(Click the link to the left for more photos of sandhill cranes at the Rowe Sanctuary south of Gibbon.)
A rare and spectacular thing has happened along the Platte River west of Grand Island: People have seen and heard flocks of sandhill cranes in January.
About 1,000 sandhill cranes have overwintered along the river near the National Audubon's Rowe Sanctuary at Gibbon.
The majestic gray birds with red caps should be hundreds of miles south where it's warm at this time of year -- and not in Nebraska.
"I've been there 50 years, and I've never seen it," said noted ornithologist and author Paul Johnsgard of Lincoln.
Normally, sandhill cranes pass through Nebraska in the fall on their way south, but severe drought conditions have devastated the crops in their wintering grounds of Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma.
"It's pretty horrible. I think they (conditions) are maybe even worse for whooping cranes. ... They need water to forage for food," Johnsgard said.
The lack of rain has made estuaries and marshes too salty for blue crabs to thrive and destroyed a usually plentiful supply of wolf berries, The Associated Press reports.
Sandhill cranes are more adaptable than endangered whoopers and don't depend entirely on wetlands for their food, Johnsgard said.
"If they have to, they can get by on land, but they hate it," Johnsgard said.
The fall migration is not as popular as the annual spring migration of more than a half million sandhill cranes through Nebraska, mainly because the birds only stay a day or two.
In the spring, sandhill cranes spend several weeks on the river and in nearby fields, feeding and resting before they continue their northward journey to breeding grounds near the Arctic Circle.
The wildlife spectacle attracts thousands of visitors from Nebraska and other states and even foreign countries, boosting the economies of Grand Island and Kearney and nearby communities.
"We've had cranes since mid-November," said Kent Skaggs, office manager at Rowe Sanctuary. "At one point in time, we had about 5,000 in our immediate vicinity ... but it seems our numbers have dwindled to about 1,000."
Skaggs agreed with Johnsgard that wintering in Nebraska is unusual behavior.
"That's something that doesn't occur," he said. "As far as I can tell, this hasn't occurred anywhere (along the river) in recent history."
Plenty of open water and leftover corn in harvested fields has kept the cranes here, he said, along with the mild weather.
Even if it snows, the cranes may stay until their brethren arrive in the spring.
"They can put up with a fair amount of snow," Johnsgard said. "They can't handle freezing rain and wind -- it seems to be a deadly combination."
Johnsgard believes that most of the sandhill cranes expected to fly through Nebraska soon are overwintering in Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area and Quivera National Wildlife Refuge, both in Kansas.
The sandhill cranes that are now in the central Platte Valley hang out in fields near Rowe Sanctuary during the day and return to the river at night but to a remote area, Skaggs said.
Johnsgard said he's been out twice to see the cranes this winter, and the birds are pretty scattered.
"My guess is I think they will try to stick it out the rest of the winter," he said.
Skaggs anticipates large numbers of sandhill cranes to start showing up in early February, usually around Valentine's Day, like they do every spring.