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Birding the Plains and Sandhills of Nebraska: Cranes and Grouse

Program Number: 1259RJ
Start and End Dates:
3/23/2014 - 3/28/2014;
Duration: 5 nights
Location: Kearney, Nebraska
Price starting at: $999.00 - Price may vary based on date, departure city
Program Type: Birding Activity Level: t (see description)
Meals: 14; 5 Breakfasts, 4 Lunches, 5 Dinners    

Nearly half a million Sandhill Cranes descend upon the broad valley of Nebraska’s Platte River from late February until early April, creating the largest gathering of cranes in the world. Journey through rural Nebraska to witness some of earth’s greatest wildlife spectacles — from the millions of ducks and geese found in the Rainwater Basin to the amazing plumage and courting ritual of two rare species, Sharp-tailed Grouse and Greater Prairie Chickens.


• Along the Platte River, observe Sandhill Cranes feeding in the fields for as far as the eye can see.
• View an abundance of waterfowl, shore birds and resident raptors at the Harlan County Reservoir.
• Witness the annual spring courtship rites of the Sharp-tailed Grouse and the Greater Prairie Chickens.

Activity Particulars

Walking up to one mile on gravel but level trails.

So you can get the most out of your experience, all of our birding programs have a maximum participant-to-instructor ratio of 14:1.

Itinerary Summary

Arrival Kearney, 3 nights; van to Burwell, 2 nights; van to Kearney, departure.

Coordinated by Mountains and Plains Institute.


Kearney is located on the north bank of Nebraska’s Platte River. It takes its name from Fort Kearny, an Army outpost along the Oregon Trail, the historic east-west wagon route. Kearney calls itself the Sandhill Crane Capital of the World because each year more than 80 percent of the world’s population of these grand birds converges here mid-migration.

Clean and comfortable hotel and lodge.
Meals and Lodgings
   Microtel Inn Hotel
  Kearney, NE 3 nights
   Calamus Outfitter at Switzer Ranch
  Burwell, NE 2 nights
 Microtel Inn Hotel
Type: Hotel
  Description: Within walking distance to restaurants.
  Contact info: 104 Talmadge
Kearney, NE 68847 USA
phone: 308-698-3003
  Facility amenities: Free High Speed Wireless Internet Available In All Areas Free Local and Long Distance Calls Guest Laundry Free 24hr Self Serve Business Center 32 inch Flat Screen TV including Most major TV Channels including CNN, Fox News, HBO and ESPN Free Use of Printer, Copy and Fax Machine Non Smoking Rooms Exercise room with TV, Treadmill, Stair Climber, Egrometer and Gym-In-A-Bag Interior Corridors Elevator Microwave, Fridge and Sofa Bed Available In Some Rooms Disability Accessible Rooms- TTY Telephones and Auxiliary Aids Available Wheelchair Accessibility Pet Friendly Property Clock/Radio, Coffee Maker, Hairdryer and Workdesk Available in All Rooms Meeting Room With High Speed Internet Access Audio Visual Equipment- TV/DVD In Meeting Room Wake Up Call Service 24hr Front Desk Free Local Newspaper Available / USA Today Available Dataports, Message Alerts and Modem or Second Phone Line Security Features include Electronic Lock, Extra Lighting, Smoke Detectors, Sprinkler System and Safe Deposit Box
  Smoking allowed: No
  Elevators available: Yes
  Additional nights prior: Call hotel for information Call hotel for reservations
  Check in time: 3:00 PM

 Calamus Outfitter at Switzer Ranch
Type: Lodge
  Description: Calamus Outfitters is a family owned business providing outdoor recreational activities for people of all ages. Activities such as bird watching, upland bird hunting, deer hunting, tubing, tanking and swimming in the Calamus river, horseback riding and photography are available for your enjoyment. A fourth generation cattle operation, Calamus Outfitters is located on the Switzer Ranch, and it is located in the north central Nebraska Sandhills. Blessed with abundant native grasses and ample underground and surface water, the Switzer ranch is truly located in "God's Cow Country".
  Contact info: 83720 Valleyview Ave.
Burwell, NE 68823 USA
phone: 308-346-4697
  Facility amenities: Let the Switzer family be your hosts as you make lasting memories on a true working ranch. Calamus Outfitters has two beautiful lodges that can accommodate approx. 20 people each as well as four rustic cabins that can each accommodate up to 6 people. Lodges each have 5 private rooms with 5 private baths, common area and full kitchen. Located just off Hwy 96 on the Calamus Reservoir.
  Smoking allowed: No

Travel Details
  Start of Program:
3:00-5:00 PM check in at hotel, meet at 5 pm in hotel lobby for introductions followed by dinner You will be staying at Microtel Inn Hotel that night.
  End of Program:
Group will return around 11:30 am to Kearney for independent departures. You will be staying at Calamus Outfitter at Switzer Ranch the night before.
  Required documents:
The Participant Information Form is required. Acknowledgement of Risk Form to be mailed back to the Mountains and Plains Institute office.
  Parking availability:
Parking is free for the length of the program.
To Start of Program
  Location:  Kearney, NE
  Nearest highway: Interstate 80
  Nearest airport:  Kearney
  From End of Program
  Location: Kearney, NE
    (Additional transportation information same as above)
Travel Details

Kearney (EAR)


From Airport




Kearney Cab Company
phone: 308-234-6725
Advanced Reservations Required


Per Person/One Way:


Prices are subject to change.


Travel Time:


20-30 minutes 


Great Lakes Airlines serves Kearney, NE (EAR) daily via Denver. Call taxi before leaving home to make reservation.


Omaha, NE (OMA) to/from Kearney


From Airport




Commercial Van/Shuttle
Navigator Airport Express (formerly Eppley Express)
phone: 308-234-6066
Advanced Reservations Required


Per Person/One Way:


Prices are subject to change.


Travel Time:








ATTENTION: Persons choosing to fly into Omaha, NE (OMA) should coordinate flight schedule with shuttle times, there is only one shuttle each way per day.** NOTE: They do not operate on Sunday**

Driving Directions
  Kearney, NE from East and West From Interstate I-80 East and West, take Kearney Exit 272, Microtel Hotel is North one block on 2nd Ave. and East one block on Talmadge.
Elevation Note: no

Equipment Requirements: Binoculars; spotting scopes recommended but not required.
The prices listed for commercial services and facilities that are not included in the program cost, such as airport shuttles or extra nights lodging, are subject to change without notice. Since Road Scholar cannot guarantee the accuracy of these prices, we strongly suggest contacting the companies directly for the most up-to-date information.

Daily Schedule

Day 1: Registration and Check In, settle into our lodgings for the next three nights and enjoy a welcome dinner. Orientation and Introductory Lecture
(Sunday, March 23)
 Afternoon: 3:00 PM to 5:00 PM Hotel check-in. Meet in hotel lobby at 5 pm for introductions followed by walking to dinner.
 Dinner: Dinner at local restaurant
 Evening: Orientation meeting to learn about the week's activities and introductions.
Accommodations: Microtel Inn Hotel
Meals Included: Dinner

Day 2: The Spectacle of “Crane Rise” on the Platte River: Rowe Sanctuary Viewing Blinds
(Monday, March 24)
 Breakfast: Microtel Breakfast Buffet including hot and cold items
 Morning: In the very early morning hours we will experience our first “crane rise” as the “gray sandbar islands” of the Platte River turn into clouds of Sandhill cranes leaving their roost sites. Pre-dawn crane music turns into a crescendo of wake-up calls as the cranes awaken and leave their riverine roost sites. We will have reserved blinds at Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary for prime views of the cranes in areas along the river’s edge. With an expert crane naturalist from Audubon, we will experience the almost deafening chorus and clamor of tens of thousands of cranes taking flight toward the cornfields and prairies where they will forage during the day. After watching this exciting spectacle, we take time to view the displays at the sanctuary and to watch birds at the feeders: Harris, White-crowned and White-throated Sparrows, White-breasted Nuthatches, and possibly Red-bellied Woodpeckers. We also may find Green-winged Teal or some early migrating shorebirds feeding on the river’s mudflats, returning to Kearney for a “Brunch” in town.
 Lunch: Restaurant meal
 Afternoon: We will return to the Rowe Sanctuary in early afternoon for the resident biologist’s lecture on “Crane Habitat and Behavior. Then spend the remainder of the afternoon viewing more crane activity in the fields south of the Platte River. After an early dinner, we visit Fort Kearny State Park to learn more about the pioneers of the Oregon and Mormon Trails. In trees we look for wintering and resident passerine birds such as Cedar Waxwings, Northern Cardinals, and Bluejays, while keeping an eye out along the river for the majestic Bald Eagles that frequent the Platte. Then venture out at sunset to watch the cranes come into roost from the former railroad and now the walking bridge over the Platte
 Dinner: Dinner at local restaurant
 Evening: After a very early start and a long day, free to relax and prepare for tomorrow's adventure
Accommodations: Microtel Inn Hotel
Meals Included: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner

Day 3: Harlan County Reservoir and Rainwater Basin: world class birding
(Tuesday, March 25)
 Breakfast: Microtel Breakfast Buffet including hot and cold items
 Morning: Today we enjoy a more leisurely morning after yesterday’s early awakening. After breakfast, we drive south to Harlan County Reservoir with its excellent habitat for viewing a variety of waterfowl, shore birds, and resident raptors. There may be our first opportunity to view from a distance a Greater prairie Chicken Lek along the drive.
 Lunch: Enjoy lunch at a delightful local café in Holdrege.
 Afternoon: We drive through wetlands and ponds of the famous Rainwater Basin, one of the west’s most important areas for migrant waterfowl. Depending upon season and weather conditions, the sheer number of birds in these wetlands often defies the imagination in a wet year. We hope to find over a dozen species of waterfowl, and with luck we’ll find some of the thousands of wintering Snow and Ross’ Geese and perhaps a few White-fronted Geese still lingering there. We will scout a local prairie dog town looking for Burrowing owls. Then as we angle our way back through farm fields and roads, we have a chance to watch crane behavior in detail. Watch for pair bonding activities, dancing, strutting, feeding, resting, and other flock dynamics.
 Dinner: We eat an early dinner at a local restaurant.
 Evening: Our evening is free to pack for our two night stay at Calamus Ranch.
Accommodations: Microtel Inn Hotel
Meals Included: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner

Day 4: Prairie Chickens & Sharp-tailed Grouse, Bald Eagle Concentrations & More!
(Wednesday, March 26)
 Breakfast: Microtel Breakfast Buffet including hot and cold items
 Morning: This morning after breakfast we check out of the Microtel. We visit the Platte River and the Whooping Crane Trust Visitor Center. There we will have an exiting visit from naturalists and rescued birds of the Raptor Recovery Center - Helping Nebraska's raptors. The birds they will bring are injured raptors that are being rehabilitated for release back into the wild. Learn and experience first hand their work. Then learn by lecture about the Central Flyway and the importance on preservation of Whooping Cranes and the related protection of the flyway.
 Lunch: Restaurant meal enroute
 Afternoon: We begin our trip north to Calamus Reservoir and accommodations at an ecotourism award-winning ranch. As we progress east along the Platte we observe Sandhill Cranes that feed in the fields for as far as the eye can see. We also look for the first migrant shorebirds to show up along the Platte River, and for early songbird migrants such as Eastern Bluebird and Eastern Phoebe. We may be fortunate to spot an early Whooping Crane, as we head north following a scenic route along the Loup River. We arrive at our lodgings on a private ranch near Calamus Reservoir at Taylor, NE in the afternoon, birding at Calamus Reservoir en route.
 Dinner: Dinner will be catered in our lodge by ranch staff.
 Evening: Enjoy hospitality, and in the evening, a chance to look and listen for Great Horned and Eastern Screech Owls.
Accommodations: Calamus Outfitter at Switzer Ranch
Meals Included: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner

Day 5: Prairie Chickens Booming! / Calamus Reservoir
(Thursday, March 27)
 Breakfast: Lodge hot breakfast after viewing
 Morning: This morning we arise before dawn to be able to witness the spring courtship rites of Greater Prairie Chickens. By this time in March they have started their dawn-hour dancing and booming at lek (dancing ground) display sites. Sharp-tailed Grouse may also be displaying at these sites. With luck, we’ll also hear a dawn concert of Western Meadowlarks and watch Northern Harriers hunting near the lek site. Our hosts at Calamus Outfitters have set up a great system for observing Greater Prairie Chickens at close range. Our blind is an old school bus and the birds are right outside the windows! By 8:00 – 9:00 AM, activity at the lek will diminish and we return to the ranch for a delicious hot breakfast. After a break, we drive around Calamus Reservoir, stopping at various fishing access points, some with trails, to find a variety of birds. We are likely to see Bald Eagles and a good variety of ducks – all bright in breeding plumage. White Pelicans may pass as chevrons in the sky, and with luck we’ll find some of the first spring migrants such as Eastern Bluebirds or Eastern Phoebes.
 Lunch: We enjoy a cafe lunch in town, sampling a bit of Nebraska rural life.
 Afternoon: After the early morning rising, a nap or quiet time is likely in order for mid-afternoon. Late afternoon we take a drive up to a nearby creek where warm springs provide open water for waterfowl and Horned Larks feed on prairie hillsides that line the road. Wild Turkey and possible Long-eared Owls may be present on the ranch as well.
 Dinner: As evening approaches we watch sunset over the prairie and enjoy dinner at our lodgings prepared by ranch staff.
 Evening: Free to walk on ranch property and reflect on the week's adventures.
Accommodations: Calamus Outfitter at Switzer Ranch
Meals Included: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner

Day 6: Sharp-tailed Grouse Lek / Departures
(Friday, March 28)
 Depart From: Independent departures after morning viewing and driving back from Calamus Ranch to Kearney approximately 11:30 am.
 Breakfast: Lodge hot breakfast after viewing
 Morning: This morning we venture out early to witness the annual spring courtship rites of another elusive grassland species, the Sharp-tailed Grouse. It is remarkable to have displays of two species available for our viewing with such ease. It will be a great opportunity to compare the differences in behavior of the two species. The spring air is brisk, so we bundle up to drive out to another set of school bus blinds, and return again for a great hot breakfast. Killdeers call from the yard, and with luck we may have a Rough-legged Hawk pass by overhead. After breakfast, about 9 am, we will journey back to Kearney arriving about 11:30 am for independent departures.
Meals Included: Breakfast
Important information about your itinerary: Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy and completeness of the information featured on this website. Itineraries are based on our best information at this time. Circumstances beyond our control may require us to adjust itineraries or other details. We regret any inconvenience this may cause and appreciate your understanding. Information will be sent to you from your Program Provider approximately three weeks prior to the program start date. The prices listed for commercial services and facilities that are not included in the program cost, such as airport shuttles or extra nights lodging, are subject to change without notice. Since Road Scholar cannot guarantee the accuracy of these prices, we strongly suggest contacting the companies directly for the most up-to-date information.

Suggested Reading List

On Ancient Wings: The Sandhill Cranes of North America (Natural History)

Author: Michael Forsberg

Description: Rising from sandbars on the Platte River with clarion calls, the sandhill crane (Grus canadensis) feels the urgency of spring migration. Elegant, noble, and spiritual, the sandhill crane is one of the most ancient of all birds. More than a half-million strong, flying in squadrons, these majestic creatures point northward to their Arctic and sub-Arctic breeding ranges. Theirs is an epic story of endurance through the ages. With 153 stunning color photographs, On Ancient Wings presents sandhill cranes in their wild but increasingly compromised habitats today. Over the course of five years, Michael Forsberg documented the tall gray birds in habitats ranging from the Alaskan tundra, to the arid High Plains, from Cuban nature preserves to suburban backyards. With an eye for beauty and an uncommon persistence, the author documents the cranes’ challenges to adapt and survive in a rapidly changing natural world. Forsberg argues that humankind, for its own sake, should secure the cranes’ place in the future. On Ancient Wings intertwines the lives of cranes, people, and their common places to tell an ancient story at a time when sandhill cranes and their wetland and grassland habitats face daunting prospects.

Those of the Gray Wind: The Sandhill Cranes

Author: Paul A. Johnsgard

Description: With Paul Johnsgard, we follow the annual migration of the sandhill cranes from the American Southwest to their Alaskan mating grounds and then home again. It is a flight unaltered in nearly ten million years. By presenting various cycles of the migration in four time periods from 1860 to 1980, Johnsgard, a prominent naturalist, is able to show how man's encroachments have imperiled the flocks. In each section there is interaction between a child and an adult brought about by some ritual event in the migration of the cranes. The story is enriched by the author's exquisite illustrations, by Zuni prayers, and by Eskimo and Pueblo legends.

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