Migrating Sandhill Cranes on the Platte River, Nebraska

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Sign about the Platte River in Nebraska.

Image: GrrlScientist, 2008. [wallpaper size].

This past weekend, Dave, Elizabeth and I drove from Manhattan, Kansas to the Platte River in next-door Nebraska to see the migrating sandhill cranes, Grus canadensis. These flocks of migratory cranes are a mixture of greater and lesser sandhill cranes along with some hybrids between these two subspecies, often referred to as intermediate sandhill cranes. (There also are sedentary subspecies of sandhill cranes, all of which are endangered). I grew up watching greater sandhill cranes, G. c. tabida, migrate along the west coast and have likely also seen some lesser sandhill cranes, G. c. canadensis mixed into those crowds as well.

Even though they look nearly identical to the unpracticed eye, these two subspecies of sandhill cranes have very different life histories: 'greaters' are short-distance migrants, breeding in mid-continental North America from the Great Lakes to the Pacific Ocean and wintering in California and Florida; while 'lessers' are long-distance migrants, breeding in the far northern reaches of North America and Siberia and wintering on a handful of lakes in Texas and Mexico. Similar to different migratory flyways being followed by the two subspecies, different populations of these birds will also follow other migratory routes through other locales, and may never be seen on the Platte River. According to annual aerial surveys of the Platte River birds that take place on the same day of the year, the total population of those birds that pass over the Platte River in Nebraska during their northward migration is estimated to be roughly 800,000 individuals.

This image was snapped from an old railroad bridge that spans the Platte River, looking toward the blind. This river is very shallow; even though it was muddy, we could see the bottom from our perch on the bridge. You can also see some of the small sandy islands that the birds roost on at night;

The Platte River in Nebraska.

Image: GrrlScientist, 2008. [wallpaper size].

Every morning at sunrise, the sandhill cranes dispersed from their roost on the river to feed in the nearby corn fields. The feeding cranes' hunched-over bodies resembled water-worn boulders against the golden corn stubble. The birds were getting fat on corn and insects and, when they were in marshy fields, they also ate snails and other small animals;

Sandhill cranes, Grus canadensis, feeding on corn in a cornfield near the Platte River in Nebraska.

Image: GrrlScientist, 2008. [wallpaper size].

The adult cranes often danced while feeding, as you can see in the enlarged version of this image;

Sandhill cranes, Grus canadensis, dance in a cornfield near the Platte River in Nebraska.

Image: GrrlScientist, 2008. [wallpaper size].

Watching them dance in the windswept fields gave me an appreciation of their wild exuberance.

The cranes would hang around in breeding pairs and trios and occasionally in quartets (a mated pair with their offspring from the previous year). These birds mate for life, which can be for 25 or more years although, like all birds, they will seek out another mate if their partner dies. Thus, it was unusual to see a lone bird and when I did see one, it always made me feel sad since that bird's mate was probably lost to a collision with power lines or predators.

Sandhill cranes, Grus canadensis, feeding on corn in a cornfield near the Platte River in Nebraska.

Image: GrrlScientist, 2008. [wallpaper size].

Here, we are looking toward the blind (not visible), which is on the far side of this background thicket, overlooking the Platte River (not visible);

Sandhill cranes, Grus canadensis, in a cornfield near the blind on the Platte River in Nebraska.

Image: GrrlScientist, 2008. [wallpaper size].

When we entered the blind, we scared a barn owl which had decided to use it as his own roosting area. He shrieked at us and flew into the nearby trees, where we quickly lost sight of him. Interestingly, even though this area appears to be superb habitat for barn owls, they are actually quite rare.

After we entered the blind, we discovered an owl pellet, still wet, on the floor, which I brought back to NYC, along with an assortment of feathers, a sand-covered deer coccyx and a handful of fossil brachiopods and crinoids.

As evening approached, we watched the cranes fly back to the Platte River en masse from our vantage point the blind, where they roosted on small sandy islands in the middle of the shallow river where they were safe from predators;

Sandhill cranes, Grus canadensis, fly over the Platte River in Nebraska.

Image: GrrlScientist, 2008. [wallpaper size].

As seen from the blind, a group of sandhill cranes roosting on the sandy islands in the river at dusk, preparing to go to sleep;

Sandhill cranes, Grus canadensis, roosting for the night on the Platte River in Nebraska. There were between 30-50,000 birds present when I visited at the end of March. This is a small group of the total flock of individuals.

Image: GrrlScientist, 2008. [wallpaper size].

Cranes at sunset flying to their roost on the Platte River;

Sandhill cranes, Grus canadensis, fly across the sky over the Platte River in Nebraska.

Image: GrrlScientist, 2008. [wallpaper size].

At first, I had hoped the cranes would fly between the sun and me so I could capture their dark silhouettes against the bright orange sun. Dave also hoped the same thing but alas, neither one of us was lucky. However, watching the sun go down was a lovely way to end the evening.

Sunset over the Platte River in Nebraska, with a few flying cranes visible.

Image: GrrlScientist, 2008. [wallpaper size].

Since I have a digital camera and thus, don't have to pay for film and developing, I had fun playing with my camera. The series of images that I managed to capture were quite interesting since the clouds were not visible to us until the sun set behind them, making it almost look as though the sun was being eaten by some large creature, as you can see here. I really like this picture;

Sunset over the Platte River in Nebraska.

Image: GrrlScientist, 2008. [wallpaper size].

After it was dark, we left the blind very quietly. The wind was quite strong and cold, so we were all happy to get back to the car where we could thaw out. A small group of us went out to a pub for some really good and hoppy beers, not that watery megabrewery crap they sell in NYC.


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Thanks for a wonderful post. After reading the politics and general news today it was nice to end the day with pleasant few moments. I've never been to Nebraska or Kansas but have watched sandhill cranes for many years in New Mexico. Great sunset pictures!

nice pics... very similar to what we see down here in cochise county, arizona at whitewater draw during the winter. possibly the same cranes headed north? also, many barn owls in the willows that line the reparian... and greathorned owls in the old pavilion. thanks

We spent a few days near the Platte seeing the hundreds of thousands of Sandhill Cranes and the huge numbers of Snow Geese. This annual migration is MAGICAL! The sunrises and the sunsets add a lovely complement to the beauty of the birds and their unforgettable call. We shall go again! Thank you for your pictures.

By Evangeline (not verified) on 03 Apr 2008 #permalink

Last month, March 2008, I accompanied my sister & brother-in-law who have gone to the Platte River to view the sandhill cranes for many years. It was my first visit to experience the wonder and glory of these beautiful birds. I was awed by their beauty and by the masses. I hope to return every March. Thank you for posting your pictures, they are very good.

Thanks for sharing your experience and your beautiful images. I have been to the Platte many times and I never tire of it. Reading about and viewing your images from your trip are a pleasure. We have a rare jewel in the Platte River valley - places like this are precious. Great post.