Flashback: Nebraska and the Arctic – As the Crane Flies…

Sandhill Crane migratory routes [Photo by UNK]
[Editor’s note: The original version of this article appeared in the now-defunct Arctic Journal in April 2016. The Chair of the Arctic Council passed from the United States to Finland in 2017.]

As Washington has settled into its role as Chair of the Arctic Council last year, several US states have also begun to take stock of their individual Arctic policies. At the head of the group is, not surprisingly, Alaska, which has been taking advantage of the opportunities America’s role in the Arctic spotlight has provided to examine questions ranging from offshore oil and gas to local climate change. As well, Maine has also been seeking a stronger Arctic identity in the United States and internationally, with state representatives speaking at Track II events like the Arctic Circle, and the city of Portland getting ready to host the Council’s Senior Arctic Officials meeting in October of this year. Many other US states are also looking at ways of expanding Arctic knowledge, research and discussion, and one state, Nebraska, is looking at the far north in a unique way.

At first glance, this state, located squarely in the centre of the United States, would not appear to have that distinct a connection to the Arctic, but for ornithologists and bird-watchers, the relationship is easy to spot. Over the past two months, southern Nebraska has seen about half a million Sandhill Cranes have made their annual journey through Nebraska’s Platte River region en route to Arctic breeding grounds in northern Canada, (including along Hudson Bay), north-western Minnesota, and Alaska. There are also crane habitats in Eastern Siberia, ranging from close to the Bering Strait to the Kolymskaya region of the Magadan Oblast area as well as the Sakha Republic / Yakutia.

Sandhill cranes in flight [Photo by Pixabay]
The Nebraska leg of the cranes’ migrations, which usually reaches its peak in early March, has been the subject of surveys since the 1950s. The omnivorous birds, which range from eighty to 120 centimetres in height with a wingspan of more than a metre, are attracted to grains in the extensive cornfields and local wetlands along the sides of the Platte River for the rest and nourishment necessary for the long flights north from the southern US and Mexico in the summer. A normal migration involves a journey of over eleven thousand kilometres from south to north. Lucky observers can also watch the cranes ‘kettling’, meaning flying around in groups in wide irregular circles in order to test their stamina and gauge the winds, often waiting for thermals from the south to assist in their journey to the Arctic.

During their stay, the birds add ten to twenty percent of their body weight before traveling northwards. More than eighty percent of the world’s Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis), totalling about five hundred thousand, pass through the Platte River region, attracting scientists, photographers and hobbyists. Contributing to the region’s importance to avian wildlife is the addition of large numbers of Canada and snow geese, as well as endangered whooping cranes, which also pass through the Platte River area in great numbers, much to the delight of local and international birders.

Entering Kearney, Nebraska [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
In addition to concerns about the ongoing protection of these staging grounds in Nebraska itself, there is also the question of whether changing weather conditions and ice erosion in the Arctic will affect their winter habitats and migration. The travels of the Sandhill Cranes represent another example of the innumerable environmental linkages between the Arctic and the rest of the world.

The author wishes to thank the University of Nebraska – Kearney and Enactus UNK for their assistance during the researching of this article.