Winter Cranes – Part Three

It sure looks like we’re going to have sandhill cranes around for the entire winter.  In fact, the consensus among biologists is that the number of cranes has actually grown over the last couple of weeks.  There was even a sighting of three whooping cranes this week, a common event in April, but nearly unheard of in January.

If you haven’t been following this story, Nebraska’s Central Platte River is normally the site of a massive staging event of sandhill cranes each spring, when about 600,000 cranes converge on the river.  Those cranes roost overnight in the river and spend their days feeding and building body condition for the rest of their migration and the breeding season.  Typically, cranes begin arriving on the Platte in mid-February and are mostly gone by early April.

In the fall, cranes pass through the Platte Valley again on their way south, but they don’t usually appear in large numbers or stay very long.  This past fall, however, we kept seeing groups of cranes hanging around, and they never seemed to leave.  By December, it was clear that something unusual was happening.  I speculated in an earlier post about what might be going on, but no one really knows for sure.

This morning, on my drive out to the Platte River prairies, I stopped for a few minutes to look around one of our riverfront prairies just because I hadn’t been there for a while .  As I drove into the property, I got to watch three immature bald eagles chasing each other – apparently playing follow the leader – flying less than a foot apart from each other.  That was pretty impressive, but when the eagles got close to the river, they flushed several hundred cranes into the air.

The cranes circled a few times and returned to the river.  Grabbing my camera, I belly crawled through the tallgrass and shrubs along the river’s edge until I got into a position where I was well hidden but could see and photograph the cranes.  I spent the next 15 minutes or so watching them dance around and listening to calls I normally don’t get to hear in January.  There were only about 500 birds in front of me – a far cry from the tens of thousands that will be here in about a month – but that didn’t really diminish the experience.

Sandhill cranes on the Platte River in January.

I couldn’t stay long because I was supposed to meet some other people, so after I’d delayed as long as I could, I belly crawled back away from the bank and made my way back to my vehicle.  On the remaining 6 miles of my drive, I saw another couple thousand cranes feeding in the fields and meadows.

All in all, it was a pretty good start to the day.

The cranes seemed to be dancing and posturing just as they typically do later in the spring.

17 thoughts on “Winter Cranes – Part Three

  1. Tracy Tucker January 31, 2012 / 8:27 pm

    Wicked jealous!! What lens did you have? I’m just curious how close you were able to get. Beautiful shots, though.

    • Chris Helzer February 1, 2012 / 6:52 am

      Tracy – Nikon 28-300 lens. Hand-held the shots, something I’d been waiting to try out with this new lens – and it’s VR capabilities. Not bad. These photos are cropped some, but I was close enough to get decent shots without cropping too much. If I’d had the time, I probably could have crawled a little closer…

  2. Rebecca January 31, 2012 / 8:35 pm

    Beautiful photos. I was lucky enough to visit the wintering Sandhills in Arizona over the holiday – what an experience!

  3. Brodie January 31, 2012 / 10:13 pm

    Chris, I wondered: What is the condition of the birds you saw? Do they look reasonably well fed? (The pictures appear to indicate so, and good activity level, for those shown.) Are there sufficient fields with available food in the area? One would believe the birds would not be staying around if food were scarce. If food were scarce, and they were still staying, and beginning to look lean, then one could be concerned about unusual or perhaps abnormal reasons or situations among the flocks. Just my wonderment, I’m no expert whatsoever.

    • Chris Helzer February 1, 2012 / 6:50 am

      Brodie – good question. I don’t have any reason to think they weren’t in good condition, for exactly the reasons you pointed out. Yes, there should be sufficient food available, especially since they’re the early birds – so to speak. What may be interesting is the latter part of the normal season for the cranes to be here. If we start getting more early arrivers, the food supply (especially waste corn in fields) may start to run pretty low before the birds are ready to continue northward to breed. In recent decades, the cranes have already been traveling further from the river during the day to feed – we assume because there is less corn available because of competition with snow geese and because of more efficient harvesting equipment these days. That travel distance might increase even more this year. There is evidence that cranes have been leaving Nebraska in lower body condition than they did 30 years ago, but it hasn’t seemed to affect breeding success yet. We’ll see if that changes! (Or if we can tell, with the limited data collection ability we’ll have for the breeding season). Lots to think about!

    • Angela Babbit February 1, 2012 / 9:11 am

      Another question might be, what do the aquatic vertebrate populations look like on the Platte after the cranes have pillaged them?

      • Chris Helzer February 1, 2012 / 10:22 am

        Another excellent question. As far as we know, the bulk of the food eaten by cranes when they’re here in the spring is waste corn and invertebrates from meadows (worms, beetle larvae, etc.). I’m sure they’d take frogs and other vertebrates if they could catch them, but I don’t think it’s a major part of their diet – many aren’t very active yet at that time of year. There have been some studies of the availability of food items, but I don’t know that anyone has ever done a good study of the impact of crane feeding on the populations of those invertebrates (or verts). Would be great to know. I’d also love to know the impact of the fairly intensive digging the cranes do in the meadows. It can look like a rototiller has been through the site at times. It’s got to impact things like seed germination and plant competition, but I don’t think anyone’s ever tried to quantify it.

  4. Larkin Powell January 31, 2012 / 10:52 pm

    So, when people ask you why you like your job, maybe you can just show them this blog post. Adventure is taxed at 0%!

  5. James C. Trager February 1, 2012 / 11:00 am

    Love the images. You may just have talked me into buying that lens. I hear there are some less expensive clones that are also very good.

    • Tracy Tucker February 1, 2012 / 8:19 pm

      The Tamron 70-300mm with VR is pretty good. And super cheap for 300mm!

  6. James McGee February 2, 2012 / 7:15 pm

    Chris, Maybe you should start a tour company. James

    • Chris Helzer February 3, 2012 / 7:56 am

      You know, I’ve been looking for something to fill those long hours of boredom… :)

  7. James McGee February 4, 2012 / 8:57 pm

    Birders come from all over the world and pay surprising amounts of money for trips. I’m sure their money could help you get more restoration accomplished.


    • Chris Helzer February 5, 2012 / 7:44 am

      James, rest assured that TNC and other conservation groups on the Platte are working the crane visitors angle very hard. I spend a great deal of my time in the spring leading crane tours, giving presentations, etc.

  8. The Local Tourist Colorado March 14, 2012 / 2:11 am

    We just witnessed the crane migration at monte vista last week..incredible even though there were only about 20,000. I would love to film the 600,000 you speak of. Check out our video blog at


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