The Great Sandhill Crane Migration
A visit to the Platte River Valley
I’ve heard about Nebraska’s great Sandhill Crane Migration for decades: Each spring, a million Sandhill Cranes converge in Nebraska’s Platte River Valley, flying in from New Mexico, Texas and part of Mexico, to rest and refuel for several weeks before dispersing further north to their nesting grounds. Sandhill Cranes are tall, elegant, long-legged birds that have been around for millions of years. They have loud, low-pitched, bugling voices, mate for life (20-something years) and travel in large flocks.
When my friend and fellow birder Susan sent me an article about the crane migration a couple months back, I quickly replied ‘I’ve always wanted to see this—let’s go!’
This past week, we did.
Before we left California for what would be our base in Kearney, NE, we booked a series of guided crane tours with Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary, The Crane Trust and Crane Cabin Retreat. But you don’t need a tour to see Sandhill Cranes in Nebraska: Once we reached the Platte River Valley, Sandhill Cranes were everywhere, grazing in the corn fields along the highway and forming loose clouds and long lines of birds in the sky.
Most of the tours revolve around the crane fly-in to the river at dusk, and the fly-out to the fields at dawn, each a true and spectacular natural wonder. We started Thursday with a 6am blind experience at Rowe Sanctuary to watch the cranes lift off from the riverbed at daybreak. About 60 other birders from all over the country and world assembled at the center for an orientation before being split into groups of 15 and sent out with two volunteer guides. Then we walked to the blind in the dark, holding small red-light flashlights so as to not scare the birds. It was 29 degrees outside and despite wearing wool socks, toe warmers and every layer I owned, I was glad we weren’t on the trail long.
Once inside the blind, we stood silently in the dark with 15 other bird lovers, waiting to see what daybreak would bring. Watching the sky slowly lighten to reveal thousands upon thousands of Sandhill Cranes was as spiritual an experience as I’ve had. Within minutes of sunrise, the Cranes started to trumpet and call. Soon they were lifting off in great flocks and heading out to the fields.
The private evening tour with Chad of Crane Cabin Retreat upstream along a private stretch of river was just as magical… and 40 degrees warmer (Nebraska weather is its own breed of variable — we’d have freezing temperatures, high winds and snow during or short visit). Chad’s section of the Platte was a little more wild. A pair of Bald Eagles nested in a tall Cottonwood on the edge of the riverbank (we watched them dine on a Snow Goose, then feed some chicks we couldn’t quite see), White-tailed deer trotted across the dirt road and a skunk ambled by. Likewise, the cranes came very close to our viewing spot. Along with a family of four from Omaha, we sat and watched as thousands of cranes assembled and came in for a parachute-like landing on the shallow riverbed, marching slowly to fill in any gaps.
Despite having lived in Nebraska most of their lives, it was the family’s first time out to see the cranes. “I’ve seen the birds flying over the highway for years but I didn’t quite realize what this was,” the father told me.
We found many of the other locals we would meet in town weren’t that interested in the cranes either, busy with their lives or on their way somewhere else. Meanwhile, one of the guides at the Rowe Center — a group of extremely passionate birders and wildlife aficionados who dedicated weeks of their year to the cranes — told us the Sandhill Crane migration rivaled wildlife experiences he’d had in Africa.
We got another angle on the Sandhill Cranes at The Crane Trust blind tour on our final night, a blustery, cold evening that was equal parts storm and bird-watch. I’m not sure how high the winds were Friday, but the gusts were shaking the blind as we huddled inside and gazed across the river as tens of thousands of birds flew up from the fields, and then back down, making an agonizingly slow approach to the riverbed in front of us. Several Bald Eagles were patrolling the river for weak birds, which served to keep the cranes that much more at bay.
As I warily eyed a dark cloud to the east, one of the guides told me how her son had called to tell her a tornado had come within a half mile of his home in eastern Nebraska (‘I’d noticed the ‘Tornado Shelter’ next to the elevator of our hotel), then filled me in about the finer points of corn detasseling (a seasonal job for many of the state’s youth).
Finally it was too dark and too cold for us to wait for the cranes to get any closer and we were released to make a quick break for our cars and a wind-buffeted drive. It was snowing and 10 degrees colder by the time we made it back to tour hotel…and clear the next day. The Sandhills seemed undeterred. They were back to filling the fields and skies as we headed out of town, wowed by all we’d seen.