Sandhill Cranes on the Platte River

For those of us living and working on the Central Platte River in Nebraska, the birds that signify spring’s arrival are much bigger than robins.  The annual arrival of sandhill cranes (we usually see the first ones around Valentine’s Day) lets us know that winter is coming to a close.  When the last crane leaves in early April, the first wildflowers in the prairies aren’t far behind.  This spring, the skies along the river are already criss-crossed with formations of flying cranes, intermixed with the ducks and geese of numerous species.  If you’ve never seen this unique phenomenon, you’re missing out on one of the greatest wildlife events in the world.  Come out to the Platte and start your spring right!

Every March, more than half a million sandhill cranes - the entire mid-continent population - converge on the Platte River in central Nebraska. Each bird spends about three weeks feeding and building fat reserves for the rest of their northern migration and the grueling nesting season.

In the evenings, the cranes come to the river itself to roost overnight. They favor broad channels with abundant bare sandbars where large groups of cranes can congregate in large noisy masses of up to 50,000 or more. As the sun starts to go down, wave upon wave of sandhill cranes drop gracefully into the river like so many floating dandelion seeds.

Not surprisingly, this wildlife spectacle draws bird watchers and nature enthusiasts from around the world. Crane watchers can drive rural roads to watch the cranes in the fields and meadows during the day, and stand on riverbank platforms (or reserve space in viewing blinds) to see them come to the river at night. Besides cranes, visitors to the Platte in the spring can also see millions of ducks, geese, and other waterbirds.

The cranes spend the night standing on bare sandbars or in shallow water. Their noisy calls eventually subside enough that they get some sleep, but it's rare that the entire group is quiet for long - and any disturbance (real or imagined) can quickly set the birds to calling and shuffling nervously about again.

In the morning, the cranes leave the river and head to nearby meadows and cornfields to feed. On some mornings, the birds seem reluctant to leave their roost, choosing instead to loaf, feed, and even bathe in the shallow water. Other mornings, a foraging eagle or roving coyote can push an entire roost site into flight simultaneously, and the sound of many thousands of wings creates a deafening noise.

Besides the important task of feeding, cranes spend much of their day - in meadows and along the river - socializing.

Courtship behavior is common during the day, and can include elaborate dances with much leaping and ducking of heads, as well as stick tossing.

As March comes to a close, cranes start heading north to breed - mostly in Canada, but also as far north as Siberia. They usually leave on sunny days with a nice south wind to carry them. Cranes can average 35 miles per hour and travel 200-300 miles per day (up to 500 with a good tailwind). In the fall, they pass through the Platte in small scattered groups (we usually just hear them flying overhead) - providing us with just a quick glimpse of them, but a reminder of what we'll see at the end of the coming long winter.

To learn more about how and where to see sandhill cranes in Nebraska, visit this or other websites.  If you come out, feel free to stop and stretch your legs at the hiking trails through our Platte River Prairies.

To see the best portfolio of sandhill crane photos in the world, visit Michael Forsberg’s website and look for his book “On Ancient Wings“.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is an ecologist and Eastern Nebraska Program Director for The Nature Conservancy. He supervises the management and restoration of approximately 4,000 acres of land in central and eastern Nebraska - primarily along the central Platte River. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press.
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16 Responses to Sandhill Cranes on the Platte River

  1. Jake says:

    We saw three pairs of these guys in the North Tahoe area here in California after the class with the Camera Trap Codger, but nothing like these numbers. Absolutely amazing and I would love to see them in these numbers. Great photos.

  2. Suzanne says:

    I’m heading to Rowe Sanctuary for a week of volunteering and crane watching this coming weekend. I hope to also see prairie chickens – it would be a first for me to see a lek in action. Thanks, Chris, for the great photos!

  3. I think nebraskaflyway.com is the best web resource for planning a crane viewing trip (and I’m not being paid to say so).

  4. Rebecca says:

    How gorgeous. That’s a sight I’d like to see in person someday.

  5. Hello this is great blog with some lovely articles and fantastic photos keep up the good work .from kevin in england we also have area for birds near portsmouth where gueese migrate to each year called farlington marshes and yes birds are good indicators of the change of season all the best from england.

  6. Charlotte says:

    I just saw about 50 cranes flying over Fort Hood, Texas, today. They’ll sometimes stop here briefly, but seem eager to get to better grounds!

  7. Sharon says:

    I had no idea that Sandhill Cranes lived in Nebraska. They show up in Florida occasionally and they are beautiful creatures. Thanks for sharing the photos and information.

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Thanks Sharon –
      I believe the cranes were actually named for the sandhills in Florida – though people here in Nebraska prefer to believe they were named after the sandhills of Nebraska!

      • Suzanne Tuttle says:

        Yes, that’s what I learned at the Rowe Sanctuary this past week – the name comes from the Florida sandhills.

  8. Ron Peterson says:

    On March 19 the Sandhill Cranes made their noisy arrival here in Central Minnesota. I am lucky to live 5 miles from Crane Meadows, a national sanctuary. I can walk, snowshoe, ski and enjoy the paths along the Minnesota Platte River!! Yes, it empties into the mighty Mississippi about 7 miles downstream from Crane Meadows.

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