On First Seeing the Sandhill Cranes of Nebraska
By Diana Robinson
It’s six o’clock in the morning, late March, 28 degrees and a heavy, wet snow is falling. I’m wearing silk long johns, wool socks, waterproof hiking boots, three additional layers topped with a waterproof rain jacket. I’m sitting beside the Platte River near the Gibbon Bridge on a canvas fold-up chair behind my tripod. Directly across from me on a large, narrow sandbar in the river are hundreds of the large birds I have come over a thousand miles to see. The Sandhill Cranes greet me, each other and the snowy day with their loud distinctive calls. Suddenly, several of the cranes leap high in the air urgently calling to one another. Other cranes begin bowing and matching the leaps and elaborate steps, displaying to me for the first time their famous dance. The morning is filled with the piercing sounds of these astonishing birds. I’ve been waiting a long time for this moment.
For years I had wanted to see the annual Sandhill Crane migration in the Platte River Basin of Nebraska between Kearney and Grand Island. Nearly half a million Sandhill cranes congregate each year along the Platte River in early March through early April. The Platte River provides the cranes a perfect rest stop with an abundance of food from nearby cornfields and wetlands. After reading about this unique spot and the Sandhill Crane migration I decided to postpone the trip no longer, pack up my camera gear, warm waterproof clothing, and Aldo Leopold’s essential book A Sand County Almanac, and drive west to Nebraska to see the cranes, a three-day drive from my home in New York City.
Kearney, Nebraska and the Platte River Valley have always been important stopovers for the Sandhill Cranes as they migrate north each spring to Alaska, Canada and northeastern Siberia from Texas, Oklahoma or Mexico. The Sandhill Crane is a very tall wading bird (adults can reach over five feet in height) that has been making this migration for millions of years. Fossil records in Nebraska show Sandhill Cranes as among the oldest living birds on earth at nearly nine million years. This fact will dominate my thinking when I finally watch their morning dancing. Can they really have been dancing on this earth for nine million years, and in particular, on the Platte River in Nebraska? The thought adds to the reverence of the moment and makes me even happier that I am at last going to witness this year’s migration. Naturalist Aldo Leopold wrote of this area, “Yearly since the Ice Age it has awakened each spring to the clangor of cranes.” Given that cranes typically live between twenty and forty years I estimate that the offspring of some of the birds I will see will be returning to the Platte River long after I am no longer able to return. This, I realize, is why I photograph – to put things into perspective.
Like countless others who travel Interstate 80, I had driven past the exits for Kearney and Grand Island many times over the years on my way across the country. This time Kearney and Exit 272 would be my final destination. As soon as I passed the exit for Grand Island, I began to notice large birds in the cornfields on the north side of Interstate 80. Sandhill Cranes visiting the Platte River Valley feed primarily on grain left in cornfields. The rest of their diet comes from plant and animal foods found in wetlands near the river. The further west I drove the more cranes I saw in the cornfields and flying overhead.
After settling in at the Holiday Inn Express in Kearney, I drove over to the Rowe Audubon Sanctuary. I was anxious to talk with the volunteers there about crane sightings and best viewing areas. Traveling south of Kearney along a local road (50A) that runs parallel to Interstate 80, I was able to pull over and watch large groups of red-crowned Sandhill Cranes eating, dancing and socializing. I had never heard anything like the sounds they made, and the larger the group of Sandhill Cranes, the louder the sound — a sound which inspired the naturalist Aldo Leopold to write, “When we hear his call we hear no mere bird, we hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution.” I watched several groups of Sandhill Cranes fly off together from the cornfield, their sounds trailing behind them for several minutes each time.
Driving past historic Fort Kearney, I made my way down a very snowy, wet dirt road to the Rowe Sanctuary which runs several programs in conjunction with the Sandhill Crane migration, including bringing in guest speakers; this year’s program included Tom Mangelsen and Jane Goodall. I was pleased to enter their warm headquarters and to be offered a cup of hot coffee to warm me up by Chris, a volunteer who had traveled all the way from Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico for the Sandhill Crane migration at the Row Sanctuary. Chris filled me in on the crane’s activities since their arrival on the Platte River a few days earlier, and gave me excellent tips about places to photograph the birds at sunrise and sunset.
Leaving the Sanctuary, I drove over to the Gibbon Bridge to scout out locations for my morning shoot, easily choosing a great spot on the south side of the Platte River with lots of trees and small shrubs to act as my photo blind. I was all set now to come back early the next morning to photograph the cranes at sunrise. Having chosen my spot, I decided to stay on to watch the cranes fly in for the evening. Just before sunset several large flocks of Sandhill Cranes began flying overhead in long lines and the familiar V-shape formations. heading east to west directly over the Gibbon Bridge. Their calls were thunderous and grew in intensity as the sun began to fade and they settled into their positions on the river for the night. Large groups descended from all directions in a thrilling display against a red sunset sky, gliding gracefully into roosting places on the river which is very shallow and has a lot of sandbars that provide the cranes shelter from predators. Soon all of the cranes had spots and were settled in for the night. Eager to return in the morning and watch these same cranes take off for the cornfields, I packed up my gear, and in high spirits left the river for the night.
The next morning I rose very early so I could be in place for the 6:30 sunrise on the river. I wanted to see all the cranes I had seen fly in the night before head off to the cornfields for breakfast. The first graying of the sky at dawn found me driving to my predetermined spot along the Platte close to Gibbon Bridge, wearing warm layers and carrying a thermos of hot tea. I set up my canvas stool, tripod and camera gear along the riverbanks, behind several bushes. Sure enough, the cranes that had flown in the previous evening were still where I had left them, making their usual sounds. Although it was still drizzly and not yet light, I could see a large group ruffling their feathers in a sign that they were getting ready to begin their day. Several of them cleaned their feathers, flapped their wings and seemed to be waking themselves up, while others remained quiet. For them as for me, it was still early.
As I photographed the cranes from shore I was treated to many displays of their wonderful courtship dance — their hops, large leaps, bows and feather ruffling. The dance typically starts with deep bows by both the males and females. The male crane throws his head backwards onto his body and gives a low-pitched call. The female puts her head back and makes a higher-pitched call or two. Both cranes then leap into the air. I was astonished at how high these birds could leap. They run, jump, flap their wings, bow and toss sticks, grass or cornstalks, while calling out to each other. This goes on for several minutes at a time and is thrilling to watch, especially when multiple pairs of Sandhill Cranes perform simultaneously. The dancing is considered a mating ritual but it is performed many times by Sandhill Cranes of all ages and is said to be a social activity that reduces aggressive behavior and strengthens the bond between paired cranes. It must work because I didn’t see any aggressive crane behavior during my days photographing the Sandhill Cranes on the Platte River.
Groups of cranes called to each other, seeming to pass the time in chat until their leader escorted them off to the cornfields. I watched wave after wave of cranes leave their roosting spots on the river. Eventually there was just a handful of cranes left on the sandbar; by 8:30 or so the last ones had finally flown off to the cornfields. I packed up all my gear, stomped my boots to see if my toes had any feeling left in them and enjoyed what was left of the hot tea. I drove down Road W to see the cranes in the still frozen and snow-covered cornfields happily munching on their breakfasts.
Day after day my agenda varied little, generally consisting of a sunrise in the fog, snow and/or rain with the roosting cranes preening, dancing and flying off to the cornfields, late mornings and afternoons in the cornfields watching the cranes bonding, dancing and eating, and sunsets watching them fly to their preferred spots on the river. After nearly three weeks of this enjoyable routine I was startled one morning when I arrived at the Platte River to find greatly diminished numbers. How strange it was suddenly not to see cranes everywhere; not in the sky, not in the cornfields, not around the Platte River. There were just a few stragglers left in the fields, but most of the nearly half million cranes that had been here the past few weeks were simply gone this morning, migrating north. The remaining cranes still flew off to the cornfields but I noticed that they constantly turned their heads sideways and surveyed the sky as if waiting for a signal or a southern breeze to send them too, on their way north. I had grown so accustomed to the presence of these enchanting birds in the fields that when the last stragglers finally flew off I, like them, felt it was time to move on, and with no small degree of sadness I left the Platte River…at least for this year.
Photographs to accompany this article appear on my website under the Nebraska/Sandhill Cranes Collection located at: