Experiencing the Sandhill Crane Migration in Nebraska

My 5 a.m. wake-up call came with the friendly announcement that the current temperature in Grand Island, Nebraska was 12 degrees.  “This better be good,” I fussed as I wrestled myself out of a toasty warm bed and began layering flannel, fleece, wool and down from head to toe.  Where are those toe warmers?

As I ventured out into the darkness, I heard the first sounds that reminded me of why I was in the middle of Nebraska in the middle of winter. A few minutes later, as my friends and I trudged across a frozen corn field with the tiniest of flashlights as a guide, the noise was all but overwhelming and I began to feel the excitement that brings an estimated 70,000 people to this part of the country each winter.

The earth slowly rotated into the pink sunrise and the source of the noise finally showed itself.  Sandhill Cranes. Thousands of them. And each making that unmistakable sound, that throaty rat-a-tat-tat, a profoundly deep trill that when amplified by the thousands in the early morning light creates one of those Bucket List adventures worth getting out of bed for at 5 a.m. and trudging across a frozen cornfield in middle of winter in the middle of Nebraska.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • It’s the world’s largest gathering of sandhill cranes.
  • About 15 million migratory birds pass through this area each spring.
  • Good for those who revel in the blessings of Mother Nature.

Nebraska’s Unique Migration Path

Like Old Faithful erupting and Niagara Falls cascading, Nebraska’s spring sandhill crane migration is a spectacle of Mother Nature that should not be missed.

Antics of the sandhill cranes feeling safe in Nebraska. Photo courtesy of Nebraska Tourism.

From roughly Valentine’s Day to Tax Day, an estimated 600,000 sandhill cranes – roughly 80 percent of the world’s population of these birds – stop on their way north to feed in the corn fields and roost in the shallow waters of the Platte River valley.  They winter in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona and they summer in Canada’s Hudson Valley, central Alaska and the Bearing Straight into Russia.

It’s a narrow stretch about 60 miles wide along the river between Grand Island and Kearney where these magnificent water fowl with red tufts atop their heads are the most happy and spend about four to six weeks hanging out, getting fat.

“In the bird world, this part of Nebraska has it all,” says Brad Mellema, director of the Crane Trust Nature and Visitor Center in Alma.

Central Nebraska’s massive cornfields provide an abundance of space and plenty of food in the left-over waste from harvest.  The Platte River provides the water and the shallow banks, protected by marsh grasses, provide a protected place to roost at night.

But Nebraska guarantees one other key factor that no other state in the bird’s migratory path provides – safety.  Sandhill cranes are protected in Nebraska.  Hunting them is against the law and the birds know it.  They are safe here, so they stay a while.  They sing, they dance, they eat, they make merry to the delight of an audience representing all countries on the planet.

Watching Cranes Day and Night

“This isn’t Disneyland and we don’t program the show,” says Mellema.  “Some days the birds are remarkable in their behavior and some days they are more low-key, but everyday it’s a show.”

A group of school children are up at sunrise filling this crane viewing platform near Alma Nebraska. Photo by Diana Lambdin Meyer

That’s why Mellema encourages visitors truly interested in the sandhill crane experience to come for a couple of days and experience them at all hours of the day and night.

No, it’s not absolutely necessary to get out of bed at 5 a.m. on a cold winter morning to experience the sandhill cranes, but it’s that time of day that Mellema calls “most spiritual” in the experience.

“When they come back to roost at night, after they’ve been feeding all day, they are a little more ruckus and noisy,” he said. “They are competing for space on the sandbars and the younger ones are showing off and more playful.”

The cranes are never really quiet, as those who have spent the night in viewing blinds within 10 yards of the birds will tell you.  There’s always a low throaty murmur coming from the river that is audible miles away from the birds.

Sandhill cranes take to the sky as the sun rises near Grand Island Nebraska. Photo by Diana Lambdin Meyer

But it’s the early morning hours as the birds begin to emerge from their night’s rest that makes it worth setting your alarm.  As the sun peaks over the horizon, the birds become more chatty and noisy. Then as if on cue, but none that is visible to the human eye, all of a sudden, the entire mass will lift to the sky, at times blocking out the rising sun and creating thousands of sleek, motion-filled silhouettes.

Their mission for the day is to find yet another corn-scattered field.  The cranes are welcomed in these fields, but crane watchers are not.  These fields are private property, and although a few farmers make special arrangements for bird watchers, most of the land where the birds feed is off limits to human visitors.  Just pull your vehicle safely to the side of the road and stay put inside.  Use your car as a blind and enjoy the show.

More Than Sandhill Cranes

But the red-crowned sandhill cranes are not the only performers in this show.  About 15 million other birds migratory birds, include snow geese, ducks and whooping cranes, pass through this region each spring.

Sandhill cranes returning to the river to roost for the night. Photo by Diana Lambdin Meyer

Two primary sources for bird watchers are the  Crane Trust Nature and Visitor Center in Alda and the Rowe Nature Sanctuary at Gibbon, Nebraska.  Both facilities provide educational programs about sandhill cranes, provide maps to public viewing platforms, and coordinate tours to managed viewing blinds in the area.

The city of Kearney Nebraska hosts a Crane Watch Festival the last week of March that includes guest lectures, art shows, and other special events.  The Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer in Grand Island also offers programs and exhibits that highlight Nebraska’s participation in this annual spectacle of nature.

 
Practicalities

  • Wear dark colored clothing.
  • Dress in warm layers.  Some people bring a small rug to stand on, creating a barrier between their feet and the frozen soil.
  • Leave your dog at home or in the hotel.
  • Respect private property.
  • Turn off cell phones
  • Turn the flash off of your camera or phone.
  • Keep your arms inside the blinds.

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