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Annual Sandhill Cranes Migration

Rob Plugge

21 February 2019

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Sandhill Cranes Migration to Central Nebraska

Hearing the sound of the Sandhill Cranes brings a certain hope to central Nebraska after a long cold winter. The voice and appearance are not necessarily the most attractive some have described the sound as prehistoric yet there is beauty in this bird that compels thousands of visitors from literally around the world to venture to humble Kearney, Nebraska.

Having been around this phenomenon for many years now, and volunteering at the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary located just up the road from us, I thought I would share some insights to questions guests and people in our community ask.

When do the Sandhill cranes arrive?

Every year between Valentine’s Day (Feb. 14th) and Tax Day (Apr. 15th) the Sandhill Cranes converge on about an 80 mile stretch of the Platte River near Kearney. In an hourglass fashion, the birds arrive from their southern wintering grounds to feast here before heading north to their nesting grounds in the arctic. It is important for them to put on at least 20% of their body weight during about a two week visit. During the peak, there can be over 500,000 birds in the area!

Observing the Sandhill Cranes at Audubon's Rowe SanctuaryWhy do the cranes come here?

In addition to the opportunity to feast, the Platte River provides a perfect habitat for the Cranes to roost as the river is wide and shallow. The feet of the Sandhill Cranes aren’t designed to stand in trees, so the birds roost standing in about 6-8 inches of water at night. The water creates an alarm system to alert the birds of any potential danger. In the past, flooding would help scour the river of restrictive brush and debris. Dams have reduced scouring floods, reducing some of their habitat. Rowe Sanctuary works to maintain this needed habitat and at the same time, has been able to provide opportunity for thousands of people worldwide to enjoy this experience. For a “live” online peek at the Platte River as it flows past Rowe Sanctuary, visit their Crane Cam.

What’s the best way to experience the annual Sandhill crane migration?

It is a privilege to live here and experience this yearly event. And, over time I’ve changed my ways on fully experiencing this magical migration. Years ago, I was so bent on taking pictures of everything, now I simply enjoy the moment.

I remember a “professional” photographer who informed me after a guided blind tour that she had filled up two 32gb SD cards. I wondered if she had in fact seen anything that had gone on that morning. Many of the visitors have had this on their “bucket list” and some close to the end have simply held out long enough to experience this.

I think of this encounter often when visiting with people, wondering what experiences they have had and how I can help them to enjoy their visit. I have made it a point to educate our staff at the hotels about the cranes, provide early breakfasts to guests heading out early to the blinds, and offering our simple origami cranes as a memento.

Words cannot describe the wonder and amazement in people’s eyes as they are experiencing one of the world’s greatest migrations. I hope each of you will take the opportunity to experience this annual Sandhill Cranes Migration.

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