Saturday, April 22, 2017

A Bridge to nowhere…but to Watch Cranes

Bridges generally span waterways providing pass-over links to roadways. But this particular bridge in Fort Kearney in Nebraska built over the river Platte River is to nowhere, but to watch cranes.  

The Sandhill Crane stopover here on its back migration from Mexico and Texas to Canada and Alaska.

Central American Flyway
The arrival of the Sandhill cranes and millions of other migratory birds in the Platte river valley is one of the greatest spectacles in the continent. Each year during the months of March to early April this spectacle takes place. More then 80 percent of the world's Sandhill Crane populations converge around Kearney in Nebraska where the central American bird flyway becomes narrowest. They converge with multitudes of other migrant birds at a staging-post where they find safe roosting in the Platte River valley. The fields around here are harvested by then and the waste grain scattered in the fields provide supplementary  energy needed for their last nonstop flight from here to Alaska, Canada and for some even to far away Siberia………..

Sandhill Cranes foraging in harvested fields
A bird is generally named in its birth habitat; but in this case it is different and the Sandhill Crane Grus canadensis is thus named for its association in such large numbers in a single locality in the Sand Hills  region of the American plains in Nebraska. However its scientific name is derived with its breeding grounds in Canada, thereby giving prominence to its Canadian birth origin.

roosting cranes

Adults Sandhill Cranes are generally of a grey plumage during the breeding season while in  migration the plumage is usually worn and stained, and looks nearly ochre. They have red foreheads, white cheeks, and long, dark, pointed bills and in flight, their long, dark legs trail behind, and their long necks keep straight. Immature birds have reddish-brown upper parts and gray under parts. Their sexes look alike.

The crane migrates southwards in winter, all the way down to specific locations across North America. The Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico is famous with other  localities in the state of Texas. In New Mexico an annual Sandhill Crane Festival is held in November to celebrate their arrival annually.

The migration of the crane has been taking place from time immemorial and science have now reviled this through fossil records from Nebraska accounting to a period of over 2.5 million years.

They are generally herbivorous but would adapt differently to availability of food. They usually live in pairs during breeding and only flock together during migration. The female would lay a single egg and would raise one brood per year and the juvenile would be fed rigorously by the parent birds up to a month after hatching. The young become independent within 9 to 10 months.  

Every year a large number of birders come over to Kearney Bridge and surrounding areas to watch this spectacular event during the month of March. 

From around 4:00 p. m. they start circulating 

I was fortunate to have been there in March 2017 and the gathering of the cranes was definitely a breathtaking experience. Interested birders and photographers start to converge on the bridge for the event every evening from early as 2:00 p. m. for the climax which takes place around 6:00 p. m..

One could hear the trumpeting of the cranes with the elongated “R” syllable ……….and they start circling overhead from about 4:00 p. m. when they keep passing over the bridge from time to time. Its only when the time is about 6:30 p. m. and the sun setting in the west of the bridge and the sky goes in to a riot of indigo that the calls intensify an the birds start to congregate low silhouetting the colorful sky and the landing commence in the far eastern side of the bridge on the sand islands formed within the Platte River……..





This particular day we were eagerly waiting for a special event that we may witness while on the bridge. A solitary Bald Eagle was also eagerly waiting in the water in close proximity to the crane roosting area possibly to predate on them.

A Bald Eagle also waits patiently for the Cranes
The cranes seeing the eagle, they would not land for a long time and the frustrated eagle having waited all this while took off in the fading light to its nightly roost….no sooner the Sandhill Cranes descended to settle in the sands with darkness blanketing all around….

IMG_5639 copy copy

The spectacle lasted for over an hour and the racket they made while in the air is now dying down. And by 7:30 p. m. it was all over... silence took over from here and the people started moving out. Far away beyond the Sandhill Cranes it was the White-tail Deer coming stealthily into the river for its evening  drink  before venturing  into their nightly foraging grounds……. 

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