A songbird’s melody at the edge of the native prairie delights Nicole Arcilla.
“That’s a western meadowlark, Nebraska’s state bird,” the ornithologist says. “It’s the first time that I’ve heard it this year. It’s really exciting.”
Arcilla is lead scientist at the Crane Trust near Wood River in Nebraska’s Central Platte River Valley. Hundreds of thousands of sandhill cranes migrate through here each spring.
Thousands of visitors − including world-renowned wildlife researcher and conservationist Dr. Jane Goodall – come as well, to witness the phenomenon.
It’s week seven of the 2019 migration, and the bird population is at an all-time high: 659,870 plus or minus 61,378. Nearly two dozen guests are wrapping up an overnight VIP Experience at the Trust’s headquarters, Wild Rose Ranch.
The group has just concluded viewing the cranes at daybreak from two blinds on the river. Arcilla has stopped by to say hello and to share her love of nature and her enthusiasm for her work at the Trust.
“Something like 20 million birds migrate through the Platte River on the Central Flyway in Nebraska,” she tells me as that meadowlark sings nearby. “It’s one of the most amazing things you can see in the world, particularly the cranes.”
Prior to joining the Crane Trust, Arcilla studied bird migrations in Africa, the Caribbean, the Pacific Islands and Costa Rica, among others.
“As a bird biologist, I can say with confidence, this is a world-class thing you can see, right here in Nebraska. It is amazing.”
The lure, however, is about more than the birds. It’s about impacts on the ecosystem as a whole.
“When the cranes leave, we have this wonderful grassland ecosystem we maintain for the purposes of bird migration,” Arcilla says. “It doesn’t only protect the cranes as they migrate … it also protects hundreds of native birds that need native grasses for successful survival and breeding. Some of them migrate, some are here year-round.”
The Crane Trust is an all-season, only-in-Nebraska destination for anyone who loves National Geographic and the Discovery Channel, cares about the environment or is enthralled by nature and wants to learn more about the ecosystem.
The Trust was created in 1978 as part of a court-approved settlement of a controversy over construction of Grayrocks Dam on a tributary of the Platte River in Wyoming.
The Crane Trust’s mission, which is federally mandated, is to protect, maintain and create habitat in the Big Bend reach of the Platte, a span of about 80 miles, says CEO Chuck Cooper, who came on board in September 2010.
In the last 40 years, the Trust has protected more than 25,000 acres along the river from Overton to Chapman and currently owns or manages more than 12,000 acres at Wood River.
Crane Trust facilities occupy 6,500 acres of tall- and mixed-grass prairie and wet meadows on two islands: Shoemaker, where the Wild Rose Ranch sits, and Mormon, used by pioneer wagon trains in the late 1800s. Brigham Young, leader of the Latter-day Saints’ westward migration to Salt Lake City, is believed to have slept here.
“The Trust was all about hardcore research at the beginning,” Cooper says. “The land wasn’t open to the public.”
That changed in 2011, when the Trust capitalized on Cooper’s 16-plus years of managing non-profits in Nebraska and became more aggressive in pursuing donations, grants and other revenue streams.
It takes about $2 million a year to run the nonprofit, Cooper says. The Trust is working toward building a $5 million war chest that would go a long way to secure easement rights to protect, enhance and create habitat.
Three four-unit guest cabins, two suite-style cabins and a dormitory for staff and visiting workshop instructors were constructed to introduce more people to the mission of the Trust through one- and two-day VIP Experiences during migration season. The rest of the year, the facilities are available for corporate retreats, small family reunions and indoor/outdoor classroom experiences.
Photography workshops with award-winning nature photographer Cheryl Opperman of Littleton, Colorado, are another source of migration-related revenue for the Trust.
An overnight experience at Wild Rose Ranch is unique.
“It’s the only place where you can stay overnight close to the river and hear the cranes,” Cooper says. “The first season I came out here, I couldn’t see any water because there were so many birds on the river. I was in awe of it. I figured if I didn’t know anything about it, there would be many people who didn’t. Our first blind was a plywood box with burlap over the cutout windows.” Today, the blinds have heat, carpeting and two rows of bleacher seating.
Drop-in visitors can learn a lot in a one- or two-hour visit to the Crane Trust Nature & Visitor Center, a stone’s throw from Interstate 80 at Exit 305 near Alda. For travelers, it’s a good spot to stretch your legs along a section of prairie trail, browse crane country souvenirs and — during crane season — enjoy a warm cinnamon roll made by volunteers.
Not-to-be-missed: an interactive map of the Central Flyway. Press a button and the sandhill crane route lights up in an hourglass-pattern from Mexico to Siberia, pinching down through Nebraska. “This is the only place the cranes stop and stay on the entire migratory route,” longtime volunteer Jodi Fegley tells visitors.
The cranes are here for one primary purpose: to get fat. By day, they forage fields for waste grain and wet meadows for protein — worms, snails, toads, snakes and crustaceans. At night, they typically roost on the river. After about three weeks, the cranes are hardy enough to continue their northern journey to summer mating and nesting grounds.
Behind the visitor center, a short path leads to a lookout tower and footbridges. Bison often graze nearby. A genetically pure herd was reintroduced in 2015, after a 150-year absence on the prairie.
The nature and visitor center is a magnet for school field trips.
The worldwide Roots & Shoots program that Jane Goodall established for early conservation education is part of the curriculum at Grand Island Public Schools. A collaboration with Hastings College brings biology majors here for summer research.
“We’re doing a lot for our next generation in terms of awareness and care factor,” Cooper says.
Omahan Lora Thompson didn’t know much about the Crane Trust before her VIP Experience. “When we were preparing to leave home, my daughter, who is 15, turned to me and said, ‘Mom, I would love to go to the Crane Trust. I’m so jealous.’”
After learning about the cranes and the migration from Cooper and others on staff and seeing the spectacle firsthand from a blind at sunset and sunrise, she was enthralled.
“The birds were magical … beautiful to see. I came away really appreciating the experiences here. I can’t wait to show my kids.”
Arcilla, the bird biologist, made a point to introduce herself to 17-year-old Laura Campbell of Leawood, Kansas. She’s interested in wildlife, biology and conservation as a career. It was her third crane-viewing experience. She first came as a fifth-grader after googling “migration” and clicking on cranetrust.org.
“Each experience is different,” she says. “It never grows old.”