Surveys asking travelers where they plan to vacation have consistently ranked Nebraska last among the 50 states. No wonder the state chose this for a tourism slogan: "Honestly, it's not for everyone."
But here's a reason (actually, hundreds of thousands of reasons) why Nebraska isn't just flyover country. More than a half-million sandhill cranes stop here each year as they migrate north. They arrive around Valentine's Day and disappear by tax day, April 15.
Peak season for the spectacle is mid- to late March, with massive flocks landing around sunset each day on the Platte River, a few hours' drive west of Omaha. As darkness falls, the birds find sandbars in the shallow waters to roost on overnight. They take off again at dawn to feed in nearby fields. Their trills and caws fill the air as they fly across the sky in swirling waves.
For nature lovers, a long weekend in March to witness the migration makes for a magical spring getaway. This isn't one of those adventures where you hike miles or wait hours to catch a fleeting glimpse of some elusive creature. You don't need to be an expert birdwatcher; you don't even need binoculars. And while you can pay for guided tours, public viewing spots aren't hard to find. As sure as the sun rises and sets, you'll see the cranes.
Anthropologist Jane Goodall, renowned for her chimpanzee research in Tanzania, has visited Nebraska more than a dozen times to witness the phenomenon. In a "60 Minutes" segment, she called it "food for the spirit."
The cranes fly here from winter homes in Mexico, Texas and New Mexico, en route to summer playgrounds in Alaska, Canada and Siberia. In Nebraska, they fatten up for their travels by eating waste grain and corn from last year's harvest.
As you drive local roads, you may see them feasting by day in the fields. But they're so skittish that the sound of a car door opening can send flocks airborne. (It's also illegal to harass them.) So pull over quietly, and watch through your car windows. Look for their mating dance as they hop on spindly legs and flap their wings.
The real show begins at day's end, when the birds leave those roadside fields for the sandy flats of the Platte River. As they seek out the perfect sandbar, they circle the sky in undulating ribbons. Amid a soundscape of wild cries and calls, they land in larger and ever more frenzied waves until the last ray of light is gone.
Several sites offer exhibits, films and other information about the migration and local conservation efforts, along with tips on finding the birds. The visitor centers at Fort Kearny State Recreation Area, Rowe Sanctuary in Gibbon and Crane Trust Nature & Visitor Center in Wood River are all worth a stop.
Guided tours and overnight stays in riverfront cabins are also available from Rowe Sanctuary, Crane Trust and private local property owners, but they sell out fast, especially during the annual crane festival (March 21-24) in Kearney.
On a visit last year, my husband and I got a lucky call off a waiting list for a sunrise tour with Rowe Sanctuary. At 4:30 a.m., we headed to a windowed riverfront cabin where we watched the birds peel off at dawn. We enjoyed sunset viewings on our own.
At Fort Kearny State Recreation Area, dozens of bundled-up birdwatchers gather a half-hour before dusk on an old railroad bridge to watch the birds come down for the night. Other roadside turnouts include the Richard Plautz Crane Viewing Site in Gibbon and the Alda Crane Viewing Site.
Warm clothing is essential for the sunrise and sunset outings, when temperatures often dip into the 20s. Consider base layers, long woolen underwear and disposable hand-warmers in addition to warm socks, boots, gloves and hats.
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The birds stand 3 to 4 feet tall, with a 6-foot wingspan. Close-up photos are hard to get without a long lens, but cellphones capture decent images of the birds in flight.
Crane fossils found in Nebraska date the migration back 9 million years. But Nebraska has long been a crossroads for migrating humans too. The history of pioneers who passed through in the 19th century is explored at the Archway museum in Kearney. Artifacts and exhibits, including compelling excerpts from pioneer diaries, detail the hardships and hopes of this westward migration.
Archway spokesman Mark Foradori says the Platte River not only provides "ideal habitat" for the cranes but historically also served as a "navigation guide" and water source for people on the move. Native Americans showed the route to fur traders; pioneers followed. Fort Kearny was "one of the last outposts" for travelers heading west on the Oregon Trail and to Utah with the Mormon migration.
The museum also looks at the rise of automobiles and road trips. Interstate 80, Foradori noted, is a modern version of the Oregon Trail, an "essential transcontinental pathway." The museum's location is fitting: It's built into an arch that straddles I-80.
Kearney and Grand Island have various hotel and dining options.
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Our hands-down best meal in Nebraska was a half-hour west of Kearney and a complete surprise, given its truck stop trappings. Taste of India restaurant is tucked into Jay Bros. truck stop in Overton, just past the displays of chips and beef jerky, before you hit the truckers' showers. The chef wore a turban, a Bollywood movie played on the TV, and we feasted on garlic chili naan bread and butter chicken, a homestyle Indian classic.
Back in Kearney, we had a good meal at Cunningham's Journal, a lively pub, and we liked the Daily Grind for coffee and sweets. Locals recommend Runza, a regional chain with a signature ground beef sandwich.
Conservationists have worked for decades to protect land around the Platte River from development. Last year was a banner year for their efforts: Aerial photo surveys estimated 650,000 sandhill cranes, along with a couple of rare white whooping cranes.
Goodall cautions that this habitat is fragile.
"The environment has been very damaged in Nebraska, with water levels dropping, the Platte River polluted, the aquifer shrinking, the wetlands drained," she said in a talk at the University of Nebraska.
Despite these pressures, she added, "the cranes are still coming. ... It's pretty magical, and nature's very resilient."
Photos: Majestic sandhill cranes
Pair of sandhill cranes at sunset near Gibbon, Nebraska