The Sentinels of Spring


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Sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis) at Rowe Audubon Sanctuary on the Platte River. (Joel Sartore/

By Joel Sartore

If you’ve driven I-80 along the Platte River in March, you must have seen them. Mile after mile they stand there, gray sentinels too numerous to count. Lining both sides of the Interstate between Kearney and Grand Island, they’ve been waiting to put on a show … just for you.

And what a show it is. After all, they’ve been rehearsing in Nebraska for at least 10,000 years. 

At dusk they’ll fly from field to river roost in flocks that are so big they can literally block the setting sun. Sometimes, they look like clouds of smoke on the horizon, with a sound of distant thunder as they all launch into the air at once. 

Three and a half feet tall, with a crown of red and a song that can be heard a mile away, there’s nowhere else on Earth with this kind of performance. If you miss the evening flight, there’s another at sunrise, when they’ll leave the river once more to feed on waste grain left in the surrounding fields and probe for insects in prairie grasslands.

While other birds have begun to fail at the hand of man, the sandhill crane has thrived, at least for now. To celebrate, they dance and unison call in the Platte Valley until mid-April, when the south winds finally come. Then they’ll vanish once more.

But don’t worry. The next pageant is just 11 months away.

Long live the Sentinels of Spring.


Image Credits: Joel Sartore

Signed copies of Sartore’s 2010 book “Rare: Portraits of America’s Endangered Species” are available directly through Joel Sartore Photography. Learn more about the book and about Sartore’s work at

Immigration in Nebraska