Birding Escapes: Kearney, Nebraska

By Bobby Harrison
From the Autumn 2014 issue of Living Bird magazine.
American White Pelican by Michael Andersen via Birdshare
Nebraska’s Kearney area is a great place to see thousands of migrating American White Pelicans (pictured) and Sandhill Cranes.Photo by Michael Andersen via Birdshare.

Every spring one of the world’s great migration spectacles takes place near Kearney, Nebraska, when hundreds of thousands of Sandhill Cranes converge on the Platte River to refuel before continuing their journey to their northern nesting grounds. It’s an experience that should not be missed.

The Audubon Rowe Sanctuary and the Crane Trust near Kearney are among the best locations to see this great convergence. Both preserves have superb blinds set along the river’s edge, providing unparalleled close-up views and photography opportunities. They’re the perfect places to watch cranes as they fly to their feeding grounds in the early morning hours and back to their roosts at sundown.

Sandhill Cranes are not the only birds that congregate in central Nebraska during spring migration. Harlan County Lake, some 30 miles south of Kearney, is a stopover point for tens of thousands of American White Pelicans on their migration. The pelicans begin arriving around March, forming huge flotillas on the open water. They can also be seen in large flocks climbing thermals above the lake or resting and preening on sandbars and mudflats. The best way to see the pelicans is on a boat tour, available at the North Shore Marina near Republican City.

Other birds to watch for along the Platte River and around Harlan County Lake are Bald Eagles, Peregrine Falcons, Horned Grebes, and numerous waterfowl, shorebirds, and passerines. And don’t forget to scan the flocks of Sandhill Cranes carefully; almost every year a rare Whooping Crane shows up on the Platte River.

With a mesmerizing crane migration and thousands of pelicans, Kearney, Nebraska, is a spectacular place for spring birding. Kearney is a 2 ½-hour drive from Omaha, Nebraska, and a 5-hour drive from Denver, Colorado. The closest airport is in Lincoln, Nebraska.

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