Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Big Year

"In 1998 I zigzagged across the continent to try to see as many species of birds in one calendar year as possible. It was an incredible experience passing the 700-species mark—an achievement many birders aspire to in an entire lifetime."

Thirteen years ago, Greg Miller (pictured above) decided to undertake a "Big Year" -- an exciting, arduous and often expensive venture designed to see more species of birds on U.S. soil during one year than ever before. In the midst of personal upheaval, Greg faces competition from two much wealthier birders also doing Big Years. From boreal forests to steamy southern swamps, from sun-baked deserts to a rat-infested bunker on an Aleutian island, he travels to as many "hotspots" as he can reach and breaks the 700-species mark.

What obstacles does Greg overcome during his Big Year? Does he out-bird his better-funded competition? Moreover, why put yourself through such an ordeal just to chase birds across the continent?

This March, Greg will be in the Grand Island area to tell his story though events sponsored by Central Community College - Grand Island, the Nebraska Bird Partnership, the Crane Trust Nature and Visitor Center and the Wild Bird Habitat Store in Lincoln. You'll not only hear about the adventure in '98, he'll also relate his experiences as a consultant for the recent motion picture "The Big Year", starring Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson. (Greg was the inspiration for Jack Black's character.)

With the opening of a new year, why not take your own Big Year adventure? Don't worry; we're not suggesting camping in a cottonmouth-infested swamp or shivering on a brutally cold January day in Duluth. Rather, try these:

1. Read Mark Obmascik's book "The Big Year", the basis for the motion picture. It's a quick read and provides an excellent backdrop to Greg's talks.

2. Check out the motion picture itself. CCC will offer a screening when Greg is in town.

3. Go out looking for birds! Report your sightings to our Big Year Facebook page. We especially invite birding beginners to participate. You might also keep a "life list" of what you see; a great way to do this is to input your sightings into This site will keep track of what you've seen when. Moreover, you'll be contributing valuable data to a huge database of tremendous value to scientists.

4. Participate in area birding events. The Crane Trust Nature & Visitor Center has events throughout the year to help add to your species list. Central Community College in Grand Island will offer birding classes tailored to beginning birders. Here's a partial list of events planned:

Feb 18: Birds and Bagels, Crane Trust Nature & Visitor Center

Feb 20: Backyard Bird Feeding, NBP staff-led course offered through CCC

Mar 14: The Big Year book discussion, Grand Island Public Library. Free and open to the public.

Mar 21: Beyond the Screen movie presentation of “The Big Year” and discussion with special guest Greg Miller

Mar 22: Q & A with The Big Year's Greg Miller, Grand Island Public Library. Attendees will have the opportunity to ask Greg questions about The Big Year book, his feelings about being a subject in the book, and any other questions that come to mind in a relaxed intimate session.

Mar 24: “The Big Morning” Birding Trip w/Greg Miller

Mar 24: Greg Miller afternoon presentation, “Swamps, Mountain Tops, and Cheap Motels: My Big Year Travelogue” - Crane Trust Nature & Visitor Center

Mar 24: Greg Miller evening presentation, “The Big Year: The Triumph of Nature and the Human Spirit” - Crane Trust Nature & Visitor Center

Apr 13-15: "Chicken and Stars" - Crane Trust Nature and Visitor Center staff-led Sandhills birding and stargazing trip. The highlight is viewing Greater Prairie-Chicken and Sharp-tailed Grouse courtship displays.

May 10-12: Beginning Birding Course, NBP staff-led course offered through CCC in partnership with the Prairie Plains Resource Institute

So grab your binoculars, and we'll see you in the field!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A "Q and A" About Crane Migration and Guided Tours

Nebraska's sandhill crane migration in March gets a lot of attention from birdwatchers and the general public alike. It truly is one of the world's grandest wildlife spectacles: once experienced, the sight and sounds of thousands of cranes together is never forgotten.

Not surprisingly, we at the nature center receive a lot of questions about the cranes and the migration. Here, we'll try to address some of more common. At the top of the list is this one:

Preparing for a Guided Crane Viewing Tour

A guided crane tour gives you the chance of viewing the gathering of over 400,000 sandhill cranes along Nebraska's Platte River. This is an experience like no other on the planet. The experience is far more enjoyable -- for both you and your fellow crane-watchers -- if you prepare properly for your tour. The following brief article offers some general guidelines. Please note it applies to viewing tours (blind and footbridge), not to the private photographic blinds.

Clothing: March and early April in Nebraska is often cold, especially while sitting still in an unheated blind or standing on the footbridge for two hours. Bundle up accordingly: gloves, hats, thick socks, thermal undergarments are just a few items you should wear. Rule of thumb: Pretend the air temperature is at least 20 degrees colder than the thermometer reading, and dress for that temperature. A cold wind blowing -- a frequent occurrence here -- will give the air an additional bite. Rain gear is a plus in wet weather. We can't emphasize strongly enough: Please dress warmly and appropriately.

Binoculars and spotting scopes: Strongly recommended if you have them. Tripods for spotting scopes are permitted if space allows. Your guide may have a spotting scope for viewing, but this cannot be guaranteed.

Photo and video equipment: You may certainly take video and still images, but with some caveats. In particular, flash photography is not allowed under any circumstances; the cranes have been scared off their roosts on more than one occasion by a thoughtless flash. Even preview screens can cast enough light on a person's face to make a crane think twice about sticking around. Again, tripods are permitted if room allows, but please respect your fellow viewers and their space.

Reaching viewing locations: Viewing blinds and the footbridge require a walk of up to 1/2 mile to reach. In the case of blinds, this walk is over rough terrain. (The footbridge is wheelchair-accessible.) In addition, viewing blind tour participants caravan in their own vehicles to the blinds (though carpooling is possible).

Weather (and other) cancellations: March snowstorms make occasional visits to the Cornhusker State. Tours are cancelled only if any portion of Interstate 80 between North Platte (on the west) and Lincoln (east) is closed. We will do our best to inform participants when tours are cancelled. Otherwise, all tours are held as scheduled. Cancellations from participants require a minimum of 24 hours notice.

Not permitted on crane-viewing tours: Flashlights, children under 12, pets, cellphones and other electronic communication devices. In case of emergency, your guide will have a cellphone available.

Other considerations: Tours start promptly; please be on time, as we cannot wait for latecomers.

We're looking forward to leading you on a great viewing experience! If you have any questions about preparing for a crane-viewing tour, please contact us at or call 308-382-1820.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Things To Be Thankful For... and a Request


I’m thankful for all the people that help make this place work: volunteers, staff, partners, and people who care.

I’m thankful for my family, who put up with my somewhat busy schedule and the patience they show me while doing what needs to be done around here. I’m thankful for my Dad, who took me outside when I was young, and for my Mother, who did most of the real work on our many camping trips.

I’m thankful for Karen, Dan and Shirley, who make things happen around here and who in turn are thankful that I don’t often answer the phone and create more chaos in the process (most of the time.) Pursuant to this, I’m glad that the phone does ring and that the front doorbell chimes frequently here at the Center.

I’m thankful for the people who read this newsletter and blog, or who come to a class, take a tour, or attend a meeting at the Center. I think I’m thankful for Facebook, but I’m not sure if it really matters or not.

I’m thankful for Connie and Blake, who aren’t afraid to walk into my office and tell me I’m all messed up and should do things this way or that. I’m thankful for Dale, who is here when he says he will be. I’m thankful for Cal and the Board of Directors, who have stood by this place and made it happen at a deeper level that most folks might realize.

I’m thankful that when I walk outside, I can hear the sound of sandhill cranes, even though it’s fall.

I’m most thankful that there are a lot of people who work hard to keep a little water in the river, and that Nature continues to dazzle, every time and without fail. Amazing stuff.

The grassroots nature of this organization is evident in all we do and in the underlying passions that keep it going. If you would like to contribute to the annual fund or education fund, you may do so by contacting Karen in the office (308-382-1820) to make a contribution by credit card. If you prefer, you may send a check to 9325 S. Alda Road, Wood River, NE 68883

If you would like to designate your gift to honor a person or a business, we can do that as well.

It is all very exciting, and we’re glad to have you involved in all the excitement!

On behalf of the entire staff at the Nebraska Nature & Visitor Center, I wish you all the best in this holiday season.

Brad Mellema
Executive Director

Nebraska Nature & Visitor Center.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Q: When is the best time to see sandhill cranes in Nebraska?

Prospective crane-viewers ask this question frequently. Here's the simple answer for those planning a trip to Nebraska: mid to late March gives you virtually a 100% chance of seeing plenty of sandhill cranes. Casual crane viewers need not read further.

If you continued on to this paragraph, perhaps you're a birder, or someone who simply wants to know a little more . . .