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The Splendor of Sandhill Cranes

Citizen scientists 'flock' to Nebraska to witness the annual migration

By William Gurstelle

Editor’s note: This story is part of a partnership between Next Avenue and Nature: American Spring LIVE.

Sandhill Cranes
Sandhill Cranes  |  Credit: Don Brockmeier

"Absolutely spectacular." Those are the two words that Andrew Farnsworth, a professor at Cornell University's Lab of Ornithology uses to describe the migration of sandhill cranes.

"I've been watching birds since I was five. It's very rare that one can see the true magnitude of how many birds are moving. But you see that in this migration. It's a great example of the spectacle and biology of life on the move," says Farnsworth.

Each spring, half a million sandhill cranes stop on the sandbars and islands of the Platte River in south central Nebraska on their way north to summer breeding grounds in Canada, Alaska and Siberia. They spent their winter in a wide expense of territory that includes New Mexico, Texas, Florida, and Mexico.

While the cranes disperse over a huge area in summer and winter, the route north is an hourglass-shaped flyway, and nearly all of the cranes stop on the channels and bars of the braided wetlands of the Platte River in March and April to rest and eat. Such a concentration of large birds into a relatively tiny area makes this spot among the most spectacular animal migration sites in the world, on par with those of the Serengeti wildebeest, Pacific baleen whales and Alaskan caribou.

Crane Flocks Flying Overhead

Each day during Nebraska's "crane season," the birds feed on the post-harvest stubble that remains in the vast cornfields that lay adjacent to the Platte. A drive along the county roads paralleling the river is sure to provide excellent views of large flocks, hard at work, feeding on leftover grain. They do this from sun up to sun down when they return to the river to sleep.

Sandhill Cranes
Sandhill Cranes  |  Credit: Don Brockmeier

While bird lovers find watching the cranes hop around in the fields to be a delight, the true highlights are the massive early morning departure of crane flocks from their river roosts and the subsequent late evening returns.

For amateur naturalists and other citizen scientists, the Crane Trust Nature and Visitor Center near Grand Island and the Rowe Sanctuary near Kearney, Neb., provide the best opportunities to experience this wonder. The Rowe Sanctuary has three large viewing blinds strategically placed to provide excellent views of the cranes while they are on their river roost. As at the Crane Trust, viewings from the blinds are scheduled daily during March and early April, once at dawn and once at sunset.

Along with a cup of coffee, crane watchers are given instructions and a short introduction to the crane's story by staff and trained volunteer guides. Then, the guides take their charges on a short quarter-mile walk over an easy, flat path to the blind.

The Unique Call of the Sandhill Crane

Even in the dim light of the chilly predawn, the cacophony of bird noise is remarkable. The birds don't seem to sleep, and indeed, how could they as the nonstop raucous calls of the cranes fill the air to more than 65 decibels? By cupping one's hands over the ears, the more scientifically oriented observers are able to concentrate the sound and hone in on its specific qualities. The call of the sandhill crane is unique and difficult to accurately describe.

"It's not really a honk or a trumpet," explains Roger Jasnoch, director of the Kearney Visitors' Bureau and an experienced crane watcher. "It's maybe more of a vibrating, rattling sort of bugle call."

Others compare it to a French-style 'r' trilled in the throat, or a chorus of absurdly loud spring peepers. Whatever simile is conjured, the noise is only explained by looking at the cranes' complicated throat anatomy. The crane's trachea is shaped more or less like a saxophone or French horn, a unique avian anatomical feature that is the basis for its amazingly loud call. A single bird can be heard two miles away.  Being in close proximity to 30,000 birds, as one is in a birdwatching blind, makes for an unforgettable auditory experience.

As the sun makes its appearance over the wetlands, great, blobby masses of movement gradually become identifiable as individual birds. Slowly, the black figures on the river become gray, and soon after, the birds' red capped heads become distinguishable through binoculars. The noise increases in intensity as the day brightens. The roosting cranes begin to take off, leaving the river to spend the day in nearby fields, fattening up for the long journey north.

The birds take off from the river in large groups called "lifts." In absurdly choreographed unison, it's not unusual for thousands of birds to fly off in one enormous, whirling sight. A sea of birds fills the sky, swirling up and around the bird watchers in a tornado of chaotic avian motion.


The Valuable Role of Citizen Scientists 

Bearing witness to such spectacle is amazing. But beyond simply enjoying the sights and sounds of the migration, crane watchers can help scientists learn more about bird migrations through citizen science programs such as eBird.

Sandhill Cranes
Sandhill Cranes  |  Credit: Don Brockmeier

According to Farnsworth, when birders input information regarding counts, locations, and other details into the eBird app, they are doing a valuable job in the name of science. Once the information is entered, scientists can track where species like the sandhill cranes currently are, where they are going, and what they are doing. While programs like eBird are valuable for scientists, Farnsworth says they are valuable for the birds as well because they more closely connect people with the natural world around them.

The bird experts at the Rowe Sanctuary concur with Farnsworth regarding how important it is for people to connect with nature.

"The saddest words in our language are 'you should have seen,'" says guide Gordon Maupin. "I've heard people say, you should have seen the herds of bison, you should have seen the clouds of passenger pigeons, when such things existed. Well, happily, the cranes remain, and as long as we protect their habitat, they always will."

(Find out more about the roles citizen scientists play across the country during the  Nature: American Spring LIVE event. Check your local PBS station's schedule for broadcast dates and times.)


Image of text - Nature is a production of THIRTEEN PRODUCTIONS LLC for WNET and PBS. American Spring Live is a production of Berman Productions, Inc.
William Gurstelle Named to Wired Magazine’s Smart List, and a two-time TED speaker, William Gurstelle is a bestselling author, magazine writer, and professional speaker. He is a contributing editor at Popular Science and Make magazines. Read More
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