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A yellow sky at sunset is filled with flocks of birds, more birds stand on the riverbanks below
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Nebraska’s Magnificent Sandhill Crane Migration

Each spring, more than half a million sandhill cranes swoop into the Big Bend region of Nebraska’s Platte River. They spend several weeks here, resting and feasting before heading to their northern breeding grounds in Canada, Alaska and Siberia. Watching them fill the skies is an enthralling experience I was fortunate to experience.

(My story below, which was inspired by a hosted media visit, was published by Journal and Topics Media Group on January 17, 2018. The photos are mine unless credited to VisitGrandIsland.com.)

An hour before dawn we trudged cautiously through tallgrass prairie along an uneven path near Grand Island, Nebraska. Only our fore and aft guides were armed with flashlights, their low beams aimed downward. The temperature hovered at freezing. Our destination, a quarter-mile ahead, was a rustic open-air shed on the banks of the Platte River. From there we would witness one of the greatest wildlife spectacles in the world: the annual migration of sandhill cranes.

Each spring, more than 500,000 of the regal red-capped aviators swoop into the river’s Big Bend region. They spend several weeks resting and feasting before continuing the journey from their southern winter habitat to summer breeding grounds in Canada, Alaska and Siberia. The area is a prime stopping point on one of four North American migration routes for waterfowl and shorebirds. It’s the one favored by 80 percent of all sandhill cranes.

Sandhill cranes dance, flap, preen and show off. Photo by VisitGrandIsland.com.

 On that frigid March morning, we huddled and shivered in the shed, called a “blind,” and awaited the light. We couldn’t yet see the cranes through the viewing portholes, but we heard their boisterous high-pitched trills. They overnight while perched on toothpick legs, packed wing-to-wing along the sandbars and in the shallow water. They sleep, but they don’t all sleep at the same time, so the vocalizations are constant. Whoever is awake is trilling.

 Meanwhile, we’d been instructed not to make a peep. No talking, no flash, no video, no camera or cell phone clicks. Any strange sound or light could frighten the birds away.

 As the jet black night faded into the pearl gray of morning, the cranes became visible—tens of thousands of them. Dense masses filled the river from shore to shore, and from upstream to downstream. The birds also became increasingly social. For an hour or so, they entertained us with dancing, flapping, jumping, stomping, bowing, twirling and preening. A few bold males strutted about and flashed their tail feathers in attempts to impress the objects of their affection or to discourage rival suitors. When rejected, they slunk into the crowd.

Sandhill cranes return to the water at sunset and leave at dawn. Photo by VisitGrandIsland.com.

 Suddenly, as though some ethereal command had been given, the commotion stopped. The cranes began to line up and assume their take-off position. They faced the same direction, with heads and necks  stretched out almost horizontally, and with wings tucked at their sides. Then they flapped themselves into a blur of winged projectiles, causing a roar like a gushing waterfall, and they disappeared. In less than a minute, not a single crane remained on the river. (References to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 movie, “The Birds,” are understandable.)

During the day, sandhill cranes munch on leftovers in nearby fields.

The cranes spend their days in neighboring cornfields munching on leftovers from the previous summer’s crops. They return to the river around dusk, although not as dramatically as they launch in the morning. They arrive slowly and in small groups, perhaps 20 or 50 birds at a time. Often a singleton stakes out a preferred spot on a sandbar before the rest of the family soars in to roost.

During one of our evening viewings, the first flock landed and shot off again feverishly three times. They had spotted an eagle circling overhead, one who no doubt had young fowl in mind for dinner. As the encroaching darkness provided greater cover, the cranes relaxed and settled in for another night.

Sandhill cranes stand between 3 feet and 5 feet tall with wingspans of up to 6 feet. They typically weigh between 7 pounds and 14 pounds, and can live for 20 years. The birds start to appear along the Big Bend as early as mid-February, and their numbers peak toward the last half of March. Some may hang around through mid-April.

 For optimal viewing of the dawn take-offs and dusk landings, a guided tour reserves your space in a blind. Our tours were organized by the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary in Gibbon and the Crane Trust Nature and Visitor Center in Wood River. The tours last about two hours, depending on how flighty the cranes are that day. (Pardon the pun.)

Enter the bird blind from the back side; the front has observation portholes.

Blind sizes vary by location, but the largest accommodates 30 visitors. The smallest are two-person overnight photo blinds. Heat and toilet facilities may or may not be available.

Between crane-viewing tours, there’s plenty to do and see in the area. If you want more bird action, migrating American white pelicans cluster at the Calamus Reservoir in Burwell. Or observe the annual mating ritual of prairie chickens on a lek with Prairie Chicken Dance Tours in McCook.

Other local attractions are designed to preserve the legacy of the prairie and its link to the settlement of the American West. Some suggestions:

Grand Island: Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer in Grand Island is a top-ranked living history museum and pioneer village in a park-like setting. Kensinger Service & Supply is an original Lincoln Highway gas station built in 1937.

A modern white two-story building sits in front of a pond.
Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer in Grand Island, Nebraska.

 Kearney: The Great Platte River Road Archway is a history monument that spans Interstate 80; life-size vignettes and special effects tell the stories of immigrants and opportunists who passed through on their way to new lives. Classic Car Collection displays 200 beautifully restored vintage automobiles.

A building spans above a highway.
The Great Platte River Road Archway is a history museum that spans Interstate 80 in Nebraska.

Red Cloud: The childhood home and memorial prairie salute Willa Cather, best known for novels of American frontier life on the Great Plains.

Gothenburg: An original Pony Express station, built in 1854 as a fur trading post along the Oregon Trail, now resides in Ehmen Park. The Gothenburg Historical Museum across the street has a barbed wire collection.

An old small log cabin in a park setting.
An original Pony Express station is now a museum in Gothenburg, Nebraska.

North Platte: The Golden Spike Tower offers panoramic views of Union Pacific’s Bailey Yard, the world’s largest railroad classification yard. With more than 300 miles of track, the yard processes 14,000 railroad cars every 24 hours. Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park features Scout’s Rest Ranch, the 1886 home and barn of the West’s most colorful showman, army scout and buffalo hunter.

Hastings: Kool-Aid was invented by Hastings resident Edwin Perkins. A permanent exhibit at the Hastings Museum showcases the life of the man and the evolution of the fruity beverage.

(Many thanks to the Nebraska Tourism Commission for the hospitality and Visit Grand Island for use of the photos.)

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