The Great Migration

A North Carolina nature writer takes chilly trip to southern Nebraska to see thousands of Sandhill Cranes in their winter roosting spot.
by Mike Dunn

This past March, my wife, Melissa, and I finally checked off one of our bucket list items: a trip to view the migration of Sandhill Cranes in southern Nebraska. We occasionally see a few of these cranes in North Carolina in winter (we counted 24 on this past year’s Christmas Bird Count at Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge), but there they often congregate in the tens of thousands during migration.

I enjoyed the reaction of people that asked about our trip: when I said, “Nebraska” (in March no less), they often looked askance and said, “Oh, that sounds… great.” Still, the last week of March found us driving west, camping at some beautiful spots along the way.

Sandhill Cranes are elegant, gray-brown birds from 3 to 4 feet in height (depending on subspecies) with wingspans of up to 6 feet. They mate for life and travel in family groups. In addition to their physical beauty, they have a distinctive call. The famed conservationist Aldo Leopold described the sounds of Sandhill Cranes as the “tinkling of little bells, the baying of some sweet-throated hound, and a pandemonium of trumpets, rattles, croaks and cries.”

Sandhill Cranes are now the most abundant crane species in the world, with an estimated population of over 800,000. There are several subspecies, some of which are migratory. A few, especially the Greater and Lesser Sandhill Cranes, undertake long-distance migrations in North America between their breeding grounds in the far north and wintering grounds in the southern U.S. and Mexico. The Platte River in south-central Nebraska is an ideal stopover on this long journey — plenty of cornfields with leftover grain, plus a braided river where they can roost at night in shallow water, safe from predators. They stay in the area for several weeks each spring, building up the energy reserves necessary to complete their migration and start breeding and raising young.

Lucky for us, we were there at the peak of the migration numbers, an estimated 486,000 Sandhill Cranes. That represents a third of the world’s population of Sandhill Cranes in a roughly 80-mile stretch of the Platte River at one time! 

Local groups like the Crane Trust and Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary work with other conservation partners and local farmers to protect and manage the habitat the cranes need. This includes the somewhat unlikely scenario of periodically tearing out trees and other vegetation that might otherwise invade the shallow sandbars the cranes prefer. Prior to the construction of several dams along the Platte, seasonal floods scoured the shallows, keeping them free of shrubs and trees. Now, that work must be done with heavy machinery. These groups also provide visitors like us with opportunities to witness this wildlife spectacle.

While there are opportunities to watch cranes come in to roost on the river in the evening from public viewing areas or through tours with the Crane Trust, Rowe and some private businesses, our most anticipated viewing opportunity was spending the night right next to a potential roosting site in a blind operated by the Rowe Sanctuary. The blinds are fine if you are used to camping; they’re just small, unheated wooden structures with viewing ports that open and close. Volunteers from Rowe dropped us and our gear off at the blind in late afternoon. We were provided with a red flashlight (no white lights allowed as they might scare the cranes) and a bucket stocked with poo bags for a toilet. We were not allowed to leave the blind at all. We brought sleeping bags and pads, plenty of warm clothes, camp chairs, some food and water, our camera gear and binoculars, and a sense of anticipation. 

A few ducks and shorebirds were in front of the blind for the first couple of hours. As sunset approached, we saw small flocks of cranes flying over and landing about a half-mile upriver. This continued as the sun sank lower. I glanced at my watch, thinking the birds should be here. Flocks of cranes filled the sky upriver, but none were landing near us and I was trying not to show my disappointment. 

As the sun dipped below the horizon, four cranes suddenly landed about 50 yards upriver from us. 

After another few anxious moments, a large flock of cranes flew overhead, then circled and landed near the first four. Within minutes, there were more flocks landing, some right in front of our blind! Soon, there were thousands of noisy cranes within a couple of hundred yards up and downriver of the blind. (A group of Sandhill Cranes is called a sedge, by the way.)

The dim light prevented me from using my telephoto lens, but sitting there with the lingering color of sunset and the sounds of so many cranes was a spiritual moment. After darkness settled in, we gently closed the windows and used the red flashlight to put away our chairs and lay out our sleeping bags, worried that each noisy move we made would spook the birds. At one point, some of the flock closest to us (probably only 75 feet from the blind) noisily flew off, and we were heartbroken to think that we might have been the cause. But, over the next several hours, we would hear the crane calls slowly fade in intensity, and then suddenly flare up with a raucous explosion of sound for several minutes before settling back down again. We think they are just fidgety birds, ready to take flight and resettle at the slightest hint of alarm. 

Before sunrise the next morning, we slowly put away our sleeping gear, unfolded our chairs, and gently opened the windows to an amazing sight. The river was covered in cranes, as far as we could see in both directions. 

It was a glorious morning listening to and watching the cranes. Small groups were flying to and from the sandbars, providing us with plenty of opportunities for photos in the morning light.  

There were also plenty of fascinating behaviors to observe with so many cranes in front of us. Dancing is perhaps the most famous behavior associated with Sandhill Cranes. Maneuvers include bows, head thrusts and vertical leaps with spread wings.

A crane often grabs a stick or piece of vegetation and tosses it in the air as part of this eye-catching ritual. Cranes may signal their intention to take flight by standing, stretching their neck forward and holding that pose for several seconds or longer (we call it “the lean”). This may help coordinate flight among family members.

More and more birds took off and we were finally left with just a few scattered individuals by mid-morning, when we heard the ATV coming to retrieve us. We had arranged for a more luxurious experience at the Crane Trust that evening with lodging, a catered dinner and heated blinds.

But before we checked in there, we drove the back roads looking for more birds and photo opportunities. During the day, the cranes spend much of their time feeding in harvested corn fields with a backdrop of machinery and buildings, which are a bit less scenic than their roosting sites on the river. We got lucky and spotted a group of large white birds feeding in a field with some Sandhills.

They were Whooping Cranes, the tallest North American bird at almost 5 feet — and also one of the rarest. A major conservation effort brought the population back from only about 15 birds in the wild in the early 1940s to today’s population of over 500 migratory whoopers. The Platte River is a stopover in their migration from Texas to Canada every year, and we were fortunate to see 15 over a couple of days.

Though crane-viewing was the primary goal of our trip, we also took advantage of two other Nebraska birding wonders: the breeding displays of Greater Prairie Chickens and Sharp-tailed Grouse. Both species congregate at specific locations (called leks) each spring, where males have elaborate courtship displays that include rapid foot-stomping, feather and wing displays, colorful inflated air sacs, and unusual sounds. A few local guides operate blinds to view the leks at dawn, when the birds are most active. The low booming sound of the males is something you wouldn’t expect from a bird. 

Though it may not sound like it, a trip to Nebraska in mid-late March is certainly worth it. If roughing it in a small blind is not your thing, both Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary and the Crane Trust have wonderful viewing blinds and a variety of program offerings. A visit supports conservation efforts to help maintain one of North America’s greatest wildlife spectacles: the migration of thousands of Sandhill Cranes.  

This article originally appeared in the June 2024 issue of WALTER magazine.