Kearney Nebraska: The Sandhill Crane Migration

By Matt Payne

A sandhill couple

It is half past five in the morning and most, myself included have been up for two hours sipping tepid coffee and shivering in an elongated rudimentary blind at Rowe Sanctuary just off the gently undulating water of the Platte River near Kearney, Nebraska.

Morning on the Platte River

Around me are twenty or so individuals who have gathered from ten different states.  Each is armed with a complex combination of scopes, binoculars and cameras with impossibly long lenses. Were it not for the lack of machine guns and the fact that the average age of the individuals in the blind, myself excluded, is within five years of  Wilford Brimley, one might think you were on the frontlines of a foreign battlefield. But this gathering, though passionate and patriotic, is far less violent. These individuals are not soldiers but Birders. A quirky group of khaki and camo clad nature lovers with a passion for all things winged and feathered. Upon first light we will witness what Jane Goodall has often said to be one of the most magnificent spectacles in nature. The sandhill crane migration.

On one side of me, a seventy-five year old man who has driven from Colorado just to see the cranes pours a celebratory splash of Bailey’s into his rapidly cooling java. “Nothing goes better with early morning birding than a little Bailey’s in your coffee,” he tells me as a terse Japanese man flanked with cameras with canon-like scopes shoves me forcefully out of my spot, jockeying for better position. The Bailey Sipper chuckles as the Japanese man sets camp in the spot I had just been standing.

The Bailey Sipper

“He takes this seriously,” I comment to my new friend.

“You bet he does,” says the Bailey’s Sipper. “He came here all the way from Japan.” Then he changes the subject. “Bailey’s?”

“Only in Kearney and before sunrise…” I say reluctantly, and with that he pours.

Behind me two men bicker in aggressive whispers over the species of a sparrow spotted the previous night. Were the Japanese man able to speak English, I’m sure he could have weighed in his own opinion but now he uses the light from his phone to adjust yet another setting. With internationally recognized gesticulations, the sponsor from the Audubon Society scolds him, much to the temperamental man’s dismay. “The blind,” he explains, “is to remain totally dark and silent in order not to disturb the cranes.” So in silence we sit.

Though nearly hidden in the deep amethyst of pre-dawn, the hundreds of thousands of statuesque prehistoric silhouettes of sandhill cranes cast garbled, moon-cut reflections onto the Platte. The oncoming day seems to vibrate with the peaceful trill of the birds’ collective lullaby. The silhouettes stretch out like a grayish fleece to both horizons of the braided river. Soon the sun will rise and as it does, show shall the nearly five hundred thousand of these majestic, spiritual birds in an annual avian ritual that has been occurring on this tiny stretch of river for more than a million years.

Sandhills getting ready for the day.

Sandhill cranes stand between three and a half and four feet tall. Their feathered bodies float like grey clouds above twiggy black legs. Their elongated necks lead to a pointed black beak and contemplative eyes settled just under an explosive crimson crest. They are playful birds with a unique variety of calls. Each call serves a different purpose and is commonly referred to as bugling. Devoutly loyal, they mate for life and often travel with their extended families. While each bird, with its regal appearance and honorable sense of family is commendable on an individual level, it is the action of the entire species that distinguishes it as one of nature’s most remarkable creatures.

Each year, after spending the winter in parts of Florida and all along the gulf coast extending into Mexico, these elegant birds begin their journey north to Canada, Alaska and Siberia where they will spend their winter and lay their eggs. While migration is common in many species of animals, one cannot help but marvel at the crane’s curious pit stop on the small stretch of the Platte River. Each year, between mid-February and mid-April, or as the locals say, Valentines Day to Tax Day, hundreds of thousands of cranes from all across the southern United States and northern part of Mexico gather in Southern Nebraska to feed on corn left over from the harvest in order to fatten up for their long journey north.

Sandhill in a Nebraska cornfield fattening up before migrating north.

While the all-you-can-eat buffet of corn and fresh water shellfish are no doubt a draw for the sandhills, The Platte River also plays host to this colossal roost because unlike anywhere else in the migratory path, the river offers the cranes an unrivaled sense of safety. The Platte is often described as a mile wide and a foot deep.  This type of wide, braided river is without vegetation and allows the birds to roost safely on sandbars and in the shallow water through the river at night. To sneak up on this massive gathering without being seen or heard would be nearly impossible.

For two months, the stripped, brown cornfields of Kearney are dotted with slow moving grey blobs and these cornfields go for miles. At any given moment, five of six groups can be seen in various parts of the sky, making their way, in either a straight line of a “V” shape from field to field searching for a yet-to-be-discovered field of corn.

The town of Kearney has taken full advantage of this annual visitor. Restaurant walls are adorned with artwork featuring of massive flocks circling the Platte and close-ups of bugling birds. On the front desk of the visitor’s bureau is a stuffed sandhill that apparently flew into a power line. Under a photo of a flock of cranes at a local diner, locals ponder the likelihood of spotting whooping cranes, an endangered crane that migrates with the sandhills. When another man interjects, saying that he’d seen one the previous day, the men react with the bliss of a golfer getting a hole in one.

Birders about to head to the blind

At the Rowe Sanctuary gift shop, the woman in front of me buys eight shirts; one for each of grandchild, a hat, and a sweatshirt she waves me up in line and sets out to buy more. I buy a beautiful book by local photographer Michael Forsberg, a documentary film about the cranes, a tacky card making light of procreating cranes, an adorable plush crane for my nephew, and a bonze figurine for myself. Though tempting, I resist buying a shot glass or a collector’s spoon. The gift shop, and the town itself is like Roswell, New Mexico gone bird. I adore it.

Chain hotels begin serving bagels and coffee at obscenely early hours to satisfy the palates of avian-loving guests setting out to get a look at the early morning roost before the birds take off for their own cornfield dining experiences.  The masses of quirky bird-loving visitors that arrive to this sparse, quaint Nebraska town are arguably as much a spectacle as the birds themselves. Let us not forget my Japanese friend, the Sparrow sparring gents behind me, or the Bailey Sipper. And that was in one corner of one of three blinds at Rowe.

Like many wonders of nature, the sandhill migration is threatened. While their numbers are not particularly small, with development, the river is changing. What was once a nearly sixty-mile stretch of river has been reduced to roughly six. So embedded in the crane’s psyche is this migratory pattern that to eliminate the river’s security blanket, would be to eliminate the species itself.

A regal-looking sandhill

This potential elimination is hard to imagine of course, as the sun curiously peaks onto the mid-march morning, casting an orange light onto the endless fleet of cranes. They begin to shuffle, nervously as though to stretch out after a long rest. Cameras click and anticipatory whispers in the blind turn to whispers of awe. The argument over sparrow species abruptly comes to an end. By light, the grey blanket, spotted with the red of the bird’s crests, seems to be moving. The trill grows louder and begins to vary in tone, rising in volume in accordance with the sun. It grows so loud that it drowns out thoughts. A feat that only nature’s most awesome expressions are capable.

One bird begins to hop up and down.  The leaping is infectiously joyful and soon, others follow suit. They begin to jump, alternating turns, circling, leaping against the hypnotic rhythm of their call. The cranes cast their necks back and ruffle their back feathers and bounce in a dance that feels as old as time, and slowly, in groups of three’s and six’s and twelve’s and then twenty-four’s, they begin to take off, the sun glowing orange and massive, watching them on their way. Three deer watch indifferently from the other side of the bank while the twenty or so birders, myself included, watch in what went from a deliberate, curious quiet to a breathless, reverent silence filled only with the ever-echoing call of the sandhill crane.

View from a blind

The moment stands still. Thousands have taken off for the day and yet the density appears unchanged, hundreds of thousands thick. Though they are  threatened, it is hard to imagine them all gone and as that thought occurs to me, an eagle traces the bank of the river. And with his graceful soar and shrill cry, the cranes scare, leaving the roost all at once in a mad exodus of flapping wings and panicked bugling. So dense is the abrupt departure that the sun has to work its way through the birds as they circle and circle in a massive grey and red cloud, splitting up into groups heading in a thousand directions all at once and then they are gone. Jane Goodall was right. Magnificent.

The eagle circled back on the other side of the river, which was now empty. I had always found eagles to be majestic, but not this day. The Japanese man puts away his gear. A journey across the globe at it’s apex. Some talk about the cranes and others say nothing. The debate of the sparrows, I assume, will start up again soon. I finally take a sip of my Bailey’s but it has gone cold. The Bailey Sipper offers to top me off. I decline. He raises his glass in honor of the cranes and pours himself another. Tired and hungry I make my way out of the blind, stopping to pick up a feather. Examining it, I feel like I can fly. As I go, I glance back at the Platte for just a moment, and watch it as it rolls on and on and on.

The last sandhills into the sunrise