The Sandhill Cranes of Husker’ Country
In the dim light of evening from our windows in the custom-built blind, we could see thousands of tall, grayish-white birds forming groups on the far river bank about 200 yards away. Their raspy calls, somewhere between a croak and a purr, saturated the evening air and could easily be heard a couple miles away. They continued accumulating on the bank until it was almost too dark to see them as they began moving to the safety of the shallow water and the sandbars in the river to spend the night. This was the annual marvel known as the Sandhill Crane Migration along the Platte River near Grand Island, Nebraska.
The organization called the Crane Trust was formed in 1978, resulting from a lawsuit to halt construction of the proposed Gray Rocks Dam on the Laramie River in Wyoming, a tributary of the North Platte River that flows the length of Nebraska. Both Kansas and Nebraska are smack-dab in the middle of the Central Flyway used by millions of geese, ducks and sandhill cranes as well as the endangered whooping cranes and dozens of other migratory bird species. The Crane Trust’s mission is to protect and maintain habitat along what’s known as the Big Bend area of the Platte River, from Lexington, NE to Chapman, NE. The Crane Trust currently owns or manages over 12,000 acres along a 7 mile stretch of the river near Grand Island.
This area of the Platte River provides the perfect environment for sandhill cranes to rest, refuel and find mates as they travel from their wintering grounds in Mexico to breeding grounds as far north as Siberia. Although the whole affair is slightly later this year because of erratic and unusual March weather, upwards of 650, 000 sandhill cranes will stop along this stretch of the Platte River for a few days each March, making this easily the largest single migration in North America and rivaling the wildebeest migration in Africa. The cranes leave Mexico in family groups and can travel more than 500 miles a day before congregating en masse along the big bend area of the Platte. Brice Krohn, President of the Crane Trust, told us that even in the midst of thousands of other cranes, the birds can actually still keep track of family members through unique sounds they make. This stretch of the Platte River is wide and shallow with myriads of sand bars, providing safety and security for the cranes for the night. Corn is king throughout this part of Nebraska, and corn left on the ground in harvested fields provides the perfect nutrition for the birds to refuel and build body mass for the rest of the flight and as they search for mates.
Both Greater and Lesser Sandhill Cranes join in the same migration. Adult Greater’s are about 4 feet tall, weight 7 – 11 pounds and have 6 1/2 foot wingspans; Lesser’s are slightly smaller. They are a sort of dirty grayish-white color with dark wing tips, bright red head crests and long beaks, much like our Blue Herons, and it’s nearly impossible to tell males and females apart. The females lay 2 eggs each year and family groups usually remain together for 3 years. Also like our herons, Sandhill Cranes don’t float or swim, but are wading birds.
The following morning we entered the blinds in the dark, and even though we couldn’t see the birds at all, their distinctive, raspy calls still permeated the darkness for miles around. The Platte River was high due to the recent floods, so many of the usually exposed expanses of sand were under a few inches of water. However, the rising sun revealed the few dry sandbars to be teeming with cranes standing shoulder-to-shoulder occupying every available inch of real estate; our guide estimated there were probably 20,000 within our eyesight. As the day awoke around us, the morning show began. There were constantly cranes in the air, moving from group-to-group or moving to the shore to forage. When a bald eagle flew into view, every crane went on high alert, and the soothing, raspy calls became noticeably intense until the eagle settled high in a tree. Unmated adults put on their best moves to vie for each other’s attention and affection. They bowed and curtsied, they fluttered into the air then floated back down, they bobbed and parried, all in the name of attracting the perfect suitor and life-long mate.
The sunrise over the bubbling waters of the Platte River became the perfect ending to our time with the cranes. Watching the Sandhill Crane migration with the personable, knowledgeable guides from the Crane Trust is an experience that should be on everyone’s bucket list. Contact them at www.cranetrust.org to reserve your spots for next year. Continue to Explore Kansas Outdoors!
Steve can be contacted by email at [email protected]