Thursday, February 19, 2015

Sandhill Crane Migration-Nebraska

Do you want to see the greatest wildlife spectacle in the United States?  If so, you need to go to Kearney Nebraska in March.  The locals pronounce the city of Kearney (Car Knee).  

In March the Sandhill Cranes gather by the tens of thousands on the Platte River between Kearney and Grand Island, Nebraska.
The migration can be viewed along a forty mile stretch of the Platte River (photo: Outdoor Nebraska website)
There is a 40-mile stretch of the Platte River where the Sandhill Cranes come to roost every night during March.  The birds stand in the shallow river overnight.  Some stand on sand bars, but almost all of them stand in the cold water overnight.  They roost in mass numbers in close proximity to each other.  Presumably there is safety in numbers--safety from Coyotes.  The numbers of these majestic birds along this stretch of the river are estimated to be over 400,000 Cranes.

My favorite spot to observe the Cranes in the evening in the past has been the State Park south of Kearney on an old bridge.  It is called Fort Kearney Hike and Bike Trail.  It is an old railroad bridge and is a five minute walk from where you park your car.  You can watch there for a small fee (honor system when paying).  Unfortunately, this historic wooden bridge was destroyed by a wildfire in March 2009.  Construction is underway to rebuild the bridge and widen and pave the trail, but is not expected to be complete before this spring’s migration.  Target date for completion is sometime in late 2015.  Hopefully this viewing area will be reopened in time for the 2016 spring migration.  

Just before dusk the cranes begin to arrive on the Platte R. (photo: Mike Zieloski)
However, don't let the above information deter you from a trip to view the cranes, as there are many other areas that provide excellent views of this spectacle.  For a list of viewing  areas Click Here.  Once there, you will meet people from all over the world who also came to watch the spectacle--that is if you decide to converse with the Humans.  You may just want to soak up the sights and sounds of the birds.  The birds start arriving a couple of hours before dark.  They fly in …in flocks of 3 to 3,000, and they keep coming until dark.  The waves of birds keep arriving and arriving.

Among the din you can hear the voices of individual birds.  You can hear the higher pitched younger birds calling out to locate their family.  There will also be Green-winged Teal, Pintails, Mallards and other ducks flying in with the Cranes.
The din from thousands of birds is incredible (photo: Mike Zieloski)
No matter how hard I try to describe it, the noise of the Cranes is something you have to experience for yourself.   You can hear so many Crane voices.  Then after it gets dark, you can turn on your headlamp and hike off the bridge, back to your car. You will be amazed at what you just witnessed.

In the morning, you will want to head to Rowe Sanctuary to slip into your viewing blind before daybreak.  You will need a reservation for one of the precious spots in the viewing blind.  You will be in the dark, above the river, in very close proximity to the resting birds.  The Cranes will be fairly quiet.  But as Dawn approaches, the Cranes get more and more excited…and they get louder and louder.  Then a Bald Eagle may fly over…or a Coyote may be spotted, and thousands of Cranes get air born at once. The morning lift off is so much different from the evening’s staggered arrivals.

You can make reservations for the morning blind by calling 308-468-5282 or going to  online.
It was my pleasure to share this experience with my cousin Phil (photo: Mike Zieloski)
My last trip to Nebraska was with my cousin Phil Besendorf of Louisville, Kentucky. He was amazed at the spectacle.

Previously I had been to see the Cranes with my coworker Cathy Spahn. We were the naturalists on a bus tour to experience the Cranes. I have seen this wildlife spectacle four different years now and never tire of it.  I have no idea how many more times I will go.  You should experience this, too.
WBS's resident Sandhill Cranes (photo: Gay Schroer)
If you’re unable to make the trip to Nebraska, you can see these regal birds at the World Bird Sanctuary.  We have two Sandhill Cranes who sustained injuries that make it impossible for them to migrate. 
Meet Menomenee (photo: Gay Schroer)
So Shawnee and Menomenee, our resident Sandhill Cranes, will spend the rest of their days educating the public and being catered to by WBS staff, interns and volunteers.  You can even adopt one or both of these beautiful birds through the WBS Adopt A Bird program. 

Submitted by Michael Zeloski, World Bird Sanctuary Director of Education

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