A Prolonged Visit

Sandhill cranes are regular visitors along the Platte River.  During the spring, more than half a million cranes stage here from mid February through early April.  Once they build up sufficient fat reserves they continue north to breed in Minnesota and Canada. 

In the fall, we see the sandhill cranes again, but normally just for a quick visit as they hurry south toward their wintering grounds.  Usually, we see them less than we hear them, as they glide far overhead.  A relative few stop and roost on the river for a night or so, and those overnight guests might do a little feeding in the recently harvested corn fields or meadows while they’re here.  But unless the weather keeps them longer, they usually arrive one evening and leave the next morning.

This fall, however, something’s different.  As I write this, there are thousands of sandhill cranes roosting and feeding along the river – and they’ve been here for more than two months.  For the first several weeks, we assumed it was an anomaly, and that they’d be moving on soon.  Now we’re starting to wonder if they’re planning to stay all winter!

Alright, so this is really a photo from the spring migration, not the fall. (But the cranes look the same)

The unexpected congregation of cranes is causing considerable discussion and speculation among biologists around here.  No one can remember this ever happening before, so why this year?  Is it related to the severe drought in Texas and other places in the south where the cranes typically spend their winter?  If so, did the cranes go down, look around, and turn back north? 

For a while, we figured it was just the mild November temperatures and strong river flows that were keeping them here.  If it’s not cold and snowy, why leave?  But since then, we’ve had some very cold (albeit short) snaps and two substantial snowstorms come through.  And they’re still here.

I emailed Dave Brandt, with the US Geological Survey’s Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center to get his input on the discussion.  Dave is part of a team (along with Gary Krapu) that has been doing a lot of telemetry work on the mid-continent sandhill crane population, and tracking where they go.  He said that “reflux migration” (cranes bouncing back in the direction they came from) because of severe weather conditions is not unheard of, but is very rare.  They’re not following cranes intensively now, but he did say that there were 16 marked birds they’d been watching, and that all had migrated all the way south. 

Dave was actually in Texas when he emailed, and said there were sandhill cranes there, but that it was very very dry.  His best guess was that “our cranes” were just taking their time coming south because of the nice weather.  That makes good sense to me.  However, that was a month ago, and before the cold and snowy weather hit!

This is one of those phenomena that makes it great to be a biologist.  You think you’ve got a species really figured out, with strong patterns of behavior that repeat time after time – sandhill cranes have been very well studied – and then the species throws you a curve ball.  Out of left field.  Or something. 

Will they stay all winter?  Will they leave in the spring?  Will they do this again next year and for the foreseeable future? 

No one knows.  Fun, isn’t it?

17 thoughts on “A Prolonged Visit

  1. Brodie December 19, 2011 / 8:08 am

    As the daughter of a farm family in SE. Nebr., I find these posts like a welcome trip home for me. Yes, it’s very interesting about the handsome cranes, but if they stay longer and longer this winter, can they survive the cold, and is there enough grazing in grasses and cornfields (given that food sources are not covered by snow)? I’m concerned and hope you will keep us informed as time passes. Thank you for your excellent words and photos.

    • Chris Helzer December 19, 2011 / 8:22 am

      Good questions, Brodie. If I had to guess, I’d guess they’d move south if we had deep snow on the ground for an extended time. Maybe they’ll do what many other bird species do, and just bounce as far south as they need to in order to find open ground/open water and food. On the other hand, I’m pretty hesitant to guess anything about them right now!

  2. Brent Lathrop December 19, 2011 / 8:56 am

    Chris you caught my attention on this one, fascinating. I’m coming through on Friday and will be watching the skies once I pass Kearney. Keep the observations coming.

    Take care and Merry Christmas.

  3. Gary Shackelford December 19, 2011 / 9:27 am


    I second Brodie’s request for you to keep us informed as the winter progresses. This is a fascinating event, and I’ll be very interested to learn what fate befalls the cranes.

  4. David December 19, 2011 / 10:32 am


    You might check in with the Jasper-Pulaski folks in Indiana. http://www.in.gov/dnr/fishwild/3109.htm

    When I used to live in Indiana. The cranes were around for months if my memory serves me right?


  5. James C. Trager December 19, 2011 / 2:24 pm

    Great critters, Chris. I love their call. I used to enjoy the year-round resident ones in Florida, when I lived there. In winter, migratory ones would join them. The last time I went to Florida (winter 2009) I also saw two whooping cranes. Any of those shown up among your sandhill cranes, yet?

    • Chris Helzer December 19, 2011 / 3:22 pm

      James, we do see whoopers with our sandhill cranes now and then – in the spring. They’re often asssumed to be juvenile whoopers that are looking for companionship and fall into the wrong crowd… Haven’t heard of any whooper sightings on the Platte this fall, but I’m not well tied into those reports.

  6. Stephanie December 19, 2011 / 2:47 pm

    The cranes seem to be staying around later this year here in the “mid-east” as well. I was in south-central Wisconsin on Dec 5 and was surprised that there were so many still there then. I’ve been at Jasper-Pulaski in NW Indiana on Dec 1 and Dec 11 and the number of birds there is still climbing instead of decreasing. I assume it is the mild winter so far that has kept them around this late.

    • Chris Helzer December 19, 2011 / 3:20 pm

      Thanks Stephanie – great to know what’s happening in that flock too. We’ll have to stay in touch and see what happens from here.

  7. Mark Godfrey December 19, 2011 / 2:59 pm

    Chris, the Crane stay is a very interesting story – I look forward to hearing if they stay or go and when.

  8. Karen Hamburger December 19, 2011 / 3:20 pm

    I saw a group of about 30 cranes on the river on Thanksgiving evening west of the highway 281 bridge.
    Are they still in that area???? Or the further west???
    I want to go see them.

    • Chris Helzer December 19, 2011 / 3:23 pm

      Karen, I know that they’ve been hanging around from Hwy 281 all the way to Rowe Sanctuary – and likely beyond. There’s been a consistent group in the crop fields just to the west of the Studnicka tract.

  9. Chris Zeiner December 19, 2011 / 7:37 pm

    Chris, is there any relation to other migrating birds in your area as well? In Northern Illinois it seems that our migration is also a little late, seems the ducks, geese and cranes are still making their way south. I wonder if the lack of frozen water further north has anything to do with it?? It certainly is fun to wonder what they are thinking though!

    • Chris Helzer December 20, 2011 / 8:00 pm

      Chris – I do think the open water is a factor, but we’ve had other winters with lots of open water before and no one remembers cranes sticking around… Yeah, there are other ducks and geese around too – but not really more than normal, as far as I can tell.

  10. James McGee December 19, 2011 / 8:49 pm

    Maybe the are waiting for the wind to blow out of the right direction.



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