Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A Day in the Life of Migrating Sandhill Cranes

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:

Within an hour after sunrise, the cranes head to nearby fields and pastures, where they feed on corn dropped from last season's harvest, and any insect they can forage with their sharp bills.

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


  1. Beautiful photos and excellent post! Looks like an amazing experience!

  2. Thank you, Tammy. Yes, quite an experience ... especially when thousands in the air or in the river, and everyone being vocal at the same time!

  3. Great photos of this special cranes and a nice story Jim.
    Greetings from Sweden / Kenny

  4. Magnificent Jim what a spectacle!
    How they don't all crash into each other in those massive take-offs may be one of natures greater mysteries.

  5. These are all nice shots but I really love the sunset shots!

  6. Looking forward to their arrival here in Palmer, Alaska. Please scoot them right along!


  7. Fantastic images! These are lovely!

  8. Oh my goodness, Jim, you have outdone yourself ... if possible! Exceptional post! What a glorious experience for you. I would love to see such a beautiful spectacle. Magnificent photographs ... each and every one of them!

  9. Qué fotos más espectaculares.
    Saludos desde España

  10. Gorgeous, absolutely fantastical!!! I loved so much viewing thousands of Sandhill Cranes near Knoxville in January. I had heard about the explosion of birds that fill the air along the Platt River in Spring and it had to have been amazing! I am thinking that one, or two of those Cranes flew over my home recently, it was on a sun filled Sunday 3-4 weeks ago...really;)

  11. Wonderful series of images Jim. My favorite was the last photo on the post.

  12. What a great set of photos, Cranes are difficult to approach!
    The ambiance is beautifully rendered!
    Reminds me of the Cranes wintering half an hour from where I live: it took me back a few weeks ago!
    Cheers Tammy!

  13. Amazing pictures. Love the group shots. Excellent!

  14. Superb post and photos Jim. The numbers are amazing to me, I have never seen so many birds, awe-inspiring.