A wayward crane usually seen only in Asia and Europe has created a stir among North American bird watchers as it hangs out in central Nebraska.
The single common crane — a cousin of the sandhill cranes that gather along the Platte River by the hundreds of thousands during spring migration — has inspired dozens of extreme birders from across the continent to travel to Nebraska for a glimpse.
Slow-moving birder traffic on the gravel and asphalt roads in the Platte countryside southwest of Grand Island, Neb., has been heavier than usual this winter.
One question dominates window-to-window conversations between passing vehicles: "Have you seen the bird?"
Many have, but it's getting tougher in recent weeks because migrating sandhill cranes have been pouring into the Platte Valley by the thousands.
"It's an avian needle in a haystack now," said Dan Glomski, program manager at the Crane Trust Nature & Visitor Center near Alda.
Common cranes resemble sandhill cranes in size and profile, but there are differences in plumage color. Sandhill cranes are uniformly gray. Common cranes are paler gray and have a distinctive black neck. Their spread wings are silver-gray and have a bold, black trailing edge.
"It's a stunning bird," said the Rev. Paul Dunbar of Hastings, who spotted the crane four weeks ago and started the stampede to south-central Nebraska.
Jack Powers hit the road from his winter home near Tucson, Ariz., within hours of reading about the sighting. He contacted Dunbar, drove more than 1,200 miles to Nebraska and started his search before sunset.
The next day, Powers and birders from Missouri, Tennessee and Nebraska trolled the Alda area without success until Dunbar spotted the crane again and called Powers' cellphone.
Birders flocked to the site. Dunbar even went searching for a couple of birders who couldn't be reached by phone and led them to the crane.
"Everybody there that day got to see the bird because of Paul," Powers said.
Powers, a 71-year-old retired certified public accountant from Michigan, has made birding trips that became wild goose chases. He recently drove to near the Canadian border in Washington to see a Ross's gull, but missed it. The common crane was Powers' 760th bird on his lifetime checklist of bird species.
"It's a lot more fun driving home when you see the thing than when you don't," he said.
Here's how Dunbar says the crane is usually spotted:
Clusters of birders with spotting scopes on tripods or long telephoto lenses on cameras stand on a roadside, scanning thousands of sandhill cranes feeding in distant fields of corn stalks. Half of the birds have their heads down in the stalks, seeking corn kernels.
"The bird watchers look and look and look, and then the (common crane's) head pops up — and people gasp," Dunbar said. "Even if the crane is a half mile away and a pinprick in the distance, it just sticks out like a sore thumb."
Dunbar, 39, is pastor at Faith Lutheran Church in Hastings. He started bird-watching as a 15-year-old in his native Indiana. When he accepted a call to serve the Hastings congregation in 2001, all he knew about south-central Nebraska was that the Platte River was a bird watcher's paradise in the spring.
Dunbar has more than 500 species on his life's list of observed birds. The common crane he first spotted Jan. 27 was No. 531.
It's a 14-minute drive from Dunbar's church office to the country intersection south of Alda where he first saw the common crane.
Dunbar was scouting the area Jan. 27 for migrating waterfowl and the flock of sandhill cranes that — for the first time in memory — wintered along the Platte.
He was south of the river in Hall County, driving along Rosedale Road between U.S. Highway 281 and Alda Road, when he saw a group of about 2,000 sandhill cranes in a field.
"Just with the naked eye, one bird jumped out as not a sandhill," Dunbar said.
Dunbar said he knew it was a common crane. He had been on the lookout for one because a common crane had been seen off and on in Nebraska in recent years by only a few people, usually during the peak of migration, when it disappears easily into huge flocks.
Dunbar stopped his car, snapped a few photos and contacted Joel Jorgensen, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission's nongame bird manager in Lincoln.
The news hit Internet birding sites and Dunbar was swamped with phone calls and emails from bird watchers.
Calls often like this: "I'm getting on a flight. Tell me about the bird, the habitat and where it's been seen."
Inquiries came from more than 20 states, from Alaska to North Carolina, Massachusetts to California — and Ontario, Canada.
Dunbar met some Tennessee birders who drove to Nebraska and expected to spend a few days trying to see the crane. They saw it 10 minutes after arriving on site.
Colin Campbell of Claymont, Del., and a friend flew to Omaha from Philadelphia on Feb. 7 and drove to the Alda area. They gave them themselves about 18 hours to see the bird before catching another flight to Las Vegas to see a Nutting's flycatcher at Lake Havasu, Ariz.
Hours after arriving at Alda, Campbell was taking shelter in his rented car from snow, cold and buffeting wind shortly before sundown when he saw the common crane fly overhead.
"We celebrated with enormous Nebraska steaks in Grand Island that night,'' he said.
Their last look at the bird came the next morning when they saw it in a field about 20 minutes before their deadline to head for the airport.
The crane was No. 788 on Campbell's life list. A few days later, a Nutting's flycatcher was No. 789.
"We travel to the ends of the earth to add a new bird to our list,'' Campbell said.
Common cranes are remarkably rare in North America. The American Birding Association classifies them as a "Code 4" species, meaning they are not recorded annually.
Endangered whooping cranes are a Code 2 species. Codes 1 and 2 species regularly occur in North America.
"A Code 4 bird gets avid bird watchers on airplanes," Dunbar said.
Biologists say that common cranes sometimes wander into the eastern Siberian breeding range of sandhill cranes and then migrate with them into North America to winter. The breeding ranges are about 600 miles apart.
Last year, birders made a similar flurry of beelines to Nebraska when a hooded crane was seen for the first time near Grand Island. The species is native to Siberia and China.
Dunbar last saw the common crane Feb. 19. Glomski's last spotting came about a week ago.
"It's probably still here, but with so many sandhills now in the area, it's really difficult to spot," Glomski said. "It's just a matter of luck now."
Dunbar said he expects the crane to stay in the area as long as its sandhill flock remains.
"It's not going anywhere on its own," he said. "It's the kind of bird that people come from east and west and north and south to see. You can't hope to stumble upon one anywhere else."
Many birders with more than 750 birds on their North American list have never seen a common crane, Dunbar said.
"Everyone wants to add this species to their life list."
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