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Sandhill Cranes in Nebraska

Photo by Stan Tekiela

by Stan Tekiela
© NatureSmart

March 26, 2016

I've just returned from leading my annual spring trip to south central Nebraska to see the Sandhill Crane migration. This year I had 11 intrepid participants join me in the birding bus and we had such a fun time. Even though I go to the same place at the same time on the calendar, each year's experience is very different. Each trip is special and unique.

This year we were greeted with record numbers of Sandhill Cranes. Within minutes of arriving in the area we started seeing thousands of cranes in the fields. The official count was 230,000 cranes during our visit. The weather was perfect with warm winds from the south and plenty of sunshine.

At any given time you could look around in the blue sky and see hundreds if not thousands of cranes flying in large family units. Each crane loudly calling as if they needed to be heard over all the other cranes that were talking.

As I tell the participants on these trips, each year is different. However we tend to think that nature stays the same. That it should be the same as last year. I call this the "remember the good old days" syndrome. This is where people have a single memory of something wonderful in nature and expect it be exactly the same way each time, year after year. However nature is dynamic and is always changing. Nature is never the same twice. Sure there are some similarities but it is never exactly the same.

This year the Snow Geese, which we would normally see in the hundreds of thousands,were already gone from the region. We found a small group of about 50 Snow Geese in a grassy field feeding but that was the extent of what we saw.

Each morning we would gather well before daylight and head to one of the viewing blinds. The blinds are large structures built on the edge of the river with viewing ports or windows to see the cranes. In complete darkness and under a blanket of stars we would navigate a grassy pathway. Once at the blind we pile into the building in complete darkness and wait in silence for the sunrise. Meanwhile about 10,000 or 15,000 cranes would be nervously calling while they stand in the river right in front of our blind, also waiting for the sun to come up.

As soon as there is enough light to see, the cranes start to peel off in small family units flying off to the surrounding corn fields to feed on spilled corn, left over from last fall's harvest. It takes a couple hours for most of the cranes to leave the night roosting spot in the river.

On average the cranes stay about 2 weeks in this part of Nebraska along the Platte River feeding and gaining weight before they continue on their journey northward. Nearly a half of million Sandhill Cranes will pass through this 60 to 90 mile stretch of the Platte River during the spring migration. It is an critical stop over on their long migration. During their stay the birds strengthen their pair bonds between the mated adults. The young cranes which follow their parents learn the migratory route and the best places to roost and find food.

It is believed that the cranes have been coming to this part of the Platte River for nearly 10,000 years. Why they started doing this in the first place is not understood. And why they don't choose a different part of the Platte River is also not known. These are just some of the mysteries that the cranes hold onto tightly.

What I find interesting is, these cranes will migrate up to northern states such as Montana and North Dakota but the vast majority will head into Canada and spread out east to the Hudson Bay and westward up and into Alaska. Even more amazing, a small percentage of the cranes will make the 90 mile crossing from Nome Alaska over to Siberia of Russia.  Here they will nest and raise their young. And you thought you had a long commute to work. Until next time....

Stan Tekiela is an author / naturalist and wildlife photographer who travels the world to study and photograph wildlife. He can be followed on www.facebook.com and twitter.com. He can be contacted via his web page at www.naturesmart.com

The nationally syndicated NatureSmart Column appears in over 25 cities spanning 7 states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania. It is a bi-weekly column circulated to over 750,000 readers.

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