The second improvement, which will make this post better than the first one, is that my first visit was a couple of years ago, before I got my nice new camera. So now I can treat you guys to some much better photos! Check this one out:
Anyway. I decided to do two viewing blind tours - one at sunset and one at sunrise. Just to see what each experience was like. There are two places in the area to do crane viewing tours - the Rowe Sanctuary and the Crane Trust Nature Visitor Center. Both places are great; they're well organized and led by knowledgeable guides. I wish I could tell you to pick one over the other, but you really will have a similar (and amazing) experience at either one. Maybe pick the one that is closer to where you're spending the night. Rowe is closer to Kearney, NE, and the Crane Trust is closer to Grand Island, NE. I wanted to do one of each, so I picked Rowe for my sunset tour, and the Crane Trust for my sunrise tour.
Sunset at the Rowe Sanctuary
Also: I should note that it gets COLD in the blinds. So if you do a tour, bundle up!! I was wearing a sweater and two coats, and I was still freezing.
The blind was a long, thin rectangular building built along the riverbank with long windows facing the river at about eye level. It comfortably fit about 20 of us. We arrived well before any cranes started showing up, but we didn't have to wait too long for them to arrive.
While we were waiting for the cranes, there was plenty of other wildlife to see. There were several bald eagles roosting the the trees on the opposite shore of the river, including some juveniles, which lack the white heads of the adults. There were also a handful of other birds in the water, including ducks, killdeer, and yellowlegs. The yellowlegs were fun to watch - they walk around back and forth very quickly, scanning the water for food, hardly pausing for more than a second or two.
Sunrise at the Nebraska Nature Visitor Center
One advantage of a sunrise tour is that the guides from the previous night know exactly where the cranes set down to roost, and can take you out to the best blind. One of the guides even told us that there had been a whooping crane sighted near the blind we would be visiting. Unlike the abundant sandhill cranes, the whooping cranes are critically endangered - only about 300 exist in the wild. So seeing one is a truly rare occurrence. But I hoped we would be lucky.
Looking out over the river, with the faint predawn light just barely glowing on the eastern horizon, we could make out the dark silhouettes of the thousands of cranes that were roosting on the river. Many were still sleeping (they sleep standing on one leg with their head tucked under a wing), but a few were active and walking about.
That was the only large-scale takeoff I saw, but sporadically throughout the rest of the morning smaller family groups would take off together. So eventually the sky was flecked with casually soaring cranes.
A few cranes ended up flying off, but the majority ended up staying on the river until we had to leave the blind at about 8:30. As the morning went on, the cranes became more and more active - walking around, making noise, and interacting with each other. Crane socializing involves a lot of stretching out their wings, bobbing their head up and down, jumping around, and occasionally picking up a random stick and throwing it. Totally cute.