By: Jessica Stoner
Nebraska has a natural legacy that is so old it’s literally ancient: the sandhill crane migration along the Platte River.
One of the best ways to preserve this natural legacy is to get first hand experience with the cranes. Seeing and hearing tens of thousands of sandhill cranes is breathtaking and reminds us that there truly is a balance in nature.
When we work to preserve the creatures in this balance, the result is a natural phenomenon we can show our children and grandchildren, attract visitors to see, look forward to ourselves, and know that our geographic place and resources, the Platte River, and its surroundings, contribute in a very special way to the natural legacy of sandhill cranes.
Tips for Viewing the Sandhill Cranes:
In early March the cranes start sprinkling in, along with waterfowl and even Bald Eagles.
The last two weeks of March marks the heaviest traffic of cranes coming to the Platte River.
By early April there are still some cranes around and these are often very happy, having had lots of nourishment and a break from the work of migration.
Dawn & dusk are the times when the cranes are flying in or out to transition from feeding in the wetlands and cornfields to returning to the Platte River sandbars for a safe night’s sleep. For the best show, arrive 30 minutes before sunrise or sunset.
You can see the birds at a Crane Viewing Deck, which is an elevated, wooden structure, about the width of a bike trail. There is a Crane Viewing Deck just south of the Crane Trust at the intersection of Alda and Shoemaker Isle Roads referred to on the Nebraska Flyways map as the CPNRD Alda Roadside Viewing Site. This deck faces the Platte River from the north and can be accessed by three different parking areas from S Alda Road or from Shoemaker Isle Road.
At the CPNRD (Central Platte Natural Resources District) Plautz Viewing Site, at Lowell Road and Elm Island Road (east of the Rowe Sanctuary Visitors Center), there are two, long viewing decks and a small walking trail loop along the Platte. One viewing deck runs parallel to Lowell Road and its bridge over the Platte and the second one is alongside the Platte River.
My family and I used this site for a dusk viewing of the cranes in 2016 and it was a terrific experience. We liked using the deck that was facing west parallel to the bridge. There is no charge to use these decks.
My husband, Perry Stoner, took photos of the cranes coming back to the river at dusk. It was such a simple pleasure, but so exciting to see a part of the migration cycle. The crane’s daily routine happened right in front of us. I was so excited to see the cranes, with ideas of what it would be like. I thought it would be large groups flying in at the same time, but instead, it happened much more gradually, which added to the excitement.
Perry took this one on March 13, 2016 from the Plautz Viewing Site. In this photo, the dark, short speckled clump on the river, left of the embankment of trees, are the cranes. At the time this photo was taken, there was a good sized group of cranes in that little clump, just inside the river bed. But it started with one crane landing in that area. After some waiting and lots of scouring the skies for signs of the next arrivals, another two cranes settled into the water.
A little more time passes and another couple join the huddle. The slow pace allowed me to more fully appreciate how many arrivals it takes to get up to the number of one half million cranes passing through Nebraska. As it got closer to sunset, the sounds of the cranes and the group sizes of arrivals and the clump of cranes in the water became larger and larger. As the size of the groups arriving grew, it was a delight to watch the cranes in the sky both as individuals and as part of a group.
The cranes are very motivational. It was almost like going to a show. You might know the basic storyline, but you don’t fully know until you are there and taking it all in on that specific day with its unique temperature, wind, lighting, and whichever cranes happen to land in the spot you are observing.
Another thank you goes out to the cranes for getting our teenagers out into nature. Here, my daughter is experimenting with photography and enjoying the cranes at the same time. The cranes were encouraging her creativity, expression, and her scientific thinking.
Fort Kearny State Recreation Area has a hike-bike trail which, about one-third mile from the Rec Area, crosses the Platte over a wooden bridge that spans two channels of the Platte River. To use this trail, you just need to purchase a daily ($6) or annual ($31) Vehicle Park Entry Permit. http://outdoornebraska.gov/fortkearny.sra/
The Crane Trust has a private footbridge over the Platte which can be accessed during their 2 hour, $15/person tours from 6-8pm during crane season.
There are also ways to enjoy the cranes with experts and those who are actively researching, working, and educating towards maintaining a healthy balance for the cranes and the humans who live near their flyway. The Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary and the Crane Trust are two of these expert groups who have Visitor Centers located between Grand Island and Kearney.
Perhaps the closest of crane experiences, however, is the blind tours. Join a group and an expert guide to enter a camouflage building which sits along the Platte river. The time I went, there was no talking allowed in the blind, but it was well worth it to be so close to the cranes. Both Rowe Sanctuary and the Crane Trust offer reservations for blind tours.
After dawn and before dusk, the cranes transition to the cornfields to eat and rest. The Central Platte NRD has some roadside viewing sites which are great for seeing the cranes fly individually and in groups overhead. From these roadside viewing sites, you cannot see the river, but you get a great view of the cranes flying from the river into the fields where they will spend their day. There are two located on Platte River Road between Hwy 34 and Alda Road and there are two southwest of Rowe Sanctuary on Elm Island Road.
Once the cranes are settled into their daytime location, there are also good places to observe the cranes eating and resting in cornfields and wetlands while at the same time respecting private property and shared roadways. Here’s a map produced by Nebraska Flyway.com. Notice the outlined route south of the Platte river, with road names noted when the route follows a new road.
“While on the Platte, cranes spend their days in the fields and meadows near the river, feeding on waste corn in crop fields and a variety invertebrates and plant tubers in wet meadows and grasslands.”
“Late in the afternoon, sandhill cranes gather next to the Platte. As dusk approaches, they fly to the river and roost where shallow water covers the sandbars in the middle of channels. The wide, open, braided channels of the Platte provide ideal roost sites for the large concentrations of sandhill cranes—at the height of the migration, 50,000 to 100,000 cranes will pack into the most heavily used reaches in concentrations as high as 10,000 birds per half mile of river.”
About the Author:
Hi, I’m Jessica Stoner and I feel responsible for helping to figure out a way to preserve this great place we call Nebraska and the ecosystem of the Great Plains. I love the history and people of Nebraska and exploring its diversity from the Sandhill Cranes to Toadstool Park to the terrain and geography of Fort Robinson. I am a volunteer writer for the NLCV because I want to help conserve Nebraska’s environment and “toot” the bugle of its many stories.