Naturalist Journeys, LLC - Small Group Birding and Natural History Tours

Platte River Cranes and Prairie Chickens Tour
Birding and Nature Tours with Naturalist Journeys
March 10-16, 2014


“The crane migration was phenomenal and “sound” is so important” D-Ann Brock

Sandhill CraneEach year, half a million Sandhill Cranes descend upon the Platte River. By March, 80% of the world’s population crowds a 150-mile stretch, the largest gathering of cranes anywhere in the world! Here they rest and feed before continuing on to breeding grounds in Canada, Alaska and Siberia. Among the cranes are a few of their rare cousins, the Whooping Cranes, and over 10 million ducks and geese, bright in breeding plumage. We combine this world-class spectacle in nature with the chance to see two species of North American grouse on their breeding leks in the beautiful Sandhills of Nebraska, about two hours north of Kearney.  We see Greater Prairie Chickens and Sharp-tailed Grouse from blinds set up on a family ranch where several generations are committed to blending ranching with wildlife conservation. Located on Calamus Reservoir, we have the chance to also see Bald Eagles in abundance, White Pelicans and a good variety of waterfowl.



Mon., March 10 Arrival in Lincoln, Nebraska / Drive to Kearney
Arrive in Lincoln, Nebraska by 2:00 PM today*.  We have a 2 ½ hour drive out toKearney and should start seeing our first Snow Geese near York and the first Sandhill Cranes just east of Platte River CranesGrand Island. Enjoy coffee and a break at the Nebraska Nature and Visitor Center (formerly known as Crane Meadows) just past Grand Island. Harris Sparrows, Black-billed Magpies, Eastern Phoebes and Eastern Bluebirds are some of the birds we may find here at feeders and on easy trails.

We’ll view Sandhill Cranes from the roadside and then settle into our lodgings for the next 4 nights, and enjoy a welcome dinner.
Accommodations at the Holiday Inn Express, Kearney. (D)
*If you need to, or prefer to arrive the day before, we recommend the Embassy Suites Hotel, an historic downtown property, close to Lincoln’s Haymarket Square, which has numerous shops and restaurants. This hotel has an airport shuttle or if you prefer, there are also several hotels near the airport.

Sandhill Cranes dancingTues., March 11 The Spectacle of “Crane Rise” on the Platte River
In the early morning hours we experience our first “crane rise” as the “gray sandbar islands” of the Platte River turn into clouds of Sandhill cranes leaving their roost sites. Pre-dawn crane music turns into a crescendo of wake-up calls as the cranes awaken andleave their riverine roost sites.  We have reserved blinds at Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuaryfor prime views of the cranes in areas along the river’s edge. With an expert crane naturalist from Audubon, we will experience the almost deafening chorus and clamor of tens of thousands of cranes taking flight toward the cornfields and prairies where they will forage during the day. After watching this exciting spectacle, we take Platte River Cranestime to view the displays at the sanctuary and to watch birds at the feeders: Harris, White-crowned and White-throated Sparrows, White-breasted Nuthatches, and possibly Red-bellied Woodpeckers.  We also may find Green-winged Teal or some early migrating shorebirds feeding on the river’s mudflats.  The remainder of the morning we spend viewing more crane activity in the fields, returning to Kearney for a lunch in town.

In the afternoon we visit historic Fort Kearny to learn more about the pioneers of the Oregon and Mormon Trails. In trees near the fort we look for wintering and resident passerine birds such as Cedar Waxwings, Northern Cardinals, and Blue Jays, Platte River Craneswhile keeping an eye out along the river for the majestic Bald Eagles that frequent the Platte.

Tonight you can choose to relax and savor the spectacle of this morning, or die-hard crane fans can venture back out at sunset to watch the cranes come in to roost from the vantage point of a nearby bridge over the river.  Those going back out can catch something to eat quickly and close to the hotel.  Those at leisure can enjoy dinner at a local steakhouse or another restaurant in Kearney.  The restaurant near our hotel will even deliver your meal to go, if you wish to tuck in after a full day.
Accommodations at the Holiday Inn Express, Kearney (B,L)

Wed., March 12 Rainwater Basin-Ducks & Geese Galore and an evening of Platte River Cranes
Today we enjoy a more leisurely morning after yesterday’s early awakening.  Mid-morning, we drive south to wetlands and ponds of the famous Rainwater Basin, one of the west’s most important areas for migrant waterfowl. Depending upon season and Platte River Cranesweather conditions, the sheer number of birds in these wetlands often defies the imagination in a wet year. We hope to find over a dozen species of waterfowl, and with luck we’ll find some of the thousands of wintering Snow and Ross’ geese and perhaps a few White-fronted Geese still lingering there. We will scout a local prairie dog town looking for Burrowing Owls. Then as we angle our way back through farm fields and roads, we have a chance to watch crane behavior in detail. Watch for pair bonding activities, dancing, strutting, feeding, resting, and other flock dynamics. 

Platte River CranesEnjoy lunch at a delightful local café in Minden. Returning to Rowe Sanctuary, we check the feeders to see if we can find Harris’ Sparrows or Cedar Waxwings. We also point our scopes towards the Platte River in search of migrant shorebirds.

We return for a break and an early dinner in Kearney, because this evening we have Audubon blinds reserved for our first close up attendance for “crane set.” With a falling curtain of daylight (hopefully spotlighted by a fabulous sunset) we will hear the cranes’ magical orchestra and see the pageantry of their wings as clouds of birds descend and transform into gray Platte River islands. 
Accommodations at the Holiday Inn Express, Kearney (B,L)

Thurs., March 13 Platte River / Perhaps a Whooper / Rainwater Basin East
Farm roads parallel the course of the Platte between Kearney and Grand Island Platte Riverand today we drive out to observe cranes in the field.  Many of the groups are restless by this time of year and displace their energies with dancing, calling and other displays, or rising and riding thermal updrafts. Many years, a Whooping Crane or a Whooping Crane family will have arrived by now and we network with colleagues and other observers to try for a sighting. 

In the afternoon, we make our plans according to the species we still hope to see. We’d like to end with one last sunset with cranes, so we celebrate our great week with cranes at a favorite local restaurant located in a historic farmhouse inn early, then return to the river for one last symphony of sound.
Accommodations at the Holiday Inn Express, Kearney (B,L,D)

Platte River Cranes

Fri., March 14 Prairie Chickens & Short-tailed Grouse, Bald Eagle Concentrations & More!
As we begin our trip north to Calamus Reservoir and accommodations at an award-winning ecotourism ranch, Platte River Craneswe pay a last visit to Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary’s impressive visitor center to check the latest sightings. As we progress east along the Platte we observe Sandhill Cranes that feed in the fields for as far as the eye can see. We also look for the first migrant shorebirds to show up along the Platte River, and for early songbird migrants such as Eastern Bluebird and Eastern Phoebe. We may be fortunate to spot an early Whooping Crane, as we head north following a scenic route along the Loup River. We arrive at our lodgings on a private ranch near Calamus Reservoir at Taylor in the afternoon, birding at Calamus Reservoir en route. Enjoy hospitality, and in the evening, a chance to look and listen for Great Horned and Eastern Screech Owls.
Accommodations at Calamus Outfitters, Taylor, NE (B,L,D)

Sat., March 15 Prairie Chickens Booming! / Calamus Reservoir
This morning we arise before dawn to be able to witness the spring courtship rites of Greater Prairie Chickens. By this time in March they have started their dawn-hour dancing and booming at lek (dancing ground) display sites.  Sharp-tailed Grouse may also be displaying at these sites.  With luck, we’ll also hear a dawn concert of Western Meadowlarks and watch Northern Harriers hunting near the lek site.

Prairie ChickensOur hosts at Calamus Outfitters have set up a great system for observing Greater Prairie Chickens at close range.  Our blind is an old school bus and the birds are right outside the windows! 

By 8:00 – 9:00 AM, activity at the lek will diminish and we return to the ranch for a delicious hot breakfast.  After a break, we drive around Calamus Reservoir, stopping at various fishing access points, some with trails, to find a variety of birds. We are likely to see Bald Eagles and a good variety of ducks – all bright in breeding plumage.  White Pelicans may pass as chevrons in the sky, and with luck we’ll find some of the first spring migrants such as Eastern Bluebirds or Eastern Phoebes.  We enjoy lunch in town, sampling a bit of Nebraska rural life. 

After the early morning rising, a nap or quiet time is likely in order for mid-afternoon.  Late afternoon we take a drive up to a nearby creek where warm springs provide open water for waterfowl and Horned Larks feed on prairie hillsides that line the road.  Wild Turkey and possible Long-eared Owls may be present on the ranch as well. As evening approaches we watch sunset over the prairie and enjoy dinner at our lodgings.
Accommodations at Calamus Outfitters, Taylor, NE (B,L,D)

Sharp-tailed GrouseSun., March 16 Sharp-tailed Grouse Lek / Departures
This morning we venture out early to witness the annual spring courtship rites ofanother elusive grassland species, the Sharp-tailed Grouse. It is remarkable to have displays of two species available for our viewing with such ease. It will be a great opportunity to compare the differences in behavior of the two species. The spring air is brisk, so we bundle up to drive out to another set of school bus blinds, and return again for a great hot breakfast.  Killdeers call from the yard, and with luck we may have a Rough-legged Hawk pass by overhead.

After breakfast, about 9 am, we will journey back to Lincoln. IMPORTANT - Please plan on flights out after 2:00 pm. We can also drop you at an airport hotel, or downtown or other hotel of your choosing if you to stay on in Lincoln, though there are several afternoon flights out of Lincoln so this should not be a problem. (B)

Ed and Sil Pembleton

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Cost of the journey is $1995.00, from Lincoln, NE. This is based on double occupancy and includes airport transfers, all accommodations, and meals as specified in the itinerary, professional guide services, local park and refuge fees, and miscellaneous program expenses.  It does not include round trip airfare to or from Lincoln, or items of a personal nature such as porterage, laundry, telephone, drinks from the bar, or other personal services.  Cost of the journey is based on a minimum of 8 people, with fewer a small group surcharge (typically $100-$300) may apply. Single supplement is $375.00.

You are responsible for planning your arrival to and departure from Lincoln, Nebraska.  Please plan to arrive in Lincoln no later than 2:00 PM. on March 10.  Please plan on departures after 2:00 PM on March 16.

Naturalist Journeys, LLC is an equal opportunity service provider and committed to the goal of ensuring equal opportunity for all in employment and program delivery.

Photo Credits:
Sandhill Crane (intro), Greg Smith; Sandhill Cranes Dancing, Narca Moore Craig; Cranes on lake,
Sharp-tailed Grouse, Prairie Chickens and Cranes in orange sky, Ed Pembleton; Ed and Sil Pembleton, Ron Klataske; all other photos, Peg Abbott.

Naturalist Journeys LLC, a top birding and nature tour company, offers specialty small group travel to many of the best nature destinations worldwide. Naturalist Journeys’ expert guides have decades of experience leading guided nature and birding tours as well as travel photography tours, all with a focus on responsible travel and eco-tourism. Naturalist Journeys also offer Utah hiking adventure tours and adventure travel in national parks and wildlife reserves ranging from in-depth Alaska wildlife tours to guided Texas and Florida birding tours. Costa Rica nature and birding tours are among our top-rated as are our Panama nature tours and African wildlife safari tours. Our many repeat clients enjoy dependable and diverse holidays on Galapagos nature tours, Arctic and Antarctica nature cruises, and birding and wildlife tours from Arizona to the Amazon and beyond.