GRAND ISLAND – After a February of super cold weather, the warmth of the sun has made itself felt again in south-central Nebraska.

The warm weather and cool breeze from the south aided the seasonal migration of the sandhill cranes.

According to a recent aerial photo taken by the Crane Trust, the group estimates that around 450,000 sandhill cranes entered the area in the first week of March.

According to experts at the Crane Trust, that’s close to the sandhill cranes’ migration peak and it’s still early in the season.

What is missing this season, however, is the people.

Every year, thousands of people from across Nebraska, the United States, and many other countries make the pilgrimage to the Platte River to watch the annual migration, dubbed one of the largest in the world.

Last year, at this point in time, the Crane Trust had to close its public blinds over the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even with the help of masks, social distancing and vaccines, and when the nation sees a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, The Grand Island Independent reports that the Crane Trust will keep the blinds closed again this year.

The Crane Trust has two public blinds along the Platte River south of Interstate 80 on Alda Road. The blinds can accommodate more than 40 people in a confined space, which according to the Crane Trust officials was unsafe, especially since visitors are from the US and around the world.

If the Crane Trust Visitor and Nature Center is closed and there are no tours during the migration season, the Crane Trust will be financially burdened because, according to Crane Trust representatives, much of its annual operating income is generated during the migration season.

The Crane Trust Inc. was founded in 1978 as part of a court settlement of a controversy over the construction of the Grayrocks Dam on a tributary of the Platte River in Wyoming. Its main concern is to maintain land along the Platte River by providing overnight shelter to cranes, cranes and other endangered species or migratory birds that use the Platte River as a resting place for their annual migration to their breeding grounds in the north.

While the Crane Trust received a foundation responsible for the conservation and research of migratory and endangered wildlife, the spectacle of hundreds of thousands of migratory birds also turned out to be an educational opportunity to show the public the importance of its work and enable people to experience it This natural phenomenon up close.

This year, the Crane Trust looked outside the box for a solution.

Instead of letting people come to see this extravaganza in person (which is their preference), they brought the spectacle to people through technology.

Like many things during the ongoing pandemic, it has become part of the COVID-19 routine to experience things virtually, be it at meetings, tours or presentations.

The hardworking Crane Trust staff set up a closed loop camera that can be operated and narrated by a Crane Trust expert to create a virtual experience that people around the world can access from the comfort of their homes during the migration season can adjust. It’s like being in the blind, but without the weather, which can be cold and miserable at times in late winter and early spring.

“The virtual crane experience was introduced this year because we were unable to attract the public to tours this year,” said Sandra Douglas, Crane Trust Community Coordinator. “We had thought about it for a long time, but this (pandemic) motivated us to continue the project this year.”

To provide the best virtual experience, Douglas installed fiber optic cables and a state-of-the-art camera along the river and looked west along the Platte River from the Crane Trust headquarters. This gives the viewer a wide view of the river and its lodgers – the cranes. Operations are flexible and can be postponed to provide the best place to experience the cranes

The camera is controlled by an operator in the headquarters.

“With this camera, we were able to get amazing close-ups that sometimes only binoculars can take out of the blinds,” said Douglas.

According to Douglas, the annual membership fee is $ 75 to access the virtual crane experience. While the virtual crane experience is no substitute for seeing the cranes up close and personal, it is a huge buy as you can take the tour experience every time it is for the low, one-time cost compared to the over $ 30 costs for a one-time personal blind tour are available.

“Our members have 24/7 access to the camera portal,” said Douglas.

Along with cranes, members can spot an array of migratory birds such as pelicans, eagles, ducks, geese and even the critically endangered whooping crane each day.

While viewers cannot manipulate the camera, they can always adjust what the camera sees.

During the crane migration season, the cameraman is at the controls about half an hour before sunrise and an hour before sunset when the cranes come home to settle on the river for the night. Each tour lasts 90 minutes. Tours run Wednesday through Sunday when a guide can run the tour and answer questions.

“We can point out things that are happening and enforce the conversation with facts about the crane,” said Douglas.

Douglas said the Crane Trust will likely resume the virtual crane experience once the public blinds reopen during the migration season. But they also hope that the virtual crane experience will draw people to central Nebraska to see for themselves.

“More and more people are learning about migration and the importance of maintaining this habitat,” she said.

The virtual tours will continue until March 31st.

“It’s developing the way we do, but we’re getting tremendous interest and feedback,” said Douglas.