Three-day jaunt a taste of normal

It had been over a year since Kathy and I had taken a major road trip — that is, crossing one of Iowa’s state lines. We are now more than two weeks beyond our second Pfizer shot, which means we’re as protected from COVID-19 as we’re going to get. 

So we ventured a three-day jaunt westward last week. 

I’ve been a birder since seventh grade, back in the mid-1950s. I maintain a Life List where I record all the species I’ve ever seen. 

One bird I hadn’t seen for many decades was the sandhill crane. They winter in the South, and every spring they migrate through the Midwest to their nesting grounds in the northern U.S. and in Canada. Their main flyway passes through central Nebraska, where they sojourn for a few weeks in March and early April along the shallow Platte River, feeding on leftover corn in the fields during daylight hours and congregating in huge flocks on river sandbars to spend the night.

The operative word is “huge.” 

The cranes number in the hundreds of thousands. It’s an arresting sight to see them covering the fields for miles in every direction during the day. But more spectacular are the sunsets and sunrises, when they wheel in together for the evening and then wheel out at dawn.

I had never seen the migration, and Kathy was also curious. So we headed west from Jefferson on Highway 30 about 10 a.m. on Tuesday last week and reached Kearney, Neb., billed as Sandhill Crane City, about 3 in the afternoon.

It was pretty windy that day, and we wanted to avoid the heavy truck traffic on Interstate 80. Trucks sometimes veer across their lane lines in strong winds, and our trip was supposed to be relaxing. So we added an extra — and relaxing — half-hour to the trip through the towns and small cities along Highway 30, most of it following the original Lincoln Highway route.

As we approached Kearney we spotted our first crane flocks in cornfields bordering the highway. Entire fields fluttered. The sandhill crane, grey in color with a white face and red forehead, is about as tall as a great blue heron (up to five feet) but considerably bulkier. Its wings span up to 7½  feet. Several thousands of them together command attention.

Another American crane, even larger, is the whooping crane, white with black wings. Whoopers were nearly wiped out by the mid-20th century. They’ve since made a comeback but are still relatively rare. 

Whoopers sometimes migrate with sandhills. As we approached Kearney I commented to Kathy, “I’d sure like to see some whooping cranes.”

She was silent for a bit, then burst into uncontrollable laughter. She finally regained control enough to tell me she thought I had said “pooping cranes.” 

She finally replied, “Well, it seemed a little strange, but whatever you want. You’re the bird watcher.”

We found our motel, checked in and consulted the guide documents we had printed out from the internet. After a rest and dinner, we drove east from Kearney a few miles on a local route to one of three or four viewing stations along the Platte to watch the cranes fly in for the night.

They didn’t disappoint.

At first, a few smaller flocks of 20 or 30 birds crossed overhead, then several larger flocks of 200 or 300, and finally, just before sunset, the sky suddenly filled with thousands upon thousands of cranes, rattling their odd call. They wheeled like the migrating starlings and blackbirds we see here in spring and fall, forming and reforming arabesques in the thermals as they circled down.

It was an unusually cold evening, but the sight was worth it. Before dark fell completely, hundreds of thousands of cranes had settled wing to wing on an expansive sandbar just upstream from the viewing station. 

We had seen what we came to see. Watching their takeoff at dawn would have been a repeat show, and anyway we don’t see many dawns these days. 

So Wednesday morning we had a leisurely breakfast at the motel, packed our stuff and headed east out of Kearney, this time taking Interstate 80. If you’ve driven I-80 through Nebraska, you’ve passed below the arch that spans the road just east of Kearney. It’s a museum of westward travel from the 1820s to the present. 

We went up in the arch and followed America’s westward expansion through the museum exhibits, using individual recorded devices that explained each site. One of the best museums we’ve visited, and well worth the couple of hours we spent. One of the exhibit rooms highlights the Lincoln Highway, a section of special interest to us since we live a block south of the original route.

After dinner in Omaha and overnight in Council Bluffs, we arrived back home about noon Thursday. 

We count our three-day trip as the end of our COVID confinement. We’re ready to return to life as it was 13 months ago.

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Jefferson Bee & Herald
Address: 200 N. Wilson St.
Jefferson, IA 50129

Phone:(515) 386-4161