During the next few weeks more than a half-million sandhill cranes will descend on central Nebraska.
Most will be found along an 80-mile stretch of the Platte River from Chapman to Overton. The birds stop to feed and condition for two to four weeks on their way to their northern mating and nesting grounds.
“The experience in a crane trust blind in the morning takes your breath away,’’ said Chuck Cooper, CEO of the Crane Trust in Wood River, Nebraska. “Watching the sun rise from the river, glimmering off more than 100,000 cranes, is something you will never forget.”
The Big Bend reach of the Platte River is the primary area for cranes that make the trip from the southern United States and Mexico to Canada, Alaska and even Siberia.
Last year, bitterly cold, snowy weather in early March all but stalled the migration. But by the end of the month, Nebraska was hosting what Cooper declared to be “the largest crane roost in the world.” Over 600,000 were counted at the peak of the season.
Want to see the show for yourself? These FAQs will help you plan your trip.
When do the birds stop in Nebraska?
The sandhill crane migration typically begins in late February and ends in early April. The crane count generally peaks the last two weeks of March but in off times there are still plenty of birds to see, without the crowds.
Where is the best place to find the birds?
The largest concentration is found along the Platte River between Grand Island and Kearney. Several organizations, including Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary in Gibbon and the Crane Trust, manage sections of the river and offer opportunities (via reservation) to view cranes on their nighttime river roosts. People can also view birds at Nebraska Game and Parks’ Fort Kearny State Historical Park and the North River Willidfe Management Area at North Platte. There are also public viewing locations.
When is viewing the best?
At sunrise and sunset, near the river. The cranes forage fields and meadows north and south of the river during the day — but they can be difficult to spot. The best viewing is in a blind along the river, where you can watch the cranes come in to roost at sunset or lift off at sunrise to return to the fields. To get a sense of the spectacle, both Rowe and the Crane Trust have live feeds of the birds. Check out explore.org for the crane cam or the River Cam on YouTube.
How do you know how many birds are in an area?
Counts are done every Monday, weather permitting. Crane Trust Director of Conservation Biology Andy Caven and junior wildlife biologist Jenna Malzahn fly a single-engine fixed-wing aircraft from Chapman to Overton. They make observations from the plane and take photographs, which they later analyze to determine an estimate of the number of cranes.
What other birds can you see while you’re there?
More than 10 million migrating geese and ducks as well as the central migrating flock of endangered whooping cranes (now numbering more than 500 individuals) also move through the area. “The Platte River Valley is a great place to find these species, but visitors should also consider a driving tour of the Rainwater Basin area south and southeast of the central Platte,’’ said Andrew Pierson, Audubon Nebraska’s director of conservation. “These natural basin wetlands — many protected and managed by conservation agencies and organizations — can provide excellent birding opportunities. On the river visitors can expect to see everything from bald eagles to river otters.’’
What other wildlife might a person see in the area?
There’s a herd of genetically pure bison on the Crane Trust property. Many visitors also make plans to see the spring displays of prairie grouse. Several private outfitters offer viewing opportunities.
Is it too late to reserve a spot in a blind to see the cranes?
Rowe Sanctuary offers crane viewing experiences from March 6 through April 12, though openings at the peak of the season are nearing full. The Crane Trust has openings for its overnight VIP tours, as well as day tours throughout March. There are also designated pull-off areas on roads along the river.
What does a viewing experience cost?
Morning and evening crane viewing experiences at Rowe are $40 per person. Additional opportunities for photographers cost more. Crane Trust tours range from from $15 to $600.
What’s the best clothing to wear?
Nebraska’s spring weather can be very variable. Visitors dress in layers for temperatures from freezing to mild. If you are going to view cranes on the river, either from a scheduled viewing blind or one of the public viewing areas, dark-colored clothing is preferred.
What if I need help when I arrive?
There’s the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe and the Nature and Visitor Center at Crane Trust. Both have staff on hand to answer questions and informational and interactive displays for all ages. Programs and talks are scheduled throughout the season. The Crane Trust has photography workshops and tours.
What’s the best source for mapping out my adventure?
What about overnight lodging?
Brad Mellema, executive director of the Grand Island Convention and Visitors Bureau, said people start planning their trips right after Christmas. So, it’s best to line up a hotel before you arrive. “Hotels in surrounding towns can be busy with crane tourists and other events going on in the area, so a reservation is always a good idea,’’ Mellema said.
What special events are held around the migration?
Audubon’s Nebraska’s 50th Crane Festival, March 20-21. Field trips and speakers, all centered on the migration. Registration: $150 before March 1; $160 after. Go to https://ne.audubon.org/crane-festival.
Crane Carnival, April 4, Rowe Sanctuary. 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. One-of-a-kind carnival for all ages with an emphasis on fun and learning about cranes through activities, hand-on exhibits, face painting and more. Several other events are scheduled at Rowe Sanctuary. Go to https://rowe.audubon.org/events/family-crane-carnival-1.
Wings Over the Platte, through April 5, Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer in Grand Island. For more than 30 years, this event has showcased local, regional and national artists inspired by the plethora of life along the Platte River.
How about places to eat in Grand Island and Kearney?
The Railside district in downtown Grand Island will be hopping, with two breweries and dozens of eateries. The Chocolate Bar is a favorite and a new American cuisine establishment, 40 North Tap + Grille, provides chef-made food. Kearney is a college town and there’s every kind of international food, from Mexican to Thai. Alley Rose, Coppermill Steak House, Joy’s Table Pasta & Steak, Cunningham’s on the Lake, Good Evans, Whiskey Creek Wood Fire Grill, Skeeter Barns and Tru Café are local favorites. The 242 House restaurant in Cozad is definitely worth a visit for its atmosphere and farm-to-table menu.
Why is Kearney called the Sandhill Crane Capital?
“We typically see visitors from all 50 states and 60 countries per crane season,’’ said Bobbi Dickerson of the Kearney Visitors Bureau. “During crane season we have 44,000 visitors over six weeks.’’
Other places to visit?
Kearney is known for The Archway. But if you are in the area, you can also stop at Fort Kearny State Historical Park, the Museum of Nebraska Art, The World Theatre, the G.W. Frank Museum, The Nebraska Firefighters Museum and Education Center, the Trails and Rails Museum, Pioneer Village, the Stuhr Museum, the Hastings Museum, the UNDRground Contemporary Art Gallery and Studio K Gallery.
What’s the economic impact of the migration?
An estimated 46,500 people visited Central Nebraska during the 2017 migration, 43,300 from other areas of the state or country. That brought in $14.30 million in 2017, supporting 182 year-round equivalent jobs. Tourism from the migration generates $379,000 per year in local sales and lodging tax revenue.