- Associated Press - Sunday, March 16, 2014

GIBBON, Neb. (AP) - Every spring they return.

They come to relax and recharge.

Some arrive in central Nebraska from far-flung wintering grounds on epic journeys of thousands of miles.

Many spend about three weeks along the shallow, braided channels of the Platte River. They survive by being adaptable in finding nighttime roost sites.

Then they’re gone.

There is no question: The arrival of dozens of volunteers from across the nation is a moment of magic in the heart of the Great Plains each spring.

Oh, and then there are the birds - hundreds of thousands of migrating sandhill cranes and millions of ducks and geese.

Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary near Gibbon is in the middle of a six-week period when roughly 15,000 people find their way down unpaved county roads south of the Platte to the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center to learn about sandhill cranes and witness one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on the continent.

Celebrations of the wildlife phenomenon at Rowe and elsewhere entertain and educate thousands of visitors who arrive during the last half of March, coinciding with weeks when the number of cranes in the valley peaks. Audubon’s four-day, regional Nebraska Crane Festival begins Thursday. The 10-day Crane Watch Festival, with events in Kearney, Minden and Gibbon, open Friday.

Waiting to answer questions, share viewing tips, sell books and T-shirts and keep the restrooms clean are scores of craniacs who - like the cranes - are drawn to the Platte during the fading days of winter.

The Platte in March was on Arizona neurologist Michael Smith’s life list when he brought his wife and 90-year-old father to Nebraska a decade ago.

“I was never the same,” he said. “The noise, the flocks, the dancing, the morning blowoffs from the river. The birds put on the show.”

Smith volunteered at Rowe to satisfy his crane craving. He started as a preseason volunteer, and four years ago the cranes arrived later than usual. When Smith returned to Tucson, he hadn’t seen many of the big, gray birds. He returned in late March, telling his wife Rowe needed him.

“Which it did, but I needed Rowe more,” he said.

Volunteers are vital to Rowe’s 40-year mission of preserving habitat for cranes and other migratory birds along a key stretch of the Platte and providing nature-based education, said Keanna Leonard, education director.

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