- 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.

The sanctuary’s five full-time employees rely on volunteers to ensure that visitors have a great experience, she said. Rowe taps the labor and love of about 100 volunteers who come from nearby farms and distant cities. About two dozen volunteers rotate through the sanctuary daily.

Rob and Susan Ahlschwede of Olympia, Wash., arrived last weekend for a two-week stint. They are former Nebraskans who started taking weekend trips to see the cranes nearly 40 years ago when they were schoolteachers in Omaha. Once retired, they started volunteering. This is their 11th season.

“It’s part of our family lore. We love it,” Susan Ahlschwede said.

They’ve bunked in nearby farmhouses or vacant vacation homes on sand pits. Eleven volunteers can squeeze into the old two-story, one-bathroom farmhouse at the sanctuary.

“You become friends real quickly,” Rob Ahlschwede said. “You learn that if the bathroom door is closed, you better knock.”

The volunteers cook for one another. The Ahlschwedes usually provide a beef or lamb stew, but Rob has adopted a white chicken chili recipe in honor of a former volunteer from Norfolk, Neb.

Margery Nicolson, an 83-year-old volunteer from Pacific Palisades, Calif., lives in an apartment over a Gibbon garage during her weeks at Rowe.

“I don’t think anybody ever gets tired of coming here,” she said.

Nicolson and her late husband, Iain Nicolson, were contributors to the National Audubon Society and first visited Rowe in 1988.

“We were enchanted,” she said.

The Nicolsons returned for a few days nearly every year before Iain died in 2001. Margery contributed money for Rowe to finish constructing the office and education center now named for her husband. Then she accepted an invitation to volunteer in 2002.

One day last week her chores included cleaning visitor center toilets and operating the crane cam, a camera that provides live views of cranes on the river over the Internet. She also went to town and bought a new tea kettle, cocoa and sugar. Then she moved a kitchen shelf to accommodate the 10-pound sugar sack.

“We do the scut work,” she said. “If we don’t, it doesn’t get done. But in the evenings we meet, have dinner, a glass of wine, tell jokes and talk about the day.”

Then they do it all again the next day.


Information from: Omaha World-Herald, https://www.omaha.com

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