National Geographic calls the spring migration of the Sandhill Cranes through central Nebraska “one of the greatest wildlife phenomena in North America”. If you are a birder, a wildlife photographer or just a nature lover, I really consider this a “must do” for your bucket list!
In 2017, I was lucky enough to spend the entire migration season in Nebraska with the Sandhill Cranes. It had been on my bucket list for quite some time. I had gotten a small taste of it about 10 years ago when my husband completed a 2 month assignment in Grand Island. That year, we left at the beginning of March when the cranes were just starting to arrive but what I saw in those first few weeks literary blew my mind!
What makes central Nebraska so unique?
During the winter, the Sandhill Cranes spread out all across the southern United States and Mexico. In the summer, they breed and nest throughout Canada, Alaska and even as far as Siberia. But, during their stay in Nebraska, they will all congregate within the 50 mile stretch of the Platte River that runs between Grand Island and Kearney!
The Sandhill Crane season normally starts around mid-February and it ends sometime in late March to early April. During this time, there is a constant fluctuation of arrivals and departures. The peak of the 2017 season had an official count of 406,000 Sandhill Cranes and by seasons end more than 500 thousand Sandhill Cranes had visited this little stretch of the Platte River!
This is the path that they have followed for thousands of years and the Platte River has everything they need to sustain them during their stay. The river’s shallow water allows them a safe place to roost during the night and the cornfields and prairie on either side of the Platte are perfect for feeding during the day.
Each crane will stay from 3 to 4 weeks. While in Nebraska, they focus on resting and feeding; adding as much as 20% to their total body weight so they can complete their journey north. For some of these birds it’s close to a 5000 mile journey! The unmated cranes will also spend this time looking for a mate which is serious business since cranes mate for life.
During the day, I spent most of my time driving the country roads along the Platte River viewing the birds in the cornfields. It seemed like the early arrivals landed closer to Grand Island on the southern side of the river and began working their way west as more and more birds arrived. While some of the birds fed on the north side of the river, I felt like most of them stayed on the south side and only moved to the north side once food became more scarce. Very late in the season, they could mostly be found closer to Kearney on the northern side of Interstate 80.
River access is difficult to come by since all of the property along the Platte is privately owned. You do have a few options to see the cranes on their roost from sunset to sunrise. I took advantage of several tours at the Crane Trust and also the Audubon Rowe Sanctuary which were excellent. They each provide a few free public viewing areas on their land but for a close up view of the crane’s you will need to pay for one of their tours.
Around mid-season, I discovered a small Mom & Pop company called Crane Cabin Retreat. Chad, has one cabin to rent out and he will also do sunrise, sunset and overnight blind tours. It was his first season to be open to the public but I expect him to be busier once word gets out about his place. His location is better situated for sunrise. You are facing the wrong direction to catch the sunset here but the birds do fly in low overhead and if you are really lucky they might decide to roost very close to the edge of his property at night. His property sits on one of the three largest roosts on the Platte River. Crane Trust and Rowe sit on the other two.
The highlight of our season was the VIP Experience at the Crane Trust. They don't have much information about it on their website, it is best to call or email them. The experience started late afternoon, with a meet and greet with the other guests and the Crane Trust staff. We had just enough time for a small break before heading out for the Sunset Blind Tour in their special VIP blind. This blind sits right next to the researchers blind and is much closer to the main roost than the blind they use for their public tours. After the cranes came in for the night, they served up a wonderful dinner and then concluded the evening with a short informational talk about the Sandhill Cranes and the Crane Trust's work with them. We spent the night in a cabin that was close enough to the water that we could hear the cranes trumpeting all night long and then were up early for the VIP Sunrise Tour. The experience concluded with a nice breakfast and a tour of the Crane Trust facility. It really was wonderful and a great way to "see it all" if you don't have a lot of time to experience the Sandhill Cranes!
I have to laugh, it was such an amazing experience that I'm really at a loss for words how to explain it properly. I have written a cute little story about the image above, it tells about our Sandhill Crane viewing experience that night and how Moonlit Flight came to be. You can read the story about Moonlit Flight in this post.
I took somewhere in the neighborhood of 50,000 images throughout the season and have so many great images that I finally just stopped editing. I occasionally revisit my image files and add new ones. There are many more great images not shown in this post.
You can find my complete Sandhill Crane Collection here.
You can purchase Susan's images in The Art Gallery.
All images in the her collection are available as wall art, fine art prints, on home decor, gift items and apparel.
"Flight Across the Sandhills" Framed Fine Art Print
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I am the 8th photographer in 4 generations of my family. Back in 2006, my husband accepted a job traveling, and I jumped at the chance to go with him.
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