By Matt Miller, senior science writer
One of the world’s great wildlife spectacles is underway in Nebraska: the annual gathering of more than 500,000 cranes along the Platte River.
Each spring, about 80 percent of the world’s sandhill crane population rests and fuels up along 70 miles of the Platte River before continuing their northward migration.
Want to enjoy the cranes up close and personal? Here are some ideas for your trip – including a way to sleep amongst the great flocks.
The Staging Area
Why do sandhill cranes congregate along the Platte River?
This area of Nebraska offers perfect conditions for cranes embarking on a long migration. Some cranes will nest as far north as Alaska and Siberia, so they need a lot of calories to make the trip. They stage in Nebraska to rest and put on weight.
The birds find a lot of waste corn in farm fields, as well as small invertebrates in marshes near the river. A crane can add 20 percent to its weight during two or three weeks in the area.
At night, the cranes move to the Platte River. It offers everything cranes need to survive the night. The Platte is wide and shallow, allowing the birds to stand in the water and avoid predators like coyotes. Each morning, the cranes fly from the river back to the fields, their haunting calls echoing through the air.
They begin showing up in February; usually the last birds leave by early April.
As Chris Helzer of the Prairie Ecologist blog writes, “For those of us living and working on the Central Platte River in Nebraska, the birds that signify spring’s arrival are much bigger than robins.”
Sleeping Among the Cranes
Each year, between 12,000 to 15,000 people from around the globe travel to Nebraska to see the cranes.
There are many places to watch cranes along the Platte River and in surrounding fields. But if you want to get really close to lots of the birds, and do so for an extended period, there’s one more extreme option: the “photo blinds” at Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary.
The photo blind may not be for everyone. Consider this: you’ll be taken to the blind by a sanctuary volunteer in late afternoon. You’ll stay overnight there, in a space that is eight feet long and six feet wide, with four-foot ceilings.
The bathroom? A bucket in the corner. You must stay in the blind until someone comes and picks you up the next morning. This won’t happen until the cranes have left the river. Until then, you can’t leave the blind, for any reason. It can make for a long night.
I know. When my wife Jennifer and I visited the Platte, we opted to spend the night in one of the photo blinds. We were in the blind by 4 pm, in plenty of time to watch thousands of cranes land just outside our window.
The blind provided only minimal protection against the outside temperatures – in the teens on that particular evening – and blasting winds. As I huddled into my sleeping bag, a mouse ran across my face. I felt slightly claustrophic, not being able to stand and stretch my legs.
It became readily apparent I would not be getting a good night’s sleep.
Still, we came to watch cranes. And we were not disappointed. We opened the photo blind’s slats in the morning and were greeted with cranes just feet away from the blind. Thousands and thousands of cranes. They lifted off the water in great flocks, their collective calls creating one of the loudest outdoor concerts I’ve ever heard.
The last cranes left after 10 am. We had been in the tiny, cold blind for more than 17 hours. Want to reserve a blind? It’s worth it, but be prepared.
Cranes in Comfort
Another option is to hike the trails at Fort Kearney State Park. The bridge over the Platte River is a fantastic place to watch cranes land in the evenings. The birds fly right over the bridge, and many land within easy photographic distance.
You’ll see plenty of cranes just driving country roads in the daytime, although they’ll generally be in smaller flocks. Don’t get out of your car and approach the birds; they will burn precious calories needed for migration. The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission offers other crane viewing etiquette tips you should follow.
As you look, keep an eye out for whooping cranes: a few are spotted every year. You’re also likely to see many other waterfowl species along the river and in wetlands.
Kearney, Nebraska is the closest community to the action, with a good selection of hotels and restaurants.
And if you just can’t get enough of the cranes: the 44th Audubon Nebraska Crane Festival will be held March 20 – 23 this year. The event features a variety of family-friendly lectures and field trips focusing on cranes and other wildlife.
This year’s program includes additional excursions to see prairie chickens on their spring display grounds (known as “leks”) and crane viewing by trolley.
Finally, if you can’t make the trip, you can still enjoy the cranes. The Rowe Sanctuary offers its Crane Cam to watch the comings and goings of the birds. They are showing up along the river as I write this.
The Future of Sandhill Cranes
Sandhill cranes are the most numerous of the world’s crane species. According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, their populations have been increasing at an annual rate of five percent per year since the mid-1960s, due to wetland restoration and abundant food on agricultural lands. (Isolated, non-migratory sub-populations in Mississippi, Florida and Cuba have not fared as well and are in decline).
Overall, it’s a great wildlife conservation success. But any time a large percentage of a species gathers in one small place, there can be risks – from habitat loss, disease or other threats.
Maintaining river habitat and sufficient water along the Platte and keeping invasive species out of the river corridor will be vital for the continued health of crane populations.
With cranes heavily using agricultural areas, the International Crane Foundation (ICF) notes that there could be increasing conflicts with farmers. The foundation is helping to develop a technique to treat corn seeds with a non-toxic crane deterrent before seeds are planted, and making this available to farmers in crane habitat.
ICF also believes it’s vital to closely monitor cranes so any problems can be addressed before they become serious. To that end, the organization leads a citizen science project to count and monitor cranes, the Annual Midwest Crane Count.
Tourism undoubtedly helps demonstrate the value of cranes to local communities. Please give the birds plenty of space, support local businesses and enjoy the greatest bird show on the continent.
Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.