Time to Go North

I was fortunate enough to be in a viewing blind along the Platte River last Friday and Saturday nights, watching sandhill cranes coming in to roost.  Both nights had fantastic weather, beautiful sunsets, and excellent opportunities for our guests to see cranes up close.  However – there was a huge difference between the two nights in terms of the number of cranes that came in to roost.  On Friday night, we could probably see around 30,000 birds from the blind I was in.  On Saturday, the number was probably down around 5,000. 

Sandhill cranes at sunset on Friday night. As the sun went down, the numbers of cranes on the river went up. I'm not an expert at estimating numbers, but I'd guess there were at least 30,000 birds within view of the blind. A big contrast to Saturday night - though Saturday night was nothing to sneeze at, with birds landing close to the blind and a fantastic sunset as well.

It looks like this year’s early arrival of cranes on the Platte is leading to an early exit as well.  Normally, the 24th of March (Saturday’s date) sits right at, or shortly after the peak time to see sandhill cranes on the Platte.  Even if some of the early arrivals have started to head north to breed by the 24th, the numbers are still very high in most years.  This year, it was as if someone opened the gates and let them out Saturday morning, and they all rushed north at the same time.  Don’t get me wrong, there are still enough cranes around that driving the roads during the day and watching them come to the river at night are fantastic experiences.  It’s just different than it was during the 2-3 weeks leading up to last Friday.

It was especially interesting to be in the same viewing blind the night before and the night after the big departure that apparently took place during the day on Saturday.  Saturday was one of those days everyone wishes for on a weekend.  The temperature got up into the low 80’s (normal highs are 55 degrees F this time of year) with sunny skies and light winds.  Before heading to the blind, I spent the day working in the garden and playing baseball with my kids in the backyard.  It’s exactly the kind of day I expect cranes to leave and head north – except that it was a week or two before I would typically expect a mass exodus.

However, Friday’s weather was almost identical to Saturday’s weather, so why did they leave Saturday and not Friday?  On both days, we watched as groups of cranes spiraled up into the sky, riding the warm air currents until they were almost out of site.  On Friday, most of them must have come back down to roost on the river on more time, but on Saturday, they apparently got up high, liked what they saw/felt, set their wings, and glided north.  Maybe the high air currents on Saturday were coming from a different direction (south, presumably) than they were on Friday.  Maybe they used Friday as a practice day and the itch was unbearable two days in a row, so they gave in and headed out.

Going north early can be a risky venture for breeding cranes.  The primary role of the Platte River as a spring staging area is to allow cranes to build fat reserves while feeding on waste corn and invertebrates.  Those reserves are important because once they head north they typically have fewer opportunities to feed as they are busily setting up nesting territories, laying eggs, and caring for their young colts.  Heading north early means they are more likely to find breeding areas that are still frozen and inhospitable.  That can lead to additional stress, less food availability, and a greater chance that things will go badly during the nest season.  Waiting a couple weeks gives them some insurance that conditions will be better in the nesting grounds when they arrive. 

So did the cranes that left on Saturday know something?  Did they leave simply because they’d been on the Platte long enough to fill up with food and energy?  Or are they somehow picking up cues that make them feel good about the weather they’re heading into up north?  I don’t have the answers, but I was glad to be an observer when they made their choice. 

I wish them luck.

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“.