GIBBON, Neb. — A whooping crane named Bob?
For the past few seasons, a whooping crane has returned to the same fields near the Platte River to fatten up with a flock of sandhill cranes on their annual spring migration north. The single crane has become so familiar that local residents started calling him Bob.
Whooping cranes are often seen feeding in the same fields with sandhill cranes, but whooping cranes usually travel in groups of at least two.
Bob likely was separated from his parents as a juvenile and joined the flock of sandhill cranes, said Joel Jorgensen, non-game bird program manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.
“It's not unheard of,” Jorgensen said, “but it's rare.”
On Thursday, Bob spent the entire day browsing in a field of cut corn near the river in Hall County. As the sun sat behind thick cloud cover, many in the flock of sandhill cranes began to head to the river. Bob stretched his wings for a few minutes and then followed two of the sandhill cranes. The mismatched trio flew low across the field and disappeared as they descended to their river roost.
“The only thing Bob knows now is his life with the sandhills,” said Karen Krull-Robart, office manager for the Crane Trust.
But while Bob is quite the celebrity along the river, nobody really knows if Bob is a male. If Bob had a mate, gender could be determined by size and behavior. Standing alone in a field of cranes of a different species, Bob's gender remains a mystery.
“It may be more appropriate to call him Roberta,” Krull-Robart said.
Bob seems to be a permanent member of the flock, but it is unlikely that Bob will ever find a mate, Jorgensen said.
“Unfortunately, he is genetically irrelevant,” Jorgensen said.
With less than 280 wild whooping cranes in the world, a loss of even a single breeding-age specimen is a blow to those working to bring back the critically endangered species.
There have been only a half-dozen confirmed sightings of whooping cranes in the state so far this season, Jorgensen said. And they have been arriving in the state earlier in the spring in recent years, a change in their long-observed patterns.
“It may be due to drought conditions at Aransas (National Wildlife Refuge),” Jorgensen said.
Whooping cranes spend the winter at the southern reach of their migration at Aransas, in southern Texas.
Wherever Bob goes, cars filled with birdwatchers follow. Most follow proper crane watching etiquette. But some, eager to get a closer look, cross the line.
“We have persistent problems with people wanting to get too close to the birds,” Jorgensen said. “Stay in your car. Stay on the road.”
Cranes are easily spooked, and if disturbed they may permanently leave the area or be injured trying to escape the threat, Jorgensen said. The World-Herald was asked not to give exact locations of whooping crane sightings by Jorgensen.
“It bothers me that we can't provide locations to see whooping cranes,” he said.
Federal laws protecting whooping cranes prohibit harassment, harm and pursuit of whooping cranes, including any intentional or negligent act that puts wildlife at risk of injury by disrupting normal behavior patterns, such as feeding or roosting. Harassment includes flushing the birds to flight during observation.
For a close look at migrating cranes and waterfowl, you can take guided sunrise and sunset tours to blinds on the river offered by Crane Trust, located at the Alda interchange on Interstate 80, and the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary, south of Gibbon. Both organizations also offer special programs to celebrate the migrations. They also offer overnight stays in blinds placed on the river.
There are observation decks with public access on the Platte River at both the Alda and Gibbon exits, as well as a footbridge that crosses the Platte River at Fort Kearny State Recreation Area southeast of Kearney.
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