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Sandhill Cranes

Photo by Stan Tekiela

by Stan Tekiela
© NatureSmart

May 27, 2024

It was just before the pandemic that I last went to see one of the most amazing natural spectacles on the face of the earth—the annual migration of the Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) in south central Nebraska. For the past 30 plus years, I have led a trip to see the crane migration each spring. It was a trip I looked forward to every year. It was like going to visit an old friend each spring.

This year I had an incredible group of 10 that were so fun and just as excited to see the cranes as I was. The dynamics of a group can make or break a trip and this group was perfect. It’s not easy getting up at 4 am to go out in the cold and dark, so having an energetic group is always a good thing.

We made our way to south central Nebraska where hundreds of thousands of Sandhill Cranes gather on their northward, spring-time migration. A stretch of just 80 miles along the Platte River hosts upwards of a half a million cranes each spring.

Upon our arrival, we had gray skies and high winds, but the agricultural fields near the Platte River had many flocks of Sandhill Cranes. It wasn’t unusual to see 500 or more cranes in just one location. Towards evening the cranes start to move back towards the Platte River. The Platte River is a large river in southern Nebraska that runs over 300 miles long before it terminates into the Missouri River. The Platte is a very shallow, meandering river with a sandy bottom and most importantly hundreds of small islands or sandbars which are perfect for the cranes to roost overnight.

After a hot dinner and a few drinks, we went to bed looking forward to watching the sunrise and seeing thousands of cranes. When my alarm went off at 3:45 am I wasn’t happy about getting out of bed but when I did, I looked out the window and all I could see was snow blowing horizontally. Not a good start. The 30 mph plus wind was driving snow horizontally causing the roads to be shut down stranding us in the hotel.

After breakfast we ventured out into the snow-covered landscape to see how the cranes were doing and also what other birds we could see. It was a very productive morning and by noon the snow stopped and by 4 pm the skies on the western horizon started to clear. Temperatures were just above freezing so the snow started to melt. We made our way over to the river at sunset to watch the cranes flying in from the surrounding areas to roost in the river.

We had a wonderful sunset and saw thousands of cranes and a few hundred Snow Geese flying into the river. Watching this is always a spiritual experience.

For thousands of years, these Sandhill Cranes have been visiting the Platte River on their migration northward. There are no cranes that nest in Nebraska, they are just passing through. The Sandhill Cranes are some of the oldest birds in North America. Fossils of Sandhills dating back 2.5 million years are common and one crane fossil (similar species of crane) found in Nebraska is estimated to be about 10 million years. Either way you cut it; the cranes have been around a long, long time.

The next morning my alarm went off again at 3:45 am and this time when I looked out the window the sky was clear, and the wind had died down and was calm. From all my years of coming to see the crane migration, I knew it was going to be a great morning. We packed up and drove over to the blinds we had reserved. After a 15-minute walk in the dark down a gravel pathway we entered the wooden structure (blind) on the banks of the Platte River. Even though it was so dark we couldn’t see anything, we could definitely hear thousands of cranes right out in front of us.

Slowly as the sun rose in the eastern sky, it gave us enough light to see that approximately 10,000 plus cranes were standing in the shallow water of the Platte River right in front of us. The brighter it became the louder the cranes became. Soon, groups of cranes (family units) started taking off from the river heading out for the day to find food. Hundreds of cranes were flying at the same time. Often the entire flock takes off all at the same time in a thunderous and chaotic blast off.
But not this morning. It seemed they were going to fly off the river in a slow but steady pattern.

Over the next couple hours, the cranes slowly pealed off from the roosting flock and headed out to feed. With thousands of cranes still in the river our group was getting cold and hungry, so we left the blind and headed back. We had just experienced one of the most amazing and spectacular wildlife events in North America. It was so good to be back visiting my old friends the Sandhill Cranes. Until next time…

Stan Tekiela is an author / naturalist and wildlife photographer who travels (and leads trips) extensively to capture images of wildlife. He can be followed at Instagram.com and facebook.com. He can be contacted via his website at 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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