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After Washington settled into its role as chair of the Arctic Council last year, several US states have also begun to take stock of their individual Arctic policies. At the head of the group is, not surprisingly, Alaska, which has been taking advantage of the opportunities America’s role in the Arctic spotlight has provided to examine questions ranging from offshore oil and gas to local climate chang
As well, Maine has been also seeking a stronger Arctic identity in the US and internationally, with state representatives speaking at Track II events like the Arctic Circle, and the city of Portland getting ready to host the council’s meeting of its senior Arctic officials in October of this year. Many other US states are also looking at ways of expanding Arctic knowledge, research and discussion, and one state, Nebraska, is looking at the far North in a unique way.
At first glance, this state, located squarely in the centre of the country, would not appear to have that distinct a connection to the Arctic, but for ornithologists and bird-watchers, the relationship is easy to spot.
Over the past two months, southern Nebraska has seen about half a million sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis) have made their annual journey through Nebraska’s Platte River region en route to Arctic breeding grounds in northern Canada (including along Hudson Bay), north-western Minnesota and Alaska. There are also crane habitats in eastern Siberia, ranging from close to the Bering Strait to the Kolymskaya region of the Magadan Oblast area as well as the Sakha (Yakutia) Republic.
SEE VIDEO: Dancing cranes (at end of article)
The Nebraska leg of the cranes’ migrations, which usually reaches its peak in early March, has been the subject of surveys since the 1950s. The omnivorous birds, which range from eighty to 120cm in height and with a wingspan of more than a metre, are attracted to grains in the extensive cornfields and local wetlands along the sides of the Platte River for the rest and nourishment necessary for the long flights north from the southern US and Mexico in the summer.
A normal migration involves a journey of over 11,000km from south to north. Lucky observers can also watch the cranes kettling, flying around in groups in wide irregular circles in order to test their stamina and gauge the winds, often waiting for thermals from the south to assist in their journey to the Arctic.
During their stay, the birds add 10% to 20% to their bodyweight before traveling northwards. More than eighty percent of the world’s sandhill cranes, totalling about 500,000, pass through the Platte River region, attracting scientists, photographers and hobbyists. Contributing to the region’s importance to avian wildlife is the addition of large numbers of Canada and snow geese, as well as endangered whooping cranes, which also pass through the Platte River area in great numbers, much to the delight of local and international birders.
In addition to concerns about the ongoing protection of these staging grounds in Nebraska itself, there is also the question of whether changing weather conditions and ice erosion in the Arctic will affect their winter habitats and migration. The travels of sandhill cranes represent another example of the innumerable environmental linkages between the Arctic and the rest of the world.