GRAND ISLAND, Neb. — After a February of super cold weather, the sun’s warmth has made its presence felt again in south-central Nebraska.
The warm weather and cool breezes from the south have aided the seasonal sandhill crane migration.
According to a recent aerial survey by the Crane Trust, the group estimates that about 450,000 sandhill cranes have made their way into the area during the first week of March.
That, according to the experts at the Crane Trust, is close to the sandhill cranes migration peak and it still is early in the season.
What is missing this season, though, are the people.
Each year, thousands of people from across Nebraska, the United States and many other countries make a pilgrimage to the Platte River to watch the annual migration, which has been called one of the largest on Earth.
Last year, at this time, the Crane Trust had to close its public blinds because of the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even with the help of masks, social distancing and vaccines, and with the nation starting to see a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, The Grand Island Independent reports the Crane Trust is keeping the blinds closed again this year.
The Crane Trust has two public blinds along the Platte River, south of Interstate 80, on Alda Road. The blinds can accommodate more than 40 people in close quarters, which the Crane Trust officials determined was not safe especially as the visitors are from throughout the U.S. and from around the world.
Having the Crane Trust Visitor and Nature Center closed and not having tours during migration season creates a financial strain on the Crane Trust as a lot of their yearly operating revenues are earned during the migration season, according to Crane Trust officials.
The Crane Trust Inc. was formed in 1978 as part of a court-approved settlement of a controversy over the construction of Grayrocks Dam on a tributary of the Platte River in Wyoming. Its main thrust is land maintenance along the Platte River in providing overnight accommodation for the cranes, whopping cranes and other endangered species or migratory birds that use the Platte River as a respite for their annual migration to their breeding grounds in the north.
While the Crane Trust received an endowment to do its conservation and research for migratory and endangered wildlife, the spectacle of hundreds of thousands of migrating birds also proved to be an educational opportunity to show the public the importance of its work, along with allowing people to experience this natural phenomenon up close and personally.
So, this year, the Crane Trust looked outside the box for a solution.
Instead of having people come to see this extravaganza in person (which is their preference) they took the spectacle to the people via technology.
Like many things during the ongoing pandemic, experiencing things virtually, whether it is meetings or tours or presentations, has become part of the COVID-19 routine.
Crane Trust officials, working diligently, put up a closed circuit camera that can be operated and narrated by a Crane Trust expert to create a virtual experience that people around the world may tune into during the migration season from the comfort of their home. It is like being in the blind, but without the weather, which at times can be cold and miserable during late winter and early spring.
“The virtual crane experience was instituted this year because we were unable to have the public in for tours this year,” said Sandra Douglas, Crane Trust community coordinator. “We had thought about it for a long time, but this (pandemic) gave us motivation this year to go ahead with the project.”
To provide the best virtual experience, Douglas said they installed fiber optic cable and a state-of-the-art camera along the river, looking to the west along the Platte River from the Crane Trust headquarters. That gives the viewer an expansive view of the river and its lodgers – the cranes – to see. The operation is flexible and can be moved to provide the best location for experiencing the cranes
The camera is controlled by an operator inside the headquarters.
“We have been able to get amazing close-up shots with this camera, which you can only get sometimes with binoculars from inside the blinds,” Douglas said.
To access the virtual crane experience, Douglas said the annual membership fee is $75. While the virtual crane experience is not a substitute to seeing the cranes up close and personally, it is a tremendous buy as you can participate in the tour experience every time it is available for the low, one-time cost compared with the $30-plus cost of a one-time personal blind tour.
“Our members can have 24/7 access to the camera portal,” Douglas said.
Along with cranes, on any given day, members can view an array of migratory birds, such as pelicans, eagles, ducks, geese and even the endangered whooping crane.
While viewers cannot manipulate the camera, they can tune in on what the camera sees at any time.
During the crane migration season, the camera operator is at the controls about a half-an-hour before sunrise and a hour before sundown when the cranes come home to roost on the river for the night. Each tour last 90 minutes. The tours are conducted Wednesday through Sunday, when a guide can conduct the tour and answer questions.
“We can point to things as they happen and intersperse the conversation with facts about the crane,” Douglas said.
Douglas said the Crane Trust probably will continue the virtual crane experience once the public blinds are reopened during migration season. But, they also hope that the virtual crane experience will draw people to central Nebraska to see it for themselves.
“More and more people are learning about the migration and the importance of maintaining this habitat,” she said.
The virtual tours will continue through March 31.
“It is evolving as we do it, but we are finding a tremendous interest and response,” Douglas said.