During the annual migration of the Sandhill Cranes, visitors pour into Central Nebraska from all over the world to watch the birds rest, nest and dance along the Platte River. For Nebraskans living in the birds' backyard, all the tourists who flock to the area can mean soaring incomes and heightened interest in local attractions.
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Cranes return to the Platte River for the night outside Rowe Sanctuary on March 11, 2011. Photo: Hilary Stohs-Krause
Preview for "Crane Song," a 2007 NET documentary on the sandhill cranes
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Linda Ard is the co-owner of Burchell's White Hill Farmhouse Inn, located just northwest of Minden. She and her husband Bob turned her family's 124-year-old white farmhouse into a bed and breakfast in 2008.
Located about 15 minutes south of the Platte River, the inn is packed during crane migration season. In fact, Ard said, it's by far their busiest month.
Twenty-eight people had booked spots at the four-room inn for the first week of March, she said, looking over her reservation book.
"That's a lot of people to cook for, right?" Ard added with a laugh.
From about mid-February to mid-April, nearly half a million Sandhill cranes flock to where the Platte River winds through Hall and Adams, Buffalo and Kearney counties, to feed and rest before continuing to Canada. The cranes and other migratory birds attract nearly 75,000 people yearly to Central Nebraska - and that means a lot of tourism dollars.
Bill Taddicken is the director of Rowe Sanctuary, located on the Platte River just northeast of Kearney. He said 13,000 to 15,000 people pass through the nature center's doors during migration season; last year, they came from all 50 states and 47 different countries.
A 2009 study from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln estimated the impact of Rowe, by itself, at $2.8 million dollars per year.
"Crane season itself is much larger," Taddicken said. "And there have been studies in the late nineties that estimated anywhere from $25 (million) to $50 million, and the latest one from UNL in 2009 estimated somewhere between $10 (million) to $15 million dollars (added) to the local economy."
Businesses and organizations from Grand Island to Red Cloud say they notice a substantial boost in attendance during crane season.
Joe Black is the executive director of the Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer in Grand Island. For more than twenty years, the museum has hosted an annual art show, "Wings Over the Platte," to coincide with the crane migration.
Black said 60 to 70 percent of visitors to the Stuhr during crane season come specifically for the art exhibit, and it shows: last year, attendance doubled from February to March.
There are lots of factors contributing to the spike, Black said, but the cranes are the biggest.
This piece by Sally Jurgensmier from Heartwell, NE, won the 2011 merit three-dimensional award at the Wings Over the Platte art show at the Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer in Grand Island. Photo: Hilary Stohs-Krause
"You've got more people here," he explained. "The people are coming here to see the migration. They're staying in the hotels. They're going to places like Rowe, they're going to the Nebraska Nature and Visitor Center in Alda, and then they're looking for other things to do around here."
Counterparts at the Hastings Museum of Natural and Culture History have told him they see an increase in attendance as well, Black added.
For places like Rowe Sanctuary, that jump in attendance is their lifeline. Taddicken said 95 percent of Rowe's visitors come during the migration.
Brad Mellema is the director of the Nebraska Nature and Visitor Center. He said the 1,000 to 2,000 people who pay for guided crane tours are a vital source of revenue.
"The monies that we charge for that are a real important funding source for our operations year-round," he said.
Outside, birds in V-formation flew by a large window as Mellema pulled up records of the center's visitors and where they're from. He said about half of the people who signed up for tours are from out of state, ranging from Texas to Michigan to North Carolina. The UNL study found that 88 percent of visitors during crane season are from outside Central Nebraska.
Bed and breakfast owner Ard talked about a visitor from Hawaii who was going to stay with her for four days. First on the woman's list? Buying some cold-weather clothes from the Cabela's outdoor retail store in Kearney.
And Mellema said some travel even farther to see the cranes.
Pins on a map at Rowe Sanctuary in Gibbon indicate where visitors are from. Photo: Hilary Stohs-Krause
"We get visitors, really, from all over the world," he said. "It's hard for us to tell if they make a specific trip to Nebraska to see the cranes, or if they're already here on business or education or whatever and come in. But looking at the map, we have a lot of visitors from China, Japan, Southeast Asia. I think they have a real affinity for cranes in their native culture."
Mary and Jim Cramer have spent the last three years traveling the country in their RV and volunteering. After retiring from teaching at Eastern Kentucky University three years ago, the pair has been as far north as Alaska and as far south as Georgia.
This is their second year volunteering at the Nebraska Nature and Visitor Center; so far, it's the only spot they've returned to.
Mary recalled a couple who'd started in Texas and was following the cranes north. In their experience, they said, the cranes pull in big numbers from the Twin Cities and Chicago.
"Almost always, the topic of where they're from comes up. and people are from all over. not just all over the country, not just all over Nebraska, but ... all over the world," Jim said. "It's absolutely amazing where people come from."
All those visitors can also be strain on the locals, who are perhaps used to a less-crowded life. Ard acknowledged that the influx of strangers annoys some residents, but she said their spending is a boon to small towns. And the increased lodging tax and sales tax revenue support area infrastructure.
After the 2009 UNL economic impact study of crane migration was released, the University of Nebraska Rural Initiative and the Nebraska Nature and Visitor Center conducted an informal survey of crane visitors. They used the results to produce a report outlining sixty different attractions available in the cities and towns surrounding the Platte, from entertainment to culture to history.
"We try to play nice and share our toys," joked Roger Jasnoch, director of the Kearney Visitor's Bureau and former president of the Kearney Chamber of Commerce. "We just want people to enjoy Central Nebraska, because if we can get people here, whether that's Grand Island or Kearney, than we have a chance to keep them in the area much longer.
Linda Ard, owner of Burchill's White Farmhouse Inn, talks about various birds she and husband Bob have photographed on their property, located about 10 minutes south of the Platte River. Photo: Hilary Stohs-Krause
"So we try to promote the whole area, if you will."
Ard agreed, saying that while the towns of Gibbon and Minden might both host breakfasts, they plan them for separate days.
And even though the Willa Cather House museum in Red Cloud is just outside the migration path, it, too, feels the effects of increased cooperation. The museum is included in the Rural Initiative's list of area attractions.
Ashley Olson is an associate executive director for the Willa Cather Foundation, which oversees the Willa Cather House. She said the foundation's tour revenue during March has increased by 67 percent over the last three years.
"I think that the state of Nebraska as a whole is doing a better job of marketing all that we have to offer to the tourists that come to see the crane migration," she said. "So I think that we're doing a better job of keeping them here for a longer period of time, and getting them out to some of these other communities that have things for them to see and do that might be of interest while they're here."
The sandhill cranes are at their peak in mid-March, though some will stick around into April.