The first sandhill cranes can be seen as early as mid-February, however large numbers usually appear in early March. Timing of early arrivals varies considerably year to year depending, partly, on the severity of the current winter.
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Middle March is the usual peak of the sandhill crane migration, with bird counts tallying more than a half-million cranes in the central Platte River valley. The first arrivals generally roost south of Grand Island and Alda. Later arrivals fill in portions of the river to the west, so while more cranes may be in the region as a whole it may not be noticeable in a particular spot on a day-to-day basis. Even so, mid-March is generally the best and safest crane-viewing bet.
In early April sandhill cranes begin to leave, but viewing can still be quite good. By this time the cranes’ main source of food — waste corn from the previous Autumn’s harvest — runs low in fields near the Platte River, forcing the birds to spread out as far as 12 miles either side of the river. Flocks at this time are often more dispersed, but the evening gatherings along the river are still awe-inspiring. Longer, warmer days and later sunsets make for more comfortable conditions; cranes are often full of corn, and they’ll sometimes linger in one place for longer stretches.
Early April is also your best chance of seeing a rare whooping crane. With about 500 or so in the central flyway’s flock, your odds of seeing this tallest of North American birds are fairly slim but not none.
Day-to-day weather effects how the cranes behave. A warm, sunny day may keep them in the fields longer; a windy, snowy day often brings birds to the river before sunset. If you’re traveling here specifically for the sandhill cranes, allow two days of viewing if possible so bad weather on one of the days doesn’t spoil your entire trip. Learn more at SeeTheCranes.com.
Adapted from an article by Dan Glomski.
Book your guided tour
The best (although not the only) way to see the sandhill cranes up close is with a Crane Trust viewing blind tour at dawn or dusk. Blinds are situated near traditionally successful roosts along the Platte River. After an orientation, a guide will take you to the blind. The Crane Trust’s bridge tours are also a good option.
A free option that doesn’t require reservations is a public viewing deck along the river, roughly three miles south of I-80 exit 305.
Call the trust (308-382-1820) or visit CraneTrust.org to reserve a spot in a viewing blind tour.
Plan ahead with
- Binoculars or spotting scope
- Camera (no flash in the blinds)
- Birding guide
- Warm clothing with layers
- Waterproof footwear, umbrella
- Good friends
- A hotel reservation
There are very few places where people of all backgrounds can come together and share such an experience. Where else will you find yourself in a viewing blind with a chance crowd consisting of a New York banker, a housewife from Grand Island, a college student from Denver and a poet from the Andes of Chile.Brad Mellema