Photography and text by Marie Read
Their numbers were few at first…ribbons of birds undulating through the sky, their approach heralded by strident bugling calls. Sandhill Cranes! We kept still as statues: a group of bird fans watching in excited anticipation, holding our collective breaths, willing the cranes to land nearby. But they continued on to land far upriver where a large flock was gathering. As dusk approached, more and more crane squadrons flew in from all directions, but still the sandbars straight ahead of our blind remained empty.
And then with a roar of trumpeting voices a huge flock took to the air from a meadow in the distance. Suddenly thousands of birds were heading toward us. And from that moment on there were so many cranes landing in front of the blind that I didn’t know where to look first! Their long-legged, gray shapes blanketed the sandbars and spilled over into the Platte River’s shallow water to fill the entire view from shore to shore. And the sound of all those primeval voices was deafening! Half an hour passed, then an hour, and still the cranes came…filling the horizon with flock after overlapping flock, winging their way to roost.
By nightfall, an estimated 65,000 cranes had filled this stretch of river running through Audubon’s 1150 acre Rowe Sanctuary, outside Kearney, Nebraska. That’s but a small part of the nearly half a million Greater and Lesser Sandhill Cranes that migrate through the 90-mile stretch of the Platte River Valley between Lexington and Grand Island, Nebraska each spring. It’s considered among the greatest wildlife migrations on earth, a must-see event for any nature lover. Once you’ve experienced it, you’ll wonder why you waited so long!
The Central Flyway, one of North America’s four great avian highways in the sky, funnels cranes, waterfowl, and other species northward through Central Nebraska, where they rest and fatten up en route to their northern breeding grounds. The cranes begin arriving in late February and start leaving in mid April, with peak numbers occurring in mid to late March. They roost en masse on the river overnight and disperse each day to forage in surrounding fields. The two best places to see this amazing migration spectacle are the Rowe Sanctuary in Kearney and the Crane Trust in Grand Island. As well as performing vital conservation functions, each organization offers unique viewing experiences for birders as well as opportunities for photographers of all skill levels.
IF YOU GO:
Plan your trip: Reserve your spot early! Space is limited and, since crane migration occurs during just a few weeks, viewing tours and photo blinds at both the Crane Trust and the Rowe Sanctuary quickly get booked up, often 80-90% full by New Years.
Clothing: Bring warm clothing. March in Nebraska may be mild but it also can be very cold, and the crane-viewing blinds are unheated (with one exception below). You will be standing or sitting still for long periods. Be prepared for the cold; bring winter coat and boots, warm gloves, hat, and thick socks. Wear clothing in layers that you can shed if necessary. Air-activated hand warmer packs in each pocket will keep fingers toasty; they’re available for toes too.
Crane viewing etiquette: It’s important to avoid any disturbance to the roosting cranes at this critical time during their migration. To prevent being seen by the cranes, visitors enter blinds well before sunrise on morning tours and exit the blinds after dark on evening tours. You should be prepared to walk short distances in very low light (no flashlights allowed, guides use small red lights), keep quiet, speak only in whispers, and follow any other instructions the guides may have.
Photography Policies: Photography/videography in certain viewing blinds is restricted (e.g. no electronic flash, no tripods, no continuous-mode shooting etc); be sure to read each organization’s photography policy before deciding which experience is best for you.
Options for serious bird photographers are explored in the section <Especially for Photographers>.
Where to view cranes:
The Rowe Sanctuary’s crane tours start at the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center. Visitors watch an orientation video before walking to the blinds. The center also offers interesting programs about crane behavior, bird-friendly communities and more.
General Crane Tours, morning or evening: (Online booking available)
View cranes at their roost from group viewing blinds strategically placed along the Platte River. Blinds are unheated but comfortable, with large unglazed windows at two levels to accommodate viewers of different heights, and benches at the back.
Watch cranes returning to their roost from a comfortable viewing area inside the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at the Rowe Sanctuary.
Other places near Kearney to see cranes: Cranes forage throughout the day for waste grain in fields around the Rowe Sanctuary and may be viewed easily from a vehicle on local roads. Crane flocks flying to and from roosting areas can also be seen from the bridge on the hike-bike trail in the Fort Kearny Recreation Area, from shortly before sunset to dark, or at sunrise and shortly thereafter.
The Crane Trust’s Nature & Visitor Center is the place to kick off your crane viewing experience in Grand Island. Interactive exhibits keep kids occupied, while adults enjoy nature videos and talks, or browse art shows (including the Annual Great Plains Art Show and Sale one weekend in March). The visitor center is also where the Crane Trust’s morning and evening crane viewing tours begin.
Group Viewing Blind Tours, morning or evening:
(Reservations best, walk-ins possible but evening tours are often fully booked by late afternoon.)
After a presentation at the Nature & Visitor Center about crane migration and some information about crane observation etiquette, guides take visitors to a viewing blind overlooking crane roosts on the Platte River. The unheated blind has large clear Plexiglas windows with rectangular viewing ports cut out at various heights.
Footbridge Evening Tours, evening only: Accompany a guide to the Crane Trust’s private footbridge over the Platte to enjoy a 360-degree view as thousands of cranes fly over to roosting areas for the night.
VIP Crane Viewing Experience: For an extra-special, more immersive adventure, consider booking a VIP stay in one of the Crane Trust’s very comfortable Legacy Cottages at their Wild Rose Ranch. The all-inclusive VIP experience includes morning and evening viewing from a private, heated VIP blind. The blind is carpeted and heated, windows are of clear Plexiglas with rectangular ports cut out at various heights
Where to stay:
Both Kearney and Grand Island are easily accessible from Interstate 80, and each has a good selection of hotels and restaurants near several interstate exits, as well as an interesting variety of eating spots in the downtown areas.
Prairie Chickens and Sharp-tailed Grouse
At the same time as crane migration, there’s another avian extravaganza going on in Central Nebraska: in March and April Prairie Chickens and Sharp-tailed Grouse perform their wild and crazy courtship antics on their breeding grounds (termed “leks”). It’s another must-see event that should be on every birder’s bucket list, so consider booking a tour while you’re in the area:
Calamus Outfitters, Burwell (Both Greater Prairie Chickens and Sharp-tailed Grouse)
Prairie Chicken Dance Tours, McCook (Greater Prairie Chickens)
Prairie Heritage Museums
Central Nebraska is proud of its pioneer heritage. Throughout the region, museums (including several “living history” museums) celebrate the history of prairie settlers and their lives. While some aren’t open until later in summer, a few are open year-round and are definitely worth exploring.
Pioneer Village, Minden (open year-round)
Plainsman Museum, Aurora (open all year)
Classic Car Collection, Kearney (open all year)
Marie Read is a professional wildlife photographer and author, specializing in birds and bird behavior. Her work appears regularly in such magazines as Living Bird, Birding, Ranger Rick and numerous others worldwide, plus in calendars and books. She’s pursued photo projects throughout North America as well in Australia, East Africa and Central America, but captures numerous memorable images in her own backyard too. She has authored many articles about birds and bird photography, as well as four books, most recently Sierra Wings: Birds of the Mono Lake Basin and Into The Nest (co-authored with Laura Erickson).