Could thousands of birds really be bringing millions of dollars to local communities? Studies of the Sandhill crane migration say yes.
$8.08 million – that's the direct economic impact crane-watchers brought to central Nebraska during the 2009 spring migration.
Ecotourism officials say there hasn't been a big comprehensive study of crane viewing economy since those figures were calculated, but using visitor numbers they believe these few weeks every year are vital for central Platte River communities.
A day of crane watching can start well before the sun comes up, or end well after it sets. Some of the 70,000 visitors who come to see the spectacle sneak out to viewing blinds at places like Rowe Sanctuary or the Crane Trust Nature and Visitor to see the birds roost in the river at dawn and dusk.
"It's a really fascinating time of the year, the birds are coming in from the south and the people are coming in from the east and the west and there's a lot of buzz and a lot of energy," says Brad Mellema, director of the Grand Island/Hall County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Those people stay an average of 1.3 days, which Mellema says means they're fueling cars, grabbing lunch, and even staying overnight.
The studies suggest getting bird watchers close to the action and connected through outdoor activities can keep these tourists in the area longer.
"The audience, I think, certainly is growing a little bit each year, we're certainly seeing it, and maybe half of the visitors are from Nebraska," says Mellema.
The other half come from the rest of the US and dozens of other countries.
"Just at Rowe Sanctuary we have all 50 states and 50 countries every year coming here," says Marian Langan, executive director of Audubon Nebraska. "They stay in hotels, they eat in the restaurants, they bring all kinds of money into the community, so it helps everybody, it's win-win."
The studies also found that most first time and repeat visitors say they plan on coming back to see the cranes again.
"An economic impact study done by UNL about four years ago now, maybe five, estimated it brings anywhere from $10-20 million into this local economy each spring," says Rowe Sanctuary Director Bill Taddicken. "That's money from outside coming in."
Cranes aren't the economy's only feathered friend – Mellema says there's a regional effort starting to make Nebraska a birding destination by including pelicans and prairie chickens.
"We pay attention to cranes because they're big and they're loud and they're easy to see, but there's a lot of other waterfowl and a lot of shorebirds that come through," says Mellema. "Now we've got a reason to stay for a few days in the area, and boom – it increases the economic impact maybe here in Grand Island, but they might go to Burwell or they might go down to Alma and the Harlan County Reservoir and spend some time and money there as well."
Officials say the great concentration of cranes in Nebraska is well known in birding circles and by locals, but technology is spreading the word father, and being able to make online blind reservations is drawing in a new generation of ecotourists.