Dry wetlands impact birds that migrate to and from Nebraska

Dry wetlands impact birds that migrate to and from Nebraska

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

by Risell Ventura

KEARNEY, Neb. — Just a couple of days ago, the Platte River was lacking flowing water. Now as water is starting to flow again, NTV News spoke with the Crane Trust and the Rowe Sanctuary about how the drought can impact the birds that migrate to and from our state.

Threatened and Endangered Species Specialist with the Crane Trust David Baasch said that well over 100 different species of animals and plants benefit from the Platte River, and its surrounding wetlands. He said when the river is dry it impacts the species' migration and the likelihood of them to survive and stick around.

It's no secret that the Whooping Cranes and Sandhill Cranes are a huge attraction for tourists to visit Nebraska, especially between March and April. During those months this year, the Crane Trust saw over 22,000 visitors.

“And due to the Passport Program, that was implemented we’ve actually saw over 50,000 visitors this year," Baasch said.

“Every year, Rowe Sanctuary sees around 30,000 visitors and most of those people come during the crane season," said Conservation Program Associate at the Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary Amanda Hegg.

Baasch said during the fall season a handful of Whooping Cranes and Sandhill Cranes make a stop around the Platte River for a night before continuing their route.

“It’s nothing like the spring migration, is a very short stay," Baasch said.

"This isn't one of their main-stop-over locations," Hegg added "In the spring is when we see a much greater number of cranes coming through and stopping here at the Central Platte River Valley."

Because of the drought, this year many wetlands were completely dry, including the Platte River itself. Baasch said this impacts bird behavior. He showed NTV News a graphic indicating that birds use the Platte River more when there are high and moderate water flows.

“The Whooping Cranes and Sandhill Cranes are known to forge on fish so that definitely impacts what's available out there for them, so it makes cornfields and wet meadows more important during times like this," he said

Baasch added the cranes visit the cornfields regardless, but not having water around forces them to only feed from the cornfields and wet meadows that are available.

“When the river is so dry, we see a lot of vegetation on sandbars that grows really tall, and so that really impacts how birds like cranes can roost at night and it affects the forging and nesting of lots of other species that depend on the Platte River.”

Unlike last week, there’s now water coming down the river.

“It took a while to Rowe Sanctuary," Hegg said. "But thankfully we are seeing it in time for the Whooping Cranes to come trough."

Baasch said he is not sure what the river’s spring water flow will look like. He said it all depends on what happens on the Colorado and Wyoming mountains next season.

“If we get a good winter on the mountains where they get a lot of snowpack, spring flows probably won’t be impacted," Baasch said.

Baasch added there’s several things people can do to help the birds, especially during times of drought, like reporting the birds to fish and wildlife services.

“Don’t disturb them," he said. "Which simply involves staying in your vehicle, don’t be getting out trying to approach the bird causing them to take flight because this is a very important time during their life cycle, migration is very important for them."

For more information on bird behavior and the best time/place to view the cranes visit the Crane Trust and the Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary's website.

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