Platte River Sandhill Cranes: Enjoying North America’s Greatest Bird Spectacle

More than 500,000 sandhill cranes gather along Nebraska's Platte River each spring. Photo: © Chris Helzer/TNC

More than 500,000 sandhill cranes gather along Nebraska’s Platte River each spring. Photo: © Chris Helzer/TNC

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

For Nebraskans, it's the arrival of cranes that signals the arrival of spring. Photo: © Chris Helzer/TNC

For Nebraskans, it’s the arrival of cranes that signals the arrival of spring. Photo: © Chris Helzer/TNC

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

The photo blind at Rowe Sanctuary. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC

The photo blind at Rowe Sanctuary. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC

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

Cranes can easily be viewed during the day by cruising country roads. Photo: © Chris Helzer/TNC

Cranes can easily be viewed during the day by cruising country roads. Photo: © Chris Helzer/TNC

You don’t have to spend the night in the blind to enjoy the cranes. The Rowe Sanctuary offers two-hour field trips  in the morning and evening, both of which offer great views of large flocks.

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

Protecting Platte River habitat is vital for cranes. Photo: © Chris Helzer/TNC

Protecting Platte River habitat is vital for cranes. Photo: © Chris Helzer/TNC

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.

Photo: © Chris Helzer/TNC

Photo: © Chris Helzer/TNC

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.

Matt Miller is a senior science writer for the Conservancy. He writes features and blogs about the conservation research being conducted by the Conservancy’s 550 scientists. Matt previously worked for nearly 11 years as director of communications for the Conservancy’s Idaho program. He has served on the national board of directors of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, and has published widely on conservation, nature and outdoor sports. He has held two Coda fellowships, assisting conservation programs in Colombia and Micronesia. An avid naturalist and outdoorsman, Matt has traveled the world in search of wildlife and stories.



Comments: Platte River Sandhill Cranes: Enjoying North America’s Greatest Bird Spectacle

  •  Comment from Lynn David

    There have always been a fair number of cranes visit our farm and oxbow lake & washouts along the Wabash River in southwestern Indiana; and I believe some pairs have nested there (seen them thoughout the summer). It’s always quite a treat to see them flying into a pond. One day a particularly large crane (sure it was a sandhill) landed on a small (abt 80 feet in diameter) circular washout while my cousin and I were fishing it in a small boat. The crane appeared above the washout and spiraled around the perimeter as it came to land on the pond. As my cousin put it – it was a rather primeval moment.

  •  Comment from Pup Equality McKeenan

    Is there a web cam so we at home can watch this? And not go there and despoil this place or disturb these beautiful birds?

    •  Comment from Matt Miller

      Hi Pup Equality McKeenan,
      There is a “crane cam” that you can enjoy the spectacle from home. It is linked in the blog above, or you can see it here: http://www.ustream.tv/channel/rowe-sanctuary-s-crane-cam

      I do want to note that it is important that people not harass the cranes (it’s against the law) or despoil this area, as you note. However, I do believe that tourism is being conducted very responsibly, and is led by bird conservationists like the staff and volunteers of Rowe Sanctuary. The birders and tourists visiting to see cranes contributes to the local economy. I see crane tourism as an important part in protecting their habitat for the future.

      I hope people do go and watch the cranes of the Platte River. The more crane watchers out there, the more likely these birds will be protected.

      Best,
      Matt Miller

  •  Comment from Harry

    It may sound crazy after viewing these birds in our back yard but hunters in Tennessee are allowed to shoot them.

  •  Comment from Linda Randall

    This is still my dream trip and I will continue to hope for a chance to be there at least once and I want to stay in one of the blinds. It’s good to have dreams.
    I was fortunate to have Sandhill Cranes visiting my Central Florida neighborhood and it was such a treat to stop and watch them every day. I even got to follow the hatchlings. They are incredible birds.

    •  Comment from Matt Miller

      Hi Linda,
      I hope you get to see the cranes in Nebraska! It is a fantastic trip. They are incredible birds to see, wherever they are.
      Best,
      Matt

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