534,000 Sandhill Cranes

That’s the number of Antigone canadensis (Sandhill Cranes) that were reported on the weekly count in the Platte River Valley of Nebraska, less than 24 hours before I was heading on a road trip to see them. I don’t actually have a bucket list, but if I did, it would definitely have included “see the spring migration of Sandhill Cranes along the Platte River in Nebraska.” And I could now check that off my list because I just did it!

Sandhill crane (photo taken in October in Michigan)
Sandhill crane mural in downtown Kearney, NE
Kearney: Sandhill Crane Capital of the World

Every spring, about a half million cranes stop in the area of Kearney, Nebraska, on their migration northward to their breeding grounds in the northern US and Canada. That’s 80% of all the sandhill cranes in the world! I’ve long been a fan of these 4-foot tall birds (with 6-foot wingspans), and I usually get a chance to see them on their southward migration each November, where they congregate in the area of Jackson, Michigan. But the numbers in Michigan during the fall migration are miniscule compared to the spring migration through Nebraska. Back in 2012, I was hyper-excited about seeing a few thousand cranes in Michigan. And in 2017, I wrote about another trip to see the cranes in the fall, that time in Indiana at Jasper-Pulaski.

Sandhill cranes in field near Gibbon, NE

But this trip to Nebraska has just blown my mind. I was only able to stay for two days, with two days of driving to and from Ohio on each end of that. I’d done some research ahead of time so I’d know the most likely places to see the cranes, and I knew that sunrise and sunset were the best times to find them at the river. They fly in at sunset, spend the night in the relative safety of the shallow waters, then fly out to the fields at sunrise to spend the day feeding.

Waiting for sunset on bridge at Ft. Kearny hike & bike trail

After two long days of driving, I arrived in Kearney late on Saturday afternoon, barely in time to buy a parking pass for the bridge at Ft. Kearny (I’m not sure why the city name and the name of the fort are spelled differently, but they are). After I bought my pass, I had a couple hours before sunset, so I went to check in to my hotel. I came back to the bridge about 90 minutes before sunset, standing with a gathering crowd of eager observers as the sun went lower in the sky and anticipation continued to rise. As sunset approached, this bridge started to feel a lot like the boardwalk at Ohio’s Magee Marsh every May, except this crowd was much quieter.

But the cranes didn’t show.

I was heartbroken. After driving 900 miles through some terrifying winds and storms, was I not to see them at all? Right at sunset there was quite a bit of flyover activity, mostly groups of up to about 50 birds criss-crossing the sky. But not a single one dropped into the river within view of the famous bridge. But someone reported that they’d been watching a live crane cam from the Rowe Audubon Sanctuary (in Gibbon, about 15 miles east of Kearney), and there were masses of cranes flying into the river there. So I figured that would be the place to be in the morning for my second try.

The cranes didn’t show up this first night, but the deer did.

The next morning I was in Gibbon before sunrise, and got to see some better action, as thousands of cranes flew across the sky in every direction just after dawn. But the second morning finally delivered on the experience I’d been hoping for. Instead of climbing up on the viewing platform to look down the river, I parked along the road closer to where the cranes were massed in the middle of the river. In the predawn quiet, with just a few other people, I watched through the trees, waiting for something to happen. It’s recommended that you stay in your car when possible, because that’s less intrusive and not likely to impact the cranes’ behavior. So I was sitting in the car taking some video through the trees, waiting. I knew it was too dark to get good quality video, but I wanted to record the sounds to add to my sense memories of this experience. I’ve slowed this one down a bit to account for my jiggling of the camera. You can see them getting restless, right?

Suddenly, earlier than I’d expected, they ALL lifted off from the river at once.

It was a near-deafening symphony of prehistoric bugling, accompanied by the rush of thousands of wings. As you’ll notice in this next video, I quickly opened the car door and stepped out as the birds swung around behind me and came up over the trees. I think I did a good job of stifling my cries, but I was weeping as I filmed this. I know there’s no way I can hope to convey with words what I felt at that moment, but I’ll just say that it was a spiritual experience that resonated deeply in my heart. I acknowledged the blessing of being able to witness one of the few remaining mass migrations left on our planet, something that was both joy-inducing and deeply sad. My emotions were on a roller coaster as I thought about the struggles of these birds to survive, and their fascinating lives that have touched so many humans for centuries.

Sandhill cranes mate for life and travel in family groups. There’s a great deal of mythology surrounding them; they’re said to symbolize longevity, fidelity, and grace. If you’re curious for more fact-based info about them, check out this page at the Cornell Lab’s AllAboutBirds website.

Here’s a little video I made on my last day there as I watched a small gathering of cranes dancing a short time after they’d left the river:

Isn’t that a joyful and life-affirming spectacle? I’m not very good at making videos, but I’m glad I’m trying to get better at it. Still photos just don’t convey the full emotional range of this experience, with the spine-tingling bugle calls in the cool morning air, and the background sounds of red-winged blackbirds calling.

I can count on two hands the number of times in my life I’ve been awake to watch a sunrise, and this trip added a couple more to the tally. (I do love being outdoors at dawn, but my body refuses to give up its lifelong night-owl tendencies.)

Crane watchers on the Plautz viewing platform at Gibbon, NE

Lastly, here’s a video from the Crane Trust that gives a better impression of the immensity of this migration. I highly recommend adding this annual nature spectacle to your bucket list.

11 comments

  1. Kim-

    From bugs to birds, I admire your tenacity in capturing these intriguing moments in nature. Thank you for doing this as I sure would not have the drive to do it!”

    thanks, Daryl

  2. Thank you, Kim! Thank you for sharing your experience. Delightful. While living in Idaho, I loved hearing the Sandhill cranes; some migrating, some spending the summer with their colts. But I rarely saw more than a pair at a time, maybe 10 or so flying overhead. This experience of the mass migration – amazing! I hope some day I get to experience it in person. Your videos are wonderful, capturing their amazing calls and dances.

  3. Such elegant birds. I saw my first ones last fall at a sanctuary in CA. You perfectly capture the reasons why I’ve always wanted to go to Kearney, or to see a mass migration of any kind. Besides trees. It’s unfortunate that mass tree migrations don’t make for good video.

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