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Cranes, tourists migrate to Rowe Sanctuary every spring
PHOTO COURTESY MICHELLE HURD
As you exit your car, the sound of birds chirping and cranes calling back and forth fills the air. Cars from across the country are parked in front of the Ian Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary.
Walk inside and the calls and chirps change from the sound of birds to the hum of tourists and laughter of children visiting for a field trip.
Rowe Sanctuary is a hub of excitement every year for the annual Sandhill and Whooping Crane migration.
“Crane Season,” as they refer to it internally, was from March 6 to April 11 this year. Rowe Sanctuary Office Manager Kent Skaggs said they saw around 15,000 visitors in the month-long period.
“We’re at our capacity during crane season,” Skaggs said. “We’ve got as many people in viewing blinds as we possibly can have during a certain window each year without expanding staffing.”
The full-time staff at Rowe sits at five, but when Crane Season is at full tilt, they use the help of 75 volunteers to run day-to-day operations at the Sanctuary. Some volunteers come and stay for the entire three weeks. Housing is provided by Rowe Sanctuary, but they make an impact on the local economy just as much as the tourists do.
That influx of visitors creates an economic impact in the communities surrounding Rowe Sanctuary, which sits on Highway 10 between Minden and Gibbon, Nebraska.
A 2009 study conducted by UNL determined that Rowe Sanctuary alone directly impacts the economy in central Nebraska to the tune of $2.25 million. That year, Rowe reported 12,500 visitors during the season.
Tourists from around the country and world stayed in the region for an average of 1.27 days, according to the study, spending an average of $51.85 in the community each day. Price of living has increased in central Nebraska, and so has the number of visitors coming to view cranes at the Sanctuary. If the study were conducted today, the economic impact would be even greater.
According to 2011 Census data, Nebraska has 362,000 people who participate in wildlife watching each year. Of that group, 150,000 of them are “away-from-home participants,” meaning non-residents.
Rowe Sanctuary Director Bill Taddicken said this impact reaches far beyond Rowe Sanctuary. With over 50 percent of visitors coming from outside of the region, they are taking in other sites.
“I think it impacts all of the nonprofits in the area,” he said. “Everybody benefits from this many people coming into the area, because they’re looking for things to do and it impacts everyone else out there.”
Communities from Grand Island to North Platte have adopted similar enthusiasm for “The Great Migration.” They host festivals, concerts, conferences and other special events all surrounding the crane season; taking full advantage of this annual tourist attraction.
Crane season only lasts for a month at Rowe Sanctuary as the birds must venture on to a warmer climate. This, however, does not mean the Sanctuary stops operations.
Education is at the heart of the organization. They don’t simply close their doors when the cranes leave. After a little rest, the Ian Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary revs up for their education programs. They provide outdoor, experienced-based education for adults and children. The Center’s goal is to provide everyone the opportunity to experience the Platte Valley ecosystem and its wildlife.
During the educational programs, Rowe uses their indoor and outdoor classrooms, viewing blinds and trails along the Platte River, through wetlands, wooded areas and prairie remnants.
“We are trying to build a culture of conservation and that starts with our children,” Taddicken said. “Our entire point is to give kids the opportunity to experience nature in a hands-on way. We get the kids out in the water, on the river, in our wetland sloughs, in the grass full of bugs, full of dirt and full of smiles.”
Studies show that children spend over 8 hours a day on electronic devices and less than 15 minutes outside in unstructured play.
“That is across the country,” Taddicken said, “But also in our small towns in ‘rural Nebraska’ kids aren’t getting outside. If you aren’t getting outside and immersing yourself in nature, you aren’t going to care about it.”
There are camps, classes and excursions offered year-round. For a full schedule, visit their website, rowe.aububon.org. The education plays a large role in the sanctuary’s conservation efforts as well.
Rowe Sanctuary is owned and managed by the National Audubon Society. It was originally purchased in 1974 and covered 782 acres. Additional land acquisitions have increased the current size of the sanctuary to nearly 2,400 acres.
Those 2,400 acres are comprised of farmland, grassland, wetlands, backwater sloughs and, of course, the Platte River. It is located primarily between Minden and Gibbon on Highway 10.
“We develop management plans to improve and expand the habitat for the birds on the sanctuary and also for the whole suite of grassland birds that we have associated with the sanctuary,” Taddicken said.
He continued to explain the many jobs that are completed during the "off season."
“That includes anything from clearing river channels in the fall with heavy machinery, to restoring and repairing wetlands, recreating some backwater sloughs, and improving diversity on our grasslands through grazing, haying and fire,” he said.
These conservation efforts have increased the crane migration population over the past three decades.
The Platte River plays a great host for roosting and it is estimated that nearly 500,000 cranes pass through the area every year.
In addition to cranes, Snow Geese pass through the area at the beginning of the season, creating a completely unique experience for birdwatchers.
Linda and Bob Morrow have been visiting the sanctuary for four years. They travel each year from Colorado and stay for a few days. Linda is a retired teacher and Bob a retired CPA.
Linda said she used to read about the “Great Migration” and always found it inspiring. Once they retired, they were able to make the trek to see the cranes.
“It’s overwhelming in a great way,” Bob said. “It’s amazing the number of birds coming in [to roost]. You can’t help but get excited.”
Generally the couple stays in Kearney, “usually for about three nights.” While visiting, they traveled to Grand Island and ended up visiting the Crane Trust as well.
Through their conservation efforts and advances the Rowe Sanctuary has seen an increase in visitors. The first Spring River Conference was held in 1971 with 150 attendees. That conference was moved from Grand Island to Kearney and they saw an increase of 500-600 attendees. What started as a conference has now become Rowe Sanctuary, which sees 18,000 visitors annually.
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