Nebraska, which I have always referred to as a “drive thru, fly over” state has turned out to be a “must stop” state. There is so much beauty in the United States, and there is so much wildlife whose behaviors leave us in awe, but in my view nothing can top the Sandhill Cranes. Every spring 80% of the world’s Sandhill Cranes (or over 600,000) leave their winter grounds in Mexico, Texas and New Mexico and fly 7,000 miles north to their breeding grounds in Canada, Alaska and Siberia. This map shows their flyway and you can see where they all converge in Nebraska to relax and refuel.
It is in late February that they start arriving in Nebraska. They settle on the Platte River between Grand Island and Kearny. By mid-March most of them have arrived and by mid-April most, if not all, have left.
Thousands of people visit the area for their first time each year, There are also a number of people who return each year to watch this phenomenon. Others return every year for 2 or more weeks and volunteer in one of the two sanctuaries located along the Platte River. Many of them call themselves Craniacs. Rowe Sanctuary and the Crane Trust have blind tours every morning at 6 AM and every evening at 6 PM. At daybreak you will see the cranes standing in the river just waking up and getting ready to fly to their feeding grounds. In the evening you can watch them fly back to the river for the night. These tours fill up very fast so you will want to reserve them in January. There are also very nice viewing decks. You can find information about the tours and other events they sponsor on their web sites:
The first places you will want to stop when you arrive is at the Iain Nicholson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary and the The Crane Trust Nature and Visitor Center. Both have brochures and knowledgeable volunteers to answer your questions.
The three days we were there it was overcast and misting, but that did not diminish the experience. We did not see the Sandhill Cranes in their true colors however. Under the overcast skies cranes are pretty grey. Mickey Johnson, a photographer from Big Lake, Minnesota, was kind enough to share his photo which was taken in the Sherburne Wildlife Refuge in East-Central Minnesota. Thank you, Mickey. This is an amazing picture.
One reason the Sandhill Cranes return to the Platte River every spring on their journey north is the Platte River. Between Kearny and Grand Island the Platte River has been called the “foot deep and mile wide” river. It is not a mile wide, but it is a foot deep with sand bars. Cranes sleep standing in water because it keeps them safe from most predators. When hundreds of thousands of cranes settle in the river for the night they look very much like islands from shore.
Their wingspan is 73 to 74 inches and they are 41 to 46 inches tall. As more and more of them take off for the fields or return to the river at night you hear them coming and going. The sky gets dark and the wing beats are slow and also very loud.
MORNING WAKE UP CALL
HIGH STEPPER (See how shallow the river is)
LEAVING FOR BREAKFAST
LEAVING THE RIVER — IT’S NEVER TOO LATE FOR BREAKFAST
Videos by Bill Toninato
There is a lot of corn in the farm fields and small invertebrates in the marshes. During the three to four weeks in the area they will add over 20% to their weight. Sandhill Cranes weigh between 6 and 12 lbs. Sandhill Cranes are recognized by their rusty red coloring and red crowns. They are also known for their dancing and are often referred to as Lords of the Dance. They not only dance when mating, they just dance all the time.
There is so much more to tell and learn about Sandhill Cranes, but I’ll leave that to you to discover all the fascinating facts about these birds that have been around for ten million years. Schedule your trip to Nebraska next Spring. You won’t be sorry.