontificated to no one in particular that ‘Sometimes the birds just don’t come anywhere near you’. Sensible enough. So we left our chosen spot and walked a bit more of the bridge.
But shortly after sunset, flocks of cranes started flying over us. First it was small groups here and there, then more, and soon it was almost constant. We stood in awe and listened to their cry, over and over. In the end, that was probably a better crane experience than what we had expected — to watch the cranes flying over us with a beautiful sunset as a backdrop. We watched until it was nearly dark, then hurried back to our tent for a blustery night.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, Charlotte did amazing while we were out there. She waited very patiently while we sat on the bridge, and as expected she did nothing that would have bothered the cranes or any other bird or bird watchers around us. My favorite moment was looking down as the cranes were flying over us, and seeing her alert with her paws against a railing, watching intently along with us. I’m so happy we were able to share this experience with her!