Photo of the Week – March 7, 2013

It’s March, which means the sandhill cranes are back on the Central Platte River.  Every spring, the entire mid-continent population of sandhill cranes (500,000-650,000 birds) comes to the Platte River to spend several weeks fueling up for the rest of their northward migration and breeding season.

Sandhill cranes roosting on the Platte River, just north of The Nature Conservancy's Studnicka tract.  2007 photo.

Sandhill cranes roosting on the Platte River, just north of The Nature Conservancy’s Studnicka tract. 2007 photo.

Interestingly, we seem to have fewer cranes right now (March 7) than we did in mid-February back in 2012.  The vagaries of weather – both here and in the wintering grounds in Texas, New Mexico, and northern Mexico – help drive the timing of migration.  I’m not sure exactly what cues they’re using to make their decisions, but apparently there is less urgency to leave the south this year. 

While the cranes are a little slow to arrive, vast numbers of snow geese, along with other geese and ducks, are making up for them.  The skies are full of birds and their calls, making it pretty nice to work outside (and, conversely, hard to stay inside.)

Spring is coming!

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
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19 Responses to Photo of the Week – March 7, 2013

  1. Hannah Anderson says:

    That is SO Cool! H

  2. Ron says:

    Wonderful image!

  3. timupham says:

    The Platte River is a very important stopover for whooping cranes on their way to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. There they will fatten up on blue crabs. But what is happening in Texas, is that so much brackish water has been pumped out of the wetlands in Aransas, that large amounts of saltwater are coming in. This has an impact on blue crabs, because they need brackish water to mate in. After mating, the females will head to higher salinity waters. Because of this change in hydrodynamics, blue crabs are not mating and reproducing.

    • Tim Siegmund says:

      Sandhill cranes go over the entire state of Texas. The whooping crane is the crane species that primarily uses Aransas NWR although in recent years it has started to expand it’s range to a few reservoirs in Central TX.

  4. Mary butler says:

    We used to drive to neb, from n. eastern wyo. in the spring, usually a Little later march,as far as Kearney for this wonderful celebration, thank you for this…many memories and photos and now I discovered this nature conservancy site. This may not work, as I am new, and do not do Facebook or etc.

  5. georgia gillespie says:

    What a beautiful sight! I read your postings in syracuse, ny .. as a very enjoyable way to get closer to my midwest roots…tallgrass prairie in central illinois, what little there is or is left in cemeteries and along rr tracks. As for whooping cranes, we had to be at Seney Wildlife Refuge in Michigan’s UP to see them in numbers…wow…we’ve never forgotten that sight. I wonder where other people have seen them if they do not live on an important migration route, hey? thanks for your evocative descriptions…

  6. Tom Prunier says:

    Do you have a good link on a crane cam? The Rowe Sanctuary camera seems to be off line. There was one last year that ran 24/7 but I’ve lost the link. Wonderful time of year.

  7. Jeannie Patton says:

    You can bet I’ll be asking you for permission to use this photo on the LANDFIRE Conservation Gateway site. We’re all about vegetation history & landscape conservation forecasting, and I’m always looking for photos that AREN’T pretty scenery.

  8. What do you suppose they are feeding on, Chris? Corn in nearby crop fields? One wonders what they ate before corn arrived, and if maybe they were less concentrated then?

    • timupham says:

      When it comes to sandhill cranes, they are generalists. They will feed on an assortment of aquatic plant bulbs, roots, forbs, and seeds. Also, they will feed on fish, snails, amphibians, and reptiles. Some cranes are specialists, like the Siberian cranes, which will feed on the bulbs of tape grass, which must be at a certain water level. When China was pumping excessive water into Lake Poyang from the Three Gorges Dam, it was raising the water level so the cranes could not reach the bulbs. Sandhills cranes will depend on spilled grain after harvesting. I one time saw a large flock feeding on spilled corn.

      • It simply amazes me that they are able to “fatten up”, even on such a diverse diet, when occurring in such high density.

        • timupham says:

          If the food sources were not there, they would not be accumulating in such large numbers. It is not a recent occurrence either. The journals of early explorers mention large congregations of sandhill cranes. They also mention how flocks of passenger pigeons used to darken out the sky. So how we humans, manage our wildlife very much determines if they stay in large numbers or not.

    • Chris Helzer says:

      James – The cranes feed on waste corn, primarily, but get important portions of their diet from invertebrates (earthworms, beetle larvae, etc.) and tubers as well. Before corn, I assume they were less concentrated, ate more inverts and tubers (and other food stuff) and probably had a lower overall population. I’m not even sure they staged for several weeks as they do now – maybe they just passed through. Someone might have actual info on this – I’m just making things up.

      • timupham says:

        It would be odd to say human intervention made the sandhill crane population go up, and the whooping crane population go down. Unless, the argument was based on the size of the two birds, and that the sandhills have a more diverse diet. Because both birds require wetlands on their long migrations, and the decrease in wetlands has impacted their populations. Especially, the loss of potholes in the Midwest. So the best way to answer this, is by looking at historical records. Because large populations of sandhill cranes were recorded in the journals of early explorers. Lewis and Clark kept very detailed journals about wildlife, and what we know about them.

        • Chris Helzer says:

          Tim – Odd, but true, I’m afraid. Humans certainly crashed the whooper population and have boosted the sandhill crane population. Lewis and Clark probably didn’t see the sandhill crane migration – or at least didn’t see the staging along the Platte; they followed the Missouri around to the north of us.

          • James C. Trager says:

            And I would add that there is no reason to assume two distinct species, even closely related ones, would have just the same responses. Consider tall goldenrod and some of its more ecologically conservative relatives.

  9. J. Crumpler says:

    I’ve seen a few Sandhills in this neck of the woods, but nothing in huge numbers like the Platte gets.

  10. Jessica says:

    The cranes are beautiful! It’s been several years since I’ve made it up to the Platte…

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