Observing the Sandhill Crane Migration

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Sandhill cranes landing in the fog
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Cranes clean the stubble fields of any gleanings.
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The sandhill crane dance includes head bobbing, bowing, arching, jumping, wing flapping, running, and twig tossing.

In the shallows of the Platte River, it’s standing room only. Sandhill cranes pack the sandbars solid in front of our observation blind at Rowe Sanctuary, in Kearney, Nebraska. The far shore is lined a dozen thick. This is their favorite roosting position – 6 inches of shallow, slow-moving water surrounded by deeper water. It keeps the predators away.

We’ve come to this quiet corner of Nebraska to experience the cranes’ spring migration as they funnel onto the Platte along the Central Flyway from points south. The best way to do that is to participate in a guided blind tour, scheduled every daybreak and sunset while the cranes are migrating.

Sandhill crane morning ritual

People move around the inside of the blind, peer out the holes, look up and down the river, and gaze to the east where the sunrise is painting color into the sky. We speak in hushed voices, as if in a church. I settle at a corner window and rest my head, bending my ears outward to amplify the sound. It sounds like a crowd cheering. The sandhill crane call can be heard two to three miles away, made possible by their exceptionally long trachea. The extra length resonates much like the tubing in a trombone and helps project the vocalizations.

The music of the cranes’ bugling is constant. We listen for a change in pitch, an increase in intensity that signals they are about to lift off in search of a meal.

Before I arrived, it was difficult to imagine half a million elegant, prehistoric-looking birds flying, gathering, bugling and performing their mating dance. Words cannot describe the sheer volume of their numbers, with their 5- to 6-foot wingspans. But it is the sound that hits you – the intensity and volume of their musical voices. I could never tire of it. (To listen visit the U.S. Geological Survey’s Operation Crane Watch page.)

A guided tour

The sanctuary operates the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center, which is famous for its guided blind tours. There are two to three blinds available for guests that fit 20 to 25 people. The blinds look like long wooden boxes with holes facing the river through which guests observe and photograph the spectacle. For six weeks each year, tours are booked solid.

A typical field trip begins and ends with a quarter- to half-mile walk to the blind. In the mornings, it is held under the cover of darkness to prevent spooking. In the evening, you depart before sunset and view the cranes as they come in. The tours last approximately two hours. Volunteer guides educate visitors on the behavior of the cranes, so we get to know these amazing birds more intimately.

Some fans cannot get enough; a brief visit is too fleeting. Volunteers come from all over the United States and Canada every March to spend multiple weeks immersed in the cranes, helping to ensure that their future remains a reality.

At one time, there were 200 river miles available for suitable roosting, but now the cranes are down to between 40 and 50 miles for their space. Areas of the Platte are now managed for the sandhill cranes, by organizations like Audubon and the nearby Crane Trust, which also operates other viewing sites. Staff members and volunteers plow, till and work about five acres of land to create prime habitat for the cranes to roost.

They must be very careful how they manage the cranes because the birds have stopped coming everywhere except for this stretch. The birds scare easily, and high power lines overhead are a constant danger, because the cranes can fly into the lines and die quickly.

Into the fields

On any given day, 90 percent of the cranes can be found within a 3- to 8-mile radius of the river, traveling an average of six miles per day. They load up on essential nutrients and calories to sustain them for the final push ahead, to give birth and raise their young. They build up fat reserves, adding at least 18 to 20 percent to their body weight.

The cranes eat waste corn found on the ground in the surrounding fields, which makes up 80 percent of their diet. They also find worms, insect larvae, snails and other invertebrates in the wet meadows adjacent to the river. The Platte River Basin is the only ecosystem along the sandhill crane migration route that meets all their requirements for roosting, resting and restoring themselves.

Coyotes, bobcats, domestic dogs, great horned owls, eagles, and power and transmission lines are the main sources of predation. We don’t want to add insensitive humans to that list. Disturbances during their critical stay in Nebraska can cause the birds to leave in poor condition, jeopardizing reproductive success when they arrive at their northern nesting grounds.

When the cranes come into an area to feed, they drop their feet as if they are coming in for a landing – like a parachuter – with their great wings outspread.

The sandhill crane dance

Besides eating, the cranes do a lot of dancing. They are considered the most accomplished dancers in the animal kingdom. Their dance includes head bobbing, bowing, arching, jumping (as high as 5 feet), wing flapping, running, and twig tossing. The cranes leap into the air, kick up their feet, and turn in the air like a tour jeté in ballet. They also do minuets as they rotate gracefully with extended wings. Many African tribes have incorporated some of these moves into their ceremonies.

Rivals dance to access one another, and dancing facilitates pair bonding. But dancing is not solely reserved for mating purposes. Pre-adult cranes practice dancing for years before they select a mate. Parents educate their young chicks by dancing with them. Dancing can simply be a display of high-spiritedness, play, or even joy. A red patch on their head that is actually bare skin changes in shape and size depending on their mood.

Cranes are very skittish and will take flight at any disturbance. It’s best to not approach these birds on foot while they are in the field, so we use our car as a blind.

Heading for points north

It is March 23, and the cranes will be thinking of leaving soon. By April 15, they will all be gone. They’ll spread out, as if coming out the bottom of an hour glass, and head north, shooting for points in the Arctic, Siberia and Canada.

In the past six years, folks from 50 countries have come to witness the sandhill crane migration, knowing it happens nowhere else on Earth. It is truly one of the greatest spectacles of the natural world.

Volunteer Phil Mesner of Victoria, British Columbia, is well aware of this. “A chord was struck deep inside me,” he says. “Like great art, great music, such beauty in nature transports you. It is something very mystical.”

What more of a reason do we need to come to central Nebraska this spring than to witness this remarkable gift of nature?  

Cindy Ross, author of six books on outdoor adventuring, enjoys living a simple life along the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania with her family.

Viewing tips

The best time for viewing is generally mid- to late March.

Rowe Sanctuary & The Iain Nicolson Audubon Center
Open 8-5:30 during crane season
February 15-April 15

Kearney Visitors Bureau

Nebraska Nature Center

Another great place to check out cranes and all things related is the Nebraska Nature Center, located a stone’s throw from I-80, and 30 miles east of Rowe. The migrating birds arrive here first, so if you come early in the season, you can attend a morning or evening footbridge tour.

The center is a private organization funded by two state supporters, one federal supporter and one private supporter. It had a humble beginning in a double-wide trailer, but the new facility now houses some of the best crane, bird and wildlife art in the country. Cranes are not the only draw; visitors can learn about and come to appreciate the entire Platte River ecosystem.

The handicap-accessible pedestrian bridge leads to walking trails through the prairie, river-edge and riparian forest. There are more than five miles of trails on the surrounding property of 240 acres leased by The Crane Trust (which also offers blind tours). The center hopes to tempt visitors to pry themselves out of their vehicles and walk amidst one of the last remaining examples of the American Prairie. A 35-foot-high observation tower on the bank of the Platte River further entices visitors to gain elevation for a bird’s-eye view of the prairie.

The center’s director, Dan Glomski, takes us on a guided tour of the 240 acres. When we reach a dip in the land, Dan informs us that it was a former channel of the Platte River ages ago. When we arrive at the bridge, he explains how the present Platte is now managed for the sandhill cranes. The islands and surrounding banks are graded and prepared, tilled with a tractor, and even sprayed with herbicides (spraying for phragmites, a very tall grass with a fluffy seed head on it, it’s an invasive grass that will cover and take over a sandbar — cranes like bare sandbars).

Fortunately, these procedures did not have to be executed in the last few years, because of the extensive ice jams: They acted like glaciers, scouring and cleaning the river and sandbars free of frangipani, an invasive grass. Sandhill cranes need open sandbars and banks on which to roost safely and confidently.

Year-round hours: Monday-Saturday, 9-5
Spring migration hours: March 5-April 6, open daily 8-6
No admission charged, donations welcomed.