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!

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.