Blinds aren't cheap on Platte River

How about this for a blind on the Platte River?

Cost: $150 per night.

Furnishings: An old indoor/outdoor carpet over a plywood floor, a chamber pot, a red-lens flashlight and a cell phone with emergency phone numbers included.



No, this blind isn't for duck hunting. It's for the Platte River's second-most popular activity, photographing sandhill cranes.

On January 1 each year, the Rowe Sanctuary begins taking reservations for three photography blinds that are occupied every night from March through April, when as many as 60,000 sandhill cranes stop on their spring migration route, which will end as far away as Siberia.

"If we didn't wait until the first of January, we'd be booking them for years in advance," said Keanna Leonard at the Nicolson Audubon Center, which is located on the Platte River near two primary roosting areas.

Not only are the furnishings sparse, the rules are strict. You are taken to a blind at 5 p.m., before the cranes begin gathering to roost, and cannot leave until the next morning, after the cranes have left their overnight roost, somewhere between 8 and 10 o'clock.

There have been exceptions.

"We've had to take some people out," Leonard said. "We've had some medical emergencies. One gentleman was passing kidney stones. And if people are disturbing the birds, we'll go get them.

"First and foremost is concern for the habitat. If the birds are disturbed too often, you'll ruin the whole roost. And it could ruin it for several years."

That's why there are no plans to add new photography blinds at the Rowe Sanctuary, no matter how popular. Sandhill cranes have been described as "living dinosaurs." Wing bone fossils have been found in Nebraska that date back 9 million years.

Sandhill cranes mate for life, typically produce two eggs per year, with one chick surviving that first year.

There are many more duck hunting blinds along the Platte River than sandhill crane photography blinds.

"I've flown over it," said Bruce Winter, a fireman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and an avid duck hunter. "There's a blind about every quarter-mile on the Platte."

And while those blinds aren't as expensive as the $150 per night rate at the Rowe Sanctuary, they aren't cheap or easy to find.

"Getting a lease on the Platte River is just about impossible," Winter said.

Depending on the size of the lease and hunting facilities, leases are typically in the range of $3,000 to $5,000 per season.

The attraction of the Platte River for waterfowl centers primarily on location.

Approximately 150 miles of the east flowing river transects the Central Flyway. This area of south-central Nebraska represents the neck of the hour-glass shape of the flyway, where the Rocky Mountains funnel birds to the east after they leave their summer nesting areas in the Dakotas and Canada.

Another attraction of the Platte River is its depth, or lack thereof. With its braided shallow waters flowing around sandbars and every-changing islands, it creates the perfect habitat for waterfowl, especially when the wetlands freeze.

Described as a mile wide and an inch deep, the Platte wasn't, however, the perfect river for western exploration or trade, resulting in several disparaging descriptions from early pioneers:

"It's too thin to plow and too thick to drink."

"The Platte would be quite a river if you could stand it on edge."

"This God-forsaken river won't even float an Indian canoe at full flood."

"It's like a politician, shallow, yet wide at the mouth."

"When the birds fly south, the weather is pushing them. When they fly north, they're pushing the weather."

That's how Jeff Drahota describes the annual bird migrations through the Platte River valley. It also provides a clue as to why this area is more important and heavily populated in late winter and early spring.

This is an important rest and refueling stop for birds returning to the nesting grounds. For reproduction purposes, it's important that these birds have plenty of groceries on the ground here.

The wetlands in the Rainwater Basin, which Drahota has worked at restoring for 20 years, provide that.

The following, from a Nebraska wildlife viewing guide, describes the abundant food supply:

"The shallow basins warm quickly in the spring and brew up a protein-rich soup of invertebrates. This, and a generous supply of seeds and tubers from wetland plants and waste grain from surrounding farms, provides a well-rounded diet for the birds."

How many birds? Nebraska's Rainwater Basin encompasses 4,200 square miles across 17 counties. Each year, between 7 and 9 million ducks and 3 and 5 million geese stop here.

It's a bird-watcher's paradise. At least 257 bird species have been observed in the Rainwater Basin, including: 27 species of waterfowl, 27 species of shorebirds and several threatened and endangered species (whooping cranes, least terns, piping plovers, mountain plovers and Eskimo curlews).

Restoring wetlands isn't as simple as letting the once-farmed land go back to a natural order.

The land-leveling process that made this area feasible for irrigation has to be undone. The leveling process includes digging a pit, which provides the dirt for filling wetlands to a uniform grade. With heavy earth-moving equipment, that dirt is redistributed to resemble, as closely as possible, the original landscape.

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Ten-foot-deep pits hold a lot of water, so those are filled to spread that water over a much greater area and at much lesser depths -- inches, instead of feet; ankle-deep to knee-deep, at most.

A series of man-made dikes throughout Funk and the other waterfowl production areas of the Rainwater Basin prevent this from ever looking like the natural wetland that existed before modern technology arrived.

But those dikes and the ability to pump water, if necessary, allows the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to keep the shelves stocked with groceries, so to speak, in these moist soil management areas.

According to one study, managed moist soil wetlands have four to five times more ducks than unmanaged wetlands.

With its proximity to the Platte River, there's no wonder why waterfowl find this such an attractive place to be, especially during spring migration. It's the best of both worlds -- ancient and modern.