Sandhill Crane Migration

March 26, 2024  •  Leave a Comment

Its 6:00 am and I’m with a small group of wildlife photographers, following a trail of red solar-powered led light’s through a dark field that will lead us to a viewing blind about 600 meters further on.

This land in Nebraska’s Central Platte River Valley was awarded as part of a lawsuit settlement when a Wyoming dam was built, negatively impacting Nebraska’s downstream agricultural irrigation and critical wildlife habitat. Crane Trust was born from that settlement, and now stewards over 10,000 acres of vital habitat for migrating whooping and sandhill cranes as they head north to their nesting grounds in Canada, Alaska and Siberia.     

As we reach the blind we quietly enter one by one, find our seat and set our gear down, its too dark to begin setting anything up just yet. Its a cool morning and although I can see my breath, I can’t yet see the cranes roosting outside on the river. But I can hear them. The latest bird count estimates their population along this 80 mile stretch of river between Chapman and Overton at somewhere around 429,000. I can’t even imagine what that many cranes look like, that number is unfathomable to me.

Sadly the same is not true for Whooping Cranes which were almost hunted to extinction in the early part of the twentieth century. By 1941 it was estimated there were only 15 birds left in all of North America. Today’s population is estimated to be just over 800, although some of these birds remain year round residents in the south. Still, I’m told if we are really lucky, we may see one or two nestled in amongst the sandhill cranes. I wonder what the chances really are?   

As dawn begins to break, the monochrome shapes and patterns along the river slowly transform into something more recognizable. And as I set up my camera and look through the viewfinder, I can now clearly see the thousands, no tens of thousands of sandhill cranes nestled together on the river in front of us.

SandhillCranes-0245SandhillCranes-0245At sunrise, tens of thousands of Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) prepare to leave the river to spend their day feeding in the nearby corn fields. Some cranes start to dance, bowing and jumping, while others form small groups and begin flying up and down the river. Suddenly the cranes song crescendo’s, and I look over to see a mature bald eagle sitting on a sandbar nearby. Soon it is joined by another and another until I count 6 bald eagles sitting there watching the cranes. In a few minutes, one of them takes off and flies above the cranes to test their resolve. But as long as they stay together they are safe, and they know that. So when another eagle takes off and flies over them, it fairs no better.

BalldEagle-0122BalldEagle-0122Although not usually a threat to healthy Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis), sometimes in the early morning, Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) will gather to look for injured cranes. As the sun slowly rises above the horizon, the cranes gradually leave in varied flock sizes to begin feeding. Some will forage in tall grass prairie or wet meadows, while others will forage in the nearby corn fields, loading up on corn kernels left from last falls harvest. During their stay here on the Platte, they will gain about 25% in body weight, a requirement that will ensure they are in peak condition when they resume their migration in a few days time.    

After most of the cranes are gone, we leave too, but we will be back later in the afternoon.

At sunset the cranes return to this section of river, silhouetted against a bright orange sky, their sheer numbers continue to astound me. As I watch, they gracefully touch down on the river, forming large roosts, and do so until its well after dark.

SandhillCranes-0232SandhillCranes-0232At sunset, Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) return to the Platte River to roost.

The following morning we repeat our now familiar trek to the blind, and as the light comes up, through my camera’s viewfinder I notice a small patch of white contrasting sharply with the gray colour of the sandhill cranes. Zooming in with my lens I can’t believe my eyes, there are three whooping cranes nestled in amongst the sandhill’s. Two adults and a juvenile. What are the odds?

WhoopingCranes-0246WhoopingCranes-0246Whooping Cranes (Grus americana)
sometimes accompany Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) on their migration north. Although only about 600 Whoopers are now thought to migrate, sometimes, if you're very lucky, you may get to see and enjoy them for a few fleeting moments.
 Better go and buy a lottery ticket before my luck runs out.   

 

 

 


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