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Spectacle basics: When and where to see Sandhill Cranes this March

Sandhill Cranes at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico, by Brad Starry.
Sandhill Cranes at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico, by Brad Starry.

“They start coming in on Valentine’s Day, peak on Saint Patrick’s Day, and are gone on Tax Day.” That’s what experienced observers say about the thousands of Sandhill Cranes that descend every year upon the Big Bend, the part of the Platte River between Grand Island and Lexington, Nebraska. The annual spectacle is the subject of a feature article in the April 2015 issue of BirdWatching.

Scientists say the birds are members of the Mid-Continent Population. They spend the winter in southeastern Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and central and northern Mexico and breed in Canada and northwestern Minnesota and as far away as western Alaska and southeastern Asia.

Common Crane at Hula Nature Preserve, Israel, by Eyal Kaplan.
Common Crane at Hula Nature Preserve, Israel, by Eyal Kaplan.

Following a millennia-old route, the cranes stop along the Platte — a winding thread of riparian habitat in what was once tallgrass prairie but is now a sea of corn — to rest and build up fat reserves for the next stage of their trip. The birds even sleep in the river. Broad and shallow, it braids through sandbars and islets, providing safe overnight accommodations.

Watching the Sandhills come to the river in the evening is a delight. Every birder should experience it at least once.

Eldon Greij explains why cranes and other big birds can land so softly.

When to see them

The cranes depart their wintering areas between late February and early March and arrive at the North Platte and Platte River valleys in late February. Numbers peak from mid- to late March.

The birds depart Nebraska from early to mid-April and arrive at nesting areas in Manitoba in late April, in Alaska from early to mid-May, and in Siberia no sooner than early May.

Other cranes to look for

Whooping Cranes are occasionally seen with Nebraska’s Sandhill Cranes, but they’re not the only rare cranes to watch for.

Common Crane, a Eurasian species, has also been found — and so regularly that it’s now thought to be annual. The state’s last report was in April 2014, when one was discovered in a group of 1,000 Sandhills near Elm Creek, a town between Kearney and Lexington.

Birders reported individual Common Cranes eight months later in west Texas and New Mexico, adding fuel to speculation that Common Cranes spotted in interior North America probably joined populations of Lesser Sandhills on their breeding grounds in northeastern Asia and then accompanied them to and from their wintering areas.

For more information

Audubon’s Nebraska Crane Festival
Kearney, March 19-22
For 44 years now, a celebration of the tens of thousands of Sandhill Cranes and millions of waterfowl that migrate through central Nebraska. Author Scott Weidensaul will deliver the keynote at the Saturday banquet.

Annual Midwest Crane Count
Wisconsin and portions of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, and Minnesota, April 18, 5:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m. CDT
More than 2,000 volunteers participate in this annual survey of Sandhill and Whooping Cranes, which spans over 100 counties in six states of the upper Midwest. Sponsored by the International Crane Foundation.

Crane Trust Inc.
Wood River
Founded in 1978 to preserve land along the Platte River to benefit wild Whooping Cranes as they migrate between Texas and Canada. Formally known as the Platte River Whooping Crane Maintenance Trust. Operates the Crane Trust Nature and Visitor Center.

Crane Trust Nature and Visitor Center
Interstate 80, Exit 305, Alda
Located along the Platte south of Alda. Formerly known as the Crane Meadows Nature Center.

Lillian Annette Rowe Bird Sanctuary
4450 Elm Island Rd., Gibbon
A 1,900-acre sanctuary in Gibbon, between Grand Island and Kearney. Commonly known as the Rowe Sanctuary.

View reader photos of Sandhill Cranes.

A version of this article appeared in the April 2015 issue of BirdWatching magazine. Subscribe.

  Originally Published

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