Sandhill Crane Capital of the World

Kearney signIt’s a pretty audacious claim. But we were due to travel during the migration season and Kearney, Nebraska was not far from our route south. Rich the birder was naturally interested. And I was assured by others that even I would find it fascinating. How could we resist?

Over 80% of the world’s sandhill crane population funnels through Nebraska then fans out to the northern breeding grounds in Canada, Alaska and Siberia. They stop along the Platte River for several weeks to rest and build up their body fat before continuing their journey. At the Audubon Center in the Rowe Sanctuary, they report that the count for March exceeds 460,000 cranes to date.

The cranes spend the day feeding in farm fields throughout the flat countryside. It is at dawn and dusk that they fly between the fields and the river, filling the sky with clouds of birds grouping and regrouping in ever changing clusters and V-formations. It is a noisy process, as their cries fill the air in a roughly melodious symphony. Seeing the birds without hearing them is only half the experience.

Our first attempt to witness this aerial display is at dusk. I pile on my vest over more fleece, top it with a down jacket and add Gore cycling gloves, wool socks and hiking boots. Walking out to an old railroad bridge over the Platte River we find it already populated with other heavily clad birders sporting binoculars and cameras with lenses of unbelievable proportion. I stop between the metal side walls that shield me from the bitter wind while Rich goes out to claim a prime photography spot in the wide open span of the bridge.

The sun is low in the sky, lending a pink and red glow to the low hanging clouds. We wait for the birds to fly in front of the sunset and come in for a landing on the river. But they don’t. Clusters of cranes fly overhead, and there are undulating swarms in the distance. All heading to a more attractive spot downstream.  A lot of good-natured bantering goes on among those of us huddled on the bridge, taking the lack of luck in stride as the birds pass us by. Then one by one the birders peal off. Tomorrow will be another opportunity.

Believe it or not, I am the one who insists we try again at sunrise. Rich is disheartened by the dreary sky, but what is the point of being here without seeing the sandhill cranes I argue. By the time we work our way toward the river, we can see huge numbers of cranes already in flight. Situated on a dirt road adjacent to farm fields with brown remnants of crops, the birds come to us. They fly in from all directions, swooping and swirling. Sometimes they settle in the field momentarily then rise again in great volumes. Flocks of birds crisscross in the sky traveling in opposite directions, only to have one group do an about face and follow the others. The crowded acrobatics over our heads are all the more amazing for the lack of collisions that would seem inevitable; the cranes have their ballet down to perfection. And of course, it is all accompanied by honking overhead.

I leave the bird photography to Rich’s superior skills. His video best captures the experience.

Meanwhile my lens is trained on the photographer to lend the personal view.

Rich photographing sandhill cranes Rich watching sandhill crane migration

By the time the action dies down we can say we’ve seen the sandhill crane phenomenon. This time it truly lends credibility to the world capital claim.

Click here for additional videos on Rich’s blog.

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