Three weeks ago, I was able to spend 5 days on Nebraska's Platte River with the migrating Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis). On their northward migration from their wintering grounds (in and around the Gulf Coast), they stop along a large stretch of the Platte River for 3-5 weeks as they work to put on ~20-25% of their body weight, enough to carry them through to their final destination of their summer home (northern US, Canada, Alaska, and even an adventurous few that call Siberia their summer home).
My last visit to the Platte River was many years ago, probably in the late 1990's, when I traveled there to photograph the spectacle of the Sandhill Cranes. I was especially excited to put together this 2012 trip since I'm now using digital cameras and have much longer/higher quality lenses to work with.
Migrating Sandhill Cranes are a real people draw, and seeing the arrival of the cranes is always a pleasant sight to Nebraska towns along the Platte River, especially Kearney and Grand Island, where a majority of the cranes reside during their migration stop. People from all over the world visit this area to watch the 500,000-600,000 Sandhill Cranes that call the Platte River home for a few weeks. Kearney has even proclaimed itself "The Sandhill Crane Capital of the World" and features a "Crane Watch Festival" every year.
Being a nature photographer, I usually try to avoid these large gatherings of people, but on this trip I scheduled my time so that I would be at the festival for a couple of days, just to experience the entire spectacle. Here are a few of my thousands of images I made during those 5 days.
The cranes roost in the shallow waters near the middle of the Platte River, where predators such as coyotes and bobcats cannot reach them without alerting the cranes to their approach. Besides predators possibly making splashing sounds as they try to reach the cranes, the cranes have a unique ability to detect predator movement in the water via "feeling" water vibrations against their legs. Here's some roosting images:
At times, one of the cranes would jump and dance in the field, as if celebrating life. This crane was busy picking up a piece of cornstalk refuse and throwiing it up in the air as he danced:
As the sun fell low into the late afternoon sky, the cranes began leaving the fields and pastures:
Instead of flying directly to the river roost, the cranes "stage" themselves in a field or pasture that is directly along the banks of the Platte River. In these next images, the cranes are flying in to the staging area and beginning to stage in the field on the far side of the Platte River:
When it comes time to move to the river, it seems like no one wants to be first. But eventually a few brave souls will make the leap. Here was the first group of three that landed in front of our blind:
Then the whole crowd begins circling the roost and landing either in the shallow waters or on sandbars in the Platte River:
... and the cycle continues ... for 3-5 weeks!
Oh yes, and if you are extremely lucky, you may see one of our rare and endangered Whooping Cranes (Grus americanus), of which there is an estimated <300 remaining today:
This lone Whooper was apparently orphaned and is being raised by Sandhill Cranes. I was told this was the fourth year he has stopped by, always with a small group of Sandhills. Lovely, isn't he? And his white feathers really stand out against the Sandhills' gray feathers. One has to wonder if he/she will ever meet up with another Whopper to settle down with!
So if you want to spend an enjoyable 24 hours with the migrating Sandhill Cranes, I'd highly recommend visiting the Platte River in Nebraska next spring! And for a second recommendation, I'd recommend staying more than 24 hours! :o)
Post and Images by Jim Braswell of Show-Me Nature Photography