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Sandhill Cranes Provide a Special Experience

By Bryce Arens, Nebraska Tourism Commission

The rise is met with a drop. The drop elicits little sound, if it did few among the eight other spectators gathered close together would notice. Their focus is on the roar. From late February through early April the Platte River Valley is home to the migration of hundreds of thousands of Sandhill Cranes, each spending two to three weeks there as they have done for thousands of years. The Wall Street Journal calls it one of the world’s greatest natural spectacles. In Nebraska when the cranes rise, jaws drop, the roar of thousands of birds drowning out all else.

When I first heard about the Sandhill Crane migration I didn’t get it. I grew up in Omaha through high school and went to college in Lincoln, admittedly oblivious to much that happened west of there, especially what was going on along the Platte River. I likely would have continued to be oblivious if I had not gotten a job at the Nebraska Tourism Commission, my first out of college. Soon I was traveling to, and gaining insight in, parts of the state I had not seen before, but I still had not seen the much hyped cranes and consequently still didn’t get people’s amazement with them. Pretty photos sure, impressive numbers absolutely, but they’re just birds right?

It’s 6:00 a.m. and I’m sitting in a viewing blind owned by the Crane Trust in Alda. In the blind with me are eight University of Nebraska-Lincoln hospitality majors. We are on a trip to showcase what college students can do in Nebraska and we have come to see the cranes, this blind being our first stop. We are cold; the temperature is likely below freezing, with many layers, stocking caps, gloves and much coffee fighting to keep us warm. It is completely dark out; our guide had to lead us to the blind by flashlight. As I sit, the warmth and restful sleep of my usual morning pull at my mind as I take stock of my surroundings.

 It’s quiet within the blind, a wooden structure which is about 40 feet long and 5 to 6 feet deep, with benches that run its length. A dozen or so squares, each covered by clear plastic windows to be opened, are cut into the front about five feet high. Through them we can tell we are several hundred feet from the bank of a portion of the Platte River. When the sun rises these windows will be our windows to our much anticipated crane viewing, but right now we see only black, save for what appear to be a few small islands or sandbars outlined by the moon reflecting off the water. By sight alone it would seem there is nothing to see here, but our ears make it clear that is not the case. A steady mixture of sound, undeniably the call of many, many birds, has not ceased since we left our van a half hour before. My attention has no doubt been piqued, but still they’re just birds right?   

The sun has now begun to rise and I am surprised to see what I thought were islands or sandbars were actually groups of hundreds, maybe thousands of birds sitting on the water. Just on the section of the river in front of us there are ten or more groups. The windows are now open, cameras operating just behind them soundlessly and without flash to not scare the birds. Within an hour of the sunrise, photos catch small groups of one or two cranes, sometimes a few more taking flight against the natural backdrop of the morning sky. Through binoculars you can see up close the large groups gathered on the water, each with the sandhill crane’s distinctive red forehead that extends to their beak. At this point I am astounded by the sheer number of them, but am not prepared for what is coming from down the river. A rise, a roar, a drop, and forever a memory.

When I first heard the roar it took me back to the many times I had watched football games in Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium. A player breaks into the open field. The sound rises on one end of the stadium, the volume increasing as it moves across the rest. By the time the player reaches the end zone you are enveloped in the roar. As I sat in the blind that familiar roar again hit me, the cold, the lack of sleep and the waiting forgotten in that moment.

It starts as a murmur far down the river, a wall of black dots silhouetted by the sun, all rising in unison. As they fly closer the wall widens, flock upon flock rising from the river, a crescendo of sound accompanying them. By the time they are overhead, you are within the roar of thousands of cranes calling to each other, their wings steady in their rhythm. As I watch them I understand what the hype is about, something my agape mouth can attest to. The eight cameras hurriedly taking photos tells me the others understand too.

If you are like me, your jaw is not dropped by things often; it takes something truly awing to elicit that response.  Something that is unique and entertaining. The strips of land along the Platte River in Central Nebraska provide that experience. The kind of experience that has drawn visitors from all 50 states and over 50 countries this year, according to the two prominent conservation and crane viewing operations in Nebraska, the Crane Trust and the Ian Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary outside of Gibbon. If you want that experience I encourage you to visit the Crane Trust or Rowe Sanctuary, both offer daily guided tours in the blinds in the morning and evening. Other viewing opportunities also exist, which are detailed on the Crane Trust and Rowe Sanctuary websites.

Soon the cranes will move on from Nebraska, their migration taking them north. While they are here, this year or in the future, join them for a morning or evening. All you will need is a warm coat, a camera and the understanding that when they rise, your jaw may drop.

Contact the Nebraska Tourism Commission for more information on Sandhill Crane Viewing opportunities at 402-471-3796 or on our website at

Unique Foodie Experiences

As an agricultural epicenter, Nebraska is a foodie paradise with unique food encounters. From farm-to-table masterpieces to secret locations and menus, the Nebraska culinary scene is a happening place. The Lincoln Secret Supper is taken from secret dinner models from larger cities. Each dinner location is a secret and so is the menu. This culinary rendezvous is having another dinner on October 16 and 17. The Lincoln Secret Supper partners with the Lincoln community to create a neighborhood atmosphere featuring a family-style dining to facilitate meeting the other guests. Check out some of the past locations and dinners which look delicious!

In North Platte, the Beef and Wine Tour is the pinnacle of Nebraska agriculture the two of the best food products of Nebraska. But this isn’t just a dinner, it’s an educational experience. Guests can learn about food production and research at the University of Nebraska West Central Research Center from the greens to the meat. After the tour of the research facilities, the guests head to Feather River Vineyard to learn about Nebraska wine production. The final—and best—part of the night is the feast which features a lesson on the perfect pairing for beef and wine. The Blank Slate Theater in Ord has more than just movies. The chef and staff are committed to local agriculture and innovative culinary work. The Blank Slate is so committed to the farm to table movement that the chef personally meets with the farmers at North Star Neighbors Farm. Enjoy dinner and a show with amazing local food. Take a trip to the past and experience the pioneer lifestyle at the High Plains Homestead. This drive out to the badlands is worth this old-fashioned meal. The Drifter Cookshack offers traditional cowboy fare during their cookouts which feature steak, ribs or salmon. Oh! And they have buffalo meat too. Take a walk on the wild side and try the Indian Taco. The Common Good Farm is an organic holding near Raymond. They are committed to stewardship and nutrition. Their products can be found at the Old Cheney Road Farmers Market in Lincoln or at the gate of their farm. The Common Good Farm features grass fed beef, pastured pork and certified organic, pasture raised eggs. Don’t forget to call in advance and ask for the availability of their products and their special order items. The Nebraska culinary scene features unique farm-to-table dining experiences with friends or strangers in some amazing locations across the state.

Fishing? In the Fall?


Nebraska is a state of variety.  The geography of the state, climate, habitats, fish and wildlife vary greatly from one corner of the state to another.  Fall is a great time to hit the state’s waters and sample some of that variety, but too many folks think fall is time to put away rods and reels and get out the shotguns, bows, and rifles.  It’s not, and in fact fall is one of the best times of the year to fish Nebraska waters.  At the very least, outdoorsfolks should plan to include some time on the water in conjunction with their hunting trips.  Here are some of the best places to look for excellent fall fishing in Nebraska.

Irrigation Reservoirs
Large reservoirs are the best habitats in Nebraska for a variety of open-water fish like walleyes, hybrid striped bass (i.e. wipers), white bass and others.  As baitfish begin to gather in deeper water for the winter, anglers can experience some great fishing for some of the biggest and fattest predator fish that follow and prey on those baitfish. In the fall, anglers are successful vertically jigging a variety of baits that imitate stressed and dying baitfish on reservoirs like McConaughy, Merritt, Sherman, and others.

Pine Ridge Trout Streams
The buttes and pines of Nebraska’s Pine Ridge offer some of the prettiest country in the state.  Nestled in the canyons and valleys between those buttes are some cold-water streams that contain reproducing populations of brown and brook trout.  Those trout species spawn in the fall and their intense spawning colors match the beauty of the fall scenery around them.  In the fall with the insects being gone, cooler weather and less vegetation and brush, a person can experience a pleasant day hiking along a Pine Ridge creek catching beautiful trout.  Try both the middle and south fork of Soldiers Creek on the Soldier Creek Wilderness area, the White River or Big Bordeaux Creek.

Sandhills Lakes
The lakes in the Sandhills are some of the only true natural lakes found in the state and are uniquely Nebraskan.  All of the lakes are relatively shallow and extremely productive. Aquatic vegetation can be extensive during mid- and late-summer and that can make fishing a challenge.  But, in the fall the aquatic vegetation begins to die back and the fish feed heavily.  Lakes on the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, Goose Lake, Smith Lake and many others bodies of water offer some of the state’s best fishing for northern pike, panfish and some of the fattest, prettiest largemouth bass found anywhere.

For more information see or contact Fisheries Outreach Program Manager Daryl Bauer at 402-471-5005 or

Nebraska off the beaten path

Nebraska is the perfect place for travelers to relive special memories of road trips past. Traditionalists may want to stick to tried-and-true tourist destinations. But, for those who’ve already experienced the view from the Nebraska State Capitol or spent an afternoon at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo, there’s plenty to see and do off the beaten path.

Automotive Homage
The Panhandle is the perfect place for a rustic retreat set against rugged badlands and star-saturated night skies. Just outside of Alliance, travelers will find something surprising—Carhenge, a tribute to England’s Stonehenge built to scale with 38 vintage cars.

Food and Fossils
Travelers headed to Ogallala’s Big Mac for a day on the water can spend their downtime finding history at the Petrified Wood Gallery in Ogallala and down-home flavors at Ole’s Big Game Steakhouse in Paxton. The Petrified Wood Gallery showcases ancient woods, fossils and American Indian arrowheads. Ole’s Big Game Steakhouse is a worldwide safari and small-town eatery wrapped into one, as diners enjoy comfort food like chicken fried steak surrounded by hunting trophies, including a full-size polar bear.

Diatomic Rock
The Sandhills, known for lazy, winding rivers and a relaxed lifestyle, has an unexpected geologic feature. In the 1850s, a U.S. Army explorer found a cave of strange, lightweight rock. The diatomic “chalk” was initially used as building material before being mined for other purposes, including use as paint filler. Now, visitors can explore more than 6,000 feet of honeycombed caverns on guided tours through the Happy Jack Peak and Chalk Mine near Scotia.

New Looks
Classic cars and modern technology collide at the Classic Car Collection in Kearney. The nation’s newest automobile attraction houses 130 vehicles from the 1900s to the present. The exhibit goes interactive with iPads that allow travelers to find details about the cars’ inner workings and stories behind the models. In nearby Minden, travelers can find quiet country charm at Burchell’s White Hill Farmhouse Inn. The historic farmhouse is outfitted with modern conveniences, and the on-site restaurant serves up home-style fare, including a nightly Tin Plate Special.

Coloful Collectibles
Southeast Nebraska offers travelers a glimpse of pioneer life. But those seeking something more obscure can visit Lee’s Legendary Marbles and Collectibles in York. Lee Batterton has always been fascinated by the unique colors and patterns of marbles. His favorites are the gold-filled Lutz marbles, while history buffs will appreciate the rare pre-World War I marbles filled with uranium. Travelers who are crazy for collectibles may lose their marbles at Lee’s.

Trout Tour
In northeast Nebraska lies some of the state’s most picturesque landscapes and attractions to bait anyone’s interest. One such attraction is the Grove Lake Trout Rearing Station, about 1 ½ miles west of Royal. Operated by the Nebraska Game & Parks Commission, the site rears approximately 130,000 rainbow trout hatchlings each year until their weight reaches a half pound. The trout are then stocked in lakes and streams across Nebraska. Visitors can stop by to learn about the rearing process, take a walk on the well-kept grounds or feed the fish from dispensers around the ponds.

Great Skates
In Lincoln, Nebraska’s capital city, the National Museum of Roller Skating is an unusual find among the more common history and art museums. The museum houses the world’s largest collection of roller skating memorabilia. One unique item in the museum’s collection is a pair of jetpack skates from 1956. The skates can be propelled up to 40 miles per hour by a 16-pound gas engine worn like a backpack. Find more off-the-beaten-path places to play and stay at  

History on the high plains

Nebraska is rich with history, and there are countless opportunities to learn about the state’s heritage, from the American Indians who roamed its plains to the settlers who tamed its lands.

The true locals
Long before Nebraska was admitted into the Union in 1867, several American Indian nations called this land their home. The Omaha, Otoe-Missouria, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Pawnee, Lakota and Ponca are just some of the tribes who have enriched Nebraska with their cultures and traditions. Standing Bear, a Ponca chief from northeast Nebraska, was one famous American Indian who left an indelible legacy on Nebraska. After he was forcibly removed to a reservation in Oklahoma, Standing Bear argued that he was entitled to legal rights protected by the U.S. Constitution. He won his case and the American Indian was finally recognized as “a person within the meaning of the law.” In 1977, Standing Bear was inducted into the Nebraska Hall of Fame. Visitors to the Nebraska State Capitol can find his likeness in a bronze bust in the Nebraska Hall of Fame and in a mural adorning the wall of the Memorial Chamber in the Capitol’s 400-foot tower.

Frontier forts
In the early days of western settlement, military forts dotted Nebraska’s landscape to protect pioneers headed west and to facilitate trade.

Fort Atkinson State Historical Park, near present-day Fort Calhoun, was the first fort built west of the Missouri River. Established in 1820 on the recommendation of the Meriwether Lewis and William Clark expedition, it was important to the fur trade, river traffic and American Indian relations of the region. Travelers can visit restored buildings and watch live history demonstrations, like blacksmithing and gunsmithing at the Armorer’s Shop. For the perfect mix of history and recreation, a visit to Fort Robinson State Park near Crawford fits the bill. Operational from 1873 to 1948, the fort served as the Red Cloud Indian Agency, a cavalry remount station, a K-9 training center and a POW camp. It was here that renowned Oglala Sioux warrior Crazy Horse was killed while in custody in 1877. Visitors to the park can overnight in converted officers’ quarters and hike and bike a network of trails that lace the pine-scented bluffs. At Fort Kearny State Historical Park near Kearney, travelers can walk on the parade grounds, visit the blacksmith shop and spend time in a stockade.

Military history
Military enthusiasts can find reminders of the past in towns and cities across the state. The Higgins boat, designed by a Nebraska native, played a crucial role in WWII. More than 20,000 of these boats were built and used as a landing craft for soldiers, allowing deployment in shallow waters for invasions such as that on Normandy Beach. Travelers are invited to come aboard a replica at the Andrew Jackson Higgins National Memorial in Columbus.

Aviation enthusiasts should look no further than the Strategic Air & Space Museum near Ashland. The museum, which houses a collection of legendary aircraft, missiles and spacecraft, boasts exhibits on Nebraska astronaut Clayton Anderson and the Strategic Air Command, a pivotal player during the Cold War era. The Heartland Museum of Military Vehicles in Lexington has over 100 examples of military transportation on display, including helicopters tanks, halftracks, ambulances and Jeeps, along with weapons, uniforms and equipment. Find more Nebraska history and other attractions at