What to Shoot: The Great Sandhill Crane Migration in Nebraska

sandhill cranes take flight on the NE Platt River, Nebraska in the great sandhill crane migration

Sandhill cranes take to the skies on the NE Platte River during the March migration [Barb Gonzalez]

It was still pitch black as we walked silently along a quarter mile trail to the blinds along the NE Platte River in Nebraska to see the Sandhill Cranes migration.  As instructed, we stepped into the large blind and quietly situated ourselves each at a window, and waited for sunrise. We were here to witness what National Geographic calls “One of the best animal migrations in North America.”  Soon, we could make out shapes in the dark.  I asked our guide, “Are the birds on those islands?” He looked out the window, confused, then said “Those birds ARE the ‘islands’!” What had looked like land mass was instead a mass of birds huddled together. Each March, more than 1/2 million sandhill cranes come to Nebraska to hang out for a month on their migration north from southern states and South America.  During this time, they have to gain enough body weight to sustain them on a flight of thousands of miles.

Sandhill Crane migration-crane flaps its wingsSandhill cranes are a beautiful, perhaps prehistoric-looking bird. Standing about 3-feet tall, they have a red crown juxtaposed with its yellow eyes and otherwise beige body. If you’ve ever tried to photograph a sandhill crane, you’ve probably had to be stealthy or at quite a distance. They tend to be shy and either fly away when you approach or stay on the far side of a field. They make a beautiful bugling sound.

As the sun came up in its colorful glory, we could see, yes, what had looked like islands were about 60,000 cranes huddled in groups in the middle of the river that was once described as “a mile wide and an inch deep.”  We started to hear some warbling and bugling and the rustling of large birds and feathers.  Finally, we can see the birds waking up.  They jump around, fight with their neighbors and do some dances.   Groups of five or more might make an early take off.

When the sun is higher in the sky, birds are circling and suddenly, birds take flight en masse, where most all of the cranes are in the sky, flying in groups near and far, following a leader to a field to pig out on the small animals that are living in the dead cornfields during the day.  There is a roar from the sound of thousands upon thousands of flapping wings.

2 sandhill cranes in the middle of the sandhill crane migration

It is a remarkable sight, made all the more magical to know that these birds come from many areas in the south — as far as South America — on their way to far northern regions including Alaska.  Or even more amazing to learn that a sandhill crane can fly 300 miles or more in a single day as they rise to the jet stream to carry them to their destination.

One of the places we photographed the birds was at the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary. At the center there were naturalists and exhibits to teach us more about these amazing birds.

I went to the Platte River in 2016 and I’m returning again this March.  (Contact me if you are interested, I might be able to add a couple people to the trip.) Part of the reason I’m returning is that I’ve learned so much more about photographing wildlife, and in particular birds, in the last couple years as I’ve witnessed and shot the Pacific migration of tundra swans and snow geese in Klamath Falls, Oregon.

Photos from my first trip to Nebraska are available on BarbGonzalezTravelPhotography.com More birds photos are available on my Barb Gonzalez Photography website.

[all images: Barb Gonzalez]

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