Every spring, Nebraska becomes host to some 500,000 winged visitors. These tourists converge on a small swath of land along the Platte River for a few weeks to fatten up and rest before continuing on their long journey. These special visitors are sandhill cranes, and their presence is an exciting part of late winter/early spring in Nebraska.
The large birds spend the colder months in Mexico or the southern U.S. With the warming weather, they migrate north to nest in Alaska and Canada for the nesting season. Nebraska is a long pit stop for them on their journey - one that we are thrilled to experience each year. The birds can be seen on an approximately 80 mile long stretch of Nebraska in the Grand Island/Alda/Hastings/Kearney area.
The massive number of sandhill cranes passing through Nebraska represent an unbelievable 80% of the world’s population of this species. They swoop in beginning in mid to late February and stay for four to six weeks. As of right now, they’ve already begun to converge on the Platte for the 2016 season.
If you’ve never before witnessed the event, you will have to trust that it is truly breathtaking. There is a delicate grace about these large birds, and seeing hundreds of thousands of them in one place is nothing short of magical. But even more spectacular is the sound.
The birds are constantly in motion and constantly sounding off. The calls of so many birds roll up together and swirl around human spectators, becoming almost disorienting at times. Seeing and hearing this spectacle is - for nature lovers, anyway - intoxicating. Time seems to lose all meaning as you drink in the sights and sounds of one of nature’s most incredible displays.
Fossils show that the cranes have been making this stop on their annual trek for millennia. Today, they have a symbiotic relationship with the farmers in the area. The birds feast on corn left in the fields after harvest time, allowing them to put on much-needed body weight before the next long leg of their journey. The farmers are happy to oblige since that means they can then start out the planting season with nicely cleaned fields.
Although sandhill cranes are in the spotlight, other migratory birds make the trek at the same time and mingle with the read-headed beauties. Ducks and geese play in the Platte’s shallow waters while majestic eagles perch in the trees nearby. If you’re very lucky, you may even see a whooping crane, the sandhill crane’s larger, critically endangered cousin. (If you do, be sure to report it to Whooper Watch at 888-399-2824 or the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission at 308-865-5310.) Prairie chickens also come out around this time to perform their entertaining courting rituals in the fields.
Birds aren’t the only creatures who descend on Nebraska in the spring. There is a huge number of dedicated nature lovers who make the trek to Nebraska every year to view the sandhill crane migration. The Audubon Society hosts the annual
Nebraska Crane Festival
to celebrate the migration. In 2016, the festival runs March 17-20 in Kearney. The event includes field trips, exclusive experiences, workshops, and presentations for the die-hard birder.
Even if you’ve never been much of a bird watcher, everyone should make an exception for the spring sandhill crane migration. This natural event is beyond compare, and it happens every year only in Nebraska.