Sandhill cranes are beginning to arrive in greater numbers in the Platte River Valley between Grand Island and Kearney in central Nebraska.
"We're looking at hundreds and not thousands at this point," said Bill Taddicken, director of the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary. "We will continue to build numbers from now on."
Mid-February marks the start of the sandhill crane-viewing season. By mid- to late March, hundreds of thousands of cranes will be feeding in farm fields during the day and resting in shallow waters of the Platte River at night.
The Platte River Valley is a vital stopover for more than a half a million sandhill cranes as they make their way north from Texas, Oklahoma or Mexico. Each gray bird, with its distinctive red mask, will stay for several weeks before resuming its long migration to nesting areas in the Arctic.
Thousands of people come to see the world-class wildlife spectacle, not just from Nebraska but from other states and countries. Conservationists have compared the spring crane migration to that of wildebeest in Africa and the march of the penguins in Antarctica.
Some people already have reserved viewing blinds to view the cranes at sunrise and sunset at Rowe Sanctuary.
"We still have quite a bit of space. It's going well. We're doing a brisk business," Taddicken said.
The crane migration season attracts between 20,000 and 25,000 people to each of two popular attractions -- Rowe Sanctuary near Gibbon and the Crane Trust Nature & Visitor Center near Alda -- said Brad Mellema, the new executive director of the Grand Island/Hall County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
"Regionally, it's probably more than that," he added.
The direct economic impact of the crane season to the area is between $4 million and $10 million, Mellema said, citing studies done by the University of Nebraska.
One of the most popular events with avid crane watchers is the Rivers and Wildlife Celebraton in Kearney, March 21-24. The event includes workshops, speakers and field trips.
Many of the activities are for people who have pre-registered. However, the public is invited to a free event that Saturday in the Wild Experience Room, where visitors will be able to see birds of prey and other wildlife.
Dan O'Brien, a wildlife biologist, author, falconer and South Dakota buffalo rancher, will be among the guest speakers at this year's event. He will present a writing workshop Saturday titled "The Responsibility of the Conservation Writer" and will be the featured speaker at the evening banquet that same day.
Despite the continuing drought, there's plenty of water in the Platte River for sandhill cranes, said Kevin Poague, an organizer of the Rivers and Wildlife Celebration. Warm weather and dry conditions may attract more visitors but won't have any effect on the birds, whose migration dates back millions of years.
"They've been through this before," Poague said. "Actually, they can probably handle whatever weather conditions you can throw at them. They've been doing it for a long time."