I’ve heard a lot of people say things like, “I’ve always wanted to see the cranes, I’ve just never taken the time to do it.”
Well, another “crane season” is fast approaching. Let’s say you finally decide to take the plunge—to view the famous sandhill crane stopover that many travel hundreds, even thousands of miles to witness. How should you prepare and what should you take along on your crane-viewing venture?
As with any wildlife viewing experience, the more you are informed about the species, the more you’ll appreciate what you’ll see. Start by picking up a copy of “Crane Music” by Paul A. Johnsgard. A breezy and nontechnical read, this book is an excellent introduction to the sandhill cranes and their migration. (A new edition of the book is due shortly.) With a little knowledge about the birds, you’re better prepared to make the trip to the Platte River Valley.
So when do you go? The best time for viewing is generally the latter half of March, although good viewing is possible anytime from March 1 through the end of the first week of April. The latter two weekends of March are typically the busiest for those leading guided tours (Rowe Sanctuary and the Nebraska Nature and Visitor Center), so those interested in taking a guided tour during those times need to make reservations well in advance. Utilizing blinds located along the Platte River, these tours generally offer the best possible views of the cranes. Tours are offered in the early morning or evening, as the birds depart from and arrive at their nighttime roosts, often in huge, very noisy throngs.
Tours, however, are not for the impatient or very young. If you have a family with small children, your best bet is to find a public viewing platform along the Platte. One platform is easily accessible from Interstate 80; simply take the Alda Road exit (#305), and travel about one-and-a-half miles south. Public viewing platforms can get crowded near sunset, so it’s a good idea to be there well beforehand.
The easiest way to see cranes is simply to drive a few of the back roads along the Platte. Numerous cornfields and a few remaining wet meadows give the cranes many feeding spots during the day. The Platte River Road between Doniphan (about 11 miles south of Grand Island) and the Alda Road are paved and features two parking areas for crane viewers. Other back roads are possibilities too, but keep in mind that rain or snowmelt can turn unpaved roads into muddy messes. Getting stuck will put a damper on your wallet as well as your crane-viewing enjoyment.
Regardless of how you choose to view the migration, you’ll want to bring some items with you. Binoculars or a spotting scope present more details of birds than your eyes alone. The Nebraska Gazetteer gives details of backroads in the area (and throughout the state) should you want to go off the beaten track. If you’re spending time outside, cold weather gear is a must: coats, gloves, boots, hand warmers, etc. A cold crane watcher is a miserable crane watcher.
Feel free to bring along your camera (video or still), but keep in mind that cranes are very wary during migration, and with good reason—they’re game birds along most of the central flyway (mainly during the fall). So don’t expect an eye-popping “money shot” unless you have a very long and expensive telephoto lens and a lot of experience. And don’t even think about going out on foot for closer shots—you’ll only disturb the birds. Stay in your car!
Lastly, keep in mind that you’re viewing wild birds who will react to weather, where they can find food and other factors. It’s not a Disney-type production where everything happens on cue. Sometimes you get good looks at lots of birds, sometimes those good views are fewer and farther between. The more you look, the better your chances of getting those great views.
With a little preparation, the sandhill crane migration is an unforgettable experience. You’ve heard about it but haven’t seen it up close? Don’t wait any longer—make this the spring you take the short trip to a truly world-class wildlife spectacle.
The Nebraska Nature & Visitor Center is a non-profit organization that operates year-round. Solely supported by sponsorships, contributions, grants and program fees, the center seeks to tell its story to a diverse audience of all ages from Nebraska, the nation and around the world to increase awareness and appreciation of the Platte River ecosystem. More information on the center, its programs and the annual crane migration can be found at www.nebraskanature.org.