America’s Greatest Migration

The Morning Blind

As the first rays of dawn appear, I begin to see faint gray forms in front of me. The morning chorus of the sandhill cranes had already started when I arrived.  Just a few voices here and there. I knew they were close by. Each moment that passes sheds a little more light on the scene unfolding in front of me.

America's Greatest migration
Before dawn on the river

I’m in a Rowe Audubon Sanctuary blind along the Platte River in Nebraska. It’s March 2009 and I’ve come to see America’s greatest migration. Each spring between the end of February and the beginning of April, a half a million Sandhills cranes, 80% of the world’s population, congregate along this 80 mile stretch of river on their way north.

Sandhill cranes at dawn
The warm, pink light of daybreak

There are several blinds operated by different organizations that allow people to witness this spectacle up close at sunrise or sunset. The birds roost overnight on sandbars in the shallow, braided river to safeguard from predators while they sleep.

An Early Start

I pulled myself from bed at 4:30 am and met my guide in a dark parking lot.  I followed in my car through a maze of country roads before parking on the shoulder of a narrow gravel road. We walked through the lumpy, barren crop field in the darkness of a rural night. Our final steps are guided by a few faint solar lights behind the blind. It’s a biting 20 degrees, and the shelter is a nice break from the wind. The blind is a rustic plywood shack with a cold bench and several two-foot square viewing doors that face the river. Once we’re settled and quiet, we unlatch these little doors and fold them down to view the river.  Or the dark of night.

Cranes Frozen in the River
Frozen with the river, many still asleep

I strain my eyes wide trying to adjust to the dark and make sense of the shapes in front of me. Sandhill cranes are gregarious, social birds. Their morning greeting rituals are boisterous, loud and enthusiastic. The cacophony grows. Now I can see there are thousands of cranes standing in the river before me. Most are still asleep with their long necks contorted and twisted allowing them to tuck their head fully underneath a wing. The river is crusted over with a thin layer of ice. When the cranes begin to move about I notice rings of ice stuck to their legs where they froze into the river.

As the sun meets the horizon casting its warm, pink glow, the chorus builds. The cranes stretch their wings and jump around, leaping into the air.  Their rattling bugles continue.

This morning they will take to the air first a few at a time, then in flocks of 15-40 related birds until just a few, who are in no hurry to leave, remain.

Family group
Family group departing

Some mornings, an eagle will fly over or a coyote will approach and they will all lift off at once darkening the sky and deafening ears with the flapping of two thousand wings.

America's Greatest Migration
Look at the flocks in the sky

After a couple of hours, we left the blind, ate breakfast, and had a nap.  The rest of the day we drove the country roads of Kearney. Waves of cranes pass over all day long. The sunny day also has them kettling waiting for just the right warm wind to push them northward. Cranes are “opportunistic fliers” who rely on tailwinds and thermals to bolster their flight.  They travel up to 400miles in a day in their migration. The Platte River Valley has been their stopover for hundreds of thousands of years – or more – as they migrate from their winter homes in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Mexico to their summer nesting grounds in the arctic. The Sandhill cranes arrive in Nebraska thin and will gain 20% of their body weight feasting on waste grain, frogs, insects, snails and snakes in the fields before they continue their journey north.

Family Bonds

The cranes spend their days in the fields of the fertile river valley feeding in extended family groups. They mate for life and family ties are strong.

Bonded Pair
Bonded Pair

They dance to deepen their bonds, when they are agitated (nervous energy), but not bothered enough to leave, to dissipate aggression, and to assess rivals. There is a sentry in every field keeping watch while the flock feeds. They are skittish and intolerant of people. Reasonably so, as they are still hunted throughout most of their range.

America's Greatest Migration
In the late afternoon the cranes start to leave the fields to return to the river

Evening Blind

As evening approaches, we head to a Nature Conservancy blind to watch as wave after wave of cranes returns to their sandbars to roost.  They will return to the same spot night after night, year after year. It’s their family spot where their offspring will return with them next year.

I love the way they parachute in. With their legs dangling down, they swing left and then careen right in a sort of crash-landing approach before gentling touching down.

America's Greatest Migration
Parachuting Down like Marionettes

It quickly becomes too dark for pictures. In 2009, I was using a Nikon D50, my first digital SLR camera, and a cheap telephoto lens. The combination had little capacity for low light…or focusing on fast-flying birds for that matter.

Cranes landing on the sandbar
Cranes landing on the sandbar

An Unexpected Treat

We had heard at the Crane Trust visitors Center that a whooping crane had been hanging around with the Sandhills over the last week. Both exciting (to hear of such a rare bird sighting) and sad at the same time. At that time there were only about 250 Whooping Cranes alive, a slow recovery from just sixteen wild birds in 1941. Thanks to habitat restoration and crane recovery efforts, the count now stands at more than 500. The Whooping Crane here was separated from his flock and would likely follow the Sandhills north.  In such a small recovering population, each individual is important to the recovery and this one would likely never rejoin and contribute to the wild whooping crane population. In the darkening sky above the blind, a swoop of Sandhills and one big white bird flew over. The whooping crane!

Whooping Crane
Whooping Crane!

Update

Since my trip in 2009, Sandhills continue to migrate through Nebraska in steady numbers. What’s left in North America that is anything like this? It’s reminiscent of the sky-darkening, extinct passenger pigeon flocks and is only rivaled in numbers by the great migrations in Africa. They are an ancient bird, among the oldest living birds, surviving in their current form for ten million years. It is a sight to see. If you can brave Nebraska in March (a blizzard closed I-80 the week after I was there), its an experience of a lifetime.

Locally

Thanks to recovery efforts, the eastern sandhill crane population is flourishing. It has more than doubled over the last decade and is currently around 100,000 strong. A local naturalist opined that they would be as common as Canada geese here before long. This population of eastern sandhill cranes winters in Florida and migrates to and through the Midwest. Jasper-Pulaski State Park in Indiana is a popular stopover for them on their annual trip south. Around Thanksgiving, you’ll find ten to twenty thousand birds roosting in the fields there. Maybe one day, we’ll have half a million cranes come through here, too.

Jasper-Pulaski Cranes
One more of parachuting cranes. I can’t get enough of this comical sight!

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3 Replies to “America’s Greatest Migration”

  1. What a special picture you captured when you saw that 1 whooping crane among the sandhill cranes. I love the landings too, with legs outstretched. I suppose they have to take time when they awaken to let their legs defrost and shake the ice off as it melts. I wonder how many days most stay and take time to stay in the fields and feed?

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