Visiting: The Great Sandhill Crane Migration in Nebraska
Kearney, Nebraska is the Sandhill Crane capital of the world, and there's a big sign at the entrance of the city to prove it. Every year, one of earth's greatest spectacles occurs between March and April, where over 600,000 Sandhill Cranes make a pit stop to feed in the Platte River before continuing their journey north.
The sound alone is something you will never forget. Sandhill Cranes have a distinct call, like a soft, high pitched rattle. It's hard to describe, but, think pterodactyl ...like it was engineered as a sound effect for a dinosaur movie. And when thousands get together, it creates a massive symphony that is somehow extremely soothing.
I didn't have my glasses on as I was pulling into Kearney, finishing a long, flat drive to Nebraska. I thought the sky was full of distant chem-trails from airplanes, but when I put my glasses on, I realized the sky was swarming with an impossible amount of birds. The cranes fly together in the thousands, riding each others drafts and passing from one giant flying-v to the next. The silhouettes of the wings against the colors of a clean mid-west sunset...at some point, you will most definitely let out an involuntary Owen Wilson "wow."
Scientists estimate that approximately 80 percent of all migratory Sandhill Cranes in North America use a 75-mile stretch of Nebraska's Platte River during spring migration; more than a half-million cranes “stage” in this area, preparing to continue the long journey north to breeding grounds in Canada and Alaska. During migration, they may fly as many as 400 miles in one day.
You will notice an odd and interesting behavior as all cranes "dance” with one another, bowing, jumping, and wing flapping. Though most commonly associated with courtship, cranes still dance year round. When not in flight, they are an awkard bird. And hilariously, their bodies go limp and assume a goofy position as they eye their landing spot.
As awkward as they may be, They are among the world’s oldest living birds and one of the planet’s most successful life-forms, having outlasted millions of species (99 percent of species that ever existed are now extinct). The particularly successful sandhill crane of North America has not changed appreciably in ten million years.
A portrait of the Sandhill Crane shows how prehistoric this animal looks.
After a few hours, I realized it was becoming strangely difficult to navigate, and to photograph this event...or even park. Most all of the land surrounding the Platte river is private, and obnoxiously over marked with no- trespassing signs. I'm sure the decades worth of tourist bird watchers wandering their land is enough to make these Nebraska farmers want to exercise the 2nd amendment. Even at 7 AM, there were Police patrolling the areas in search of trespassers. Seemed a bit over kill for some bird enthusiasts..in the middle of nowhere. Because of the excitement, one would think that it is, but March is clearly not the Local's favorite month.
And of course, people are trying to capitalize on this natural event, and succeeding. One of the only ways to get up close to the birds is to park at, and visit the Iain Nicholson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary, where you must register to take a guided tour along the river, and pay a fee to ride in a bus for 2 hours just to see the damn birds. Otherwise, you can just catch a lame view from the distant patio and/or purchase some Crane merchandise from the gift shop.
Kearney also has a "Crane Festival" at the end of March where "tickets" will run you a cool $150 dollars. Meh, no thanks. This turned me off, and quickly out of Nebraska. I was planning to stay a few days, hike and explore to photograph the migration, but I'm not about to pay a greedy someone to take pictures of a natural event.
This should be the only time you ever visit Kearney, Nebraska. But, hey, they have a Starbucks.
This blog post is also featured on outdoor website The Outbound Collective: https://www.theoutbound.com/greg-harlow/visiting-the-great-sandhill-crane-migration-in-nebraska
Greg Harlow is a traveling photographer and videographer residing in Salt Lake City, Utah. Web: gregharlowmedia.com
P: (605) 430-9769