They’re back! Even though there is some snow on the ground, Sandhill cranes have arrived in Nebraska. This is my official sign of spring being close at hand.
There are 15 species of cranes in the world. Two of these cranes are native to North America; the Sandhill crane and the Whooping crane. Sandhill cranes are far more numerous. Their annual migration is literally a world-class event, on par with the migration of wildebeests in Africa. Few places on earth see such a concentration of a single species in such a limited geographical area. In our case, Grand Island to North Platte along the Platte River. Some 600,000 will be passing through Nebraska in the next few weeks.
According to the fossil record, cranes have been coming to Nebraska for some 3.5 million years. They come for nourishment found in wet meadows and along the Platte. Protein from earthworms, snails and insects is critical for their nesting cycle. In more modern times, the cranes have learned to feed on grains left over from last year's harvest and consume hundreds of tons of corn from the valley floor. They can increase their total body weight by 20 percent or more during their spring stopover.
As dusk approaches, the cranes leave their feeding areas and fly back to their roosts for the night. Many of the birds will roost on sandbars in the rivers. These birds appear to stand haphazardly in the channels in random patterns. Actually the edges of their individual groups mark the boundaries of the sandbars. Just one more width of a bird and a crane would slide into deeper water! They use every available square foot of the submerged islands.
River roosts offer protection from predators. The deeper water around the sandbars acts as a moat, slowing down a hungry coyote or bobcat that might launch a sneak attack on roosting birds.
Not all cranes roost in the river. As has happened for many millennia before the North and South Platte Rivers ever came to be, cranes gather at night in large meadows. As long as they have a wide buffer zone between themselves and places that could conceal predators, the birds will rest.
Regardless of where the cranes settle in for the night, the roosts are never completely quiet. All night long the birds murmur, shift and flutter uneasily. I have seen flocks become uneasy due to nothing more than a cloud passing in front of the moon and causing a shadow to drift across the roosting cranes.
Crane watching is relatively easy if you follow a few simple rules. (1) Only park where you can get off the road and not impeded traffic. (2) Stay in your vehicle. Cranes are not too concerned about letting vehicles approach them, but step outside and the birds will immediately take flight. (3) Do not disturb the birds and cause them to fly from their feeding areas or roosts. This can cause undue stress on the birds and should be avoided. Too much stress or a feeling of being unsafe will cause the birds to abandon the area.
Good binoculars or a spotting scope are essential. By simply staying in your vehicle you can get an up close look at the cranes with good optics. If photography is a hobby, this is a great time of the year. You'll need a lens or zoom capability that will be in the 6-power to 20-power range to get the best photos. Many of today’s small digital cameras can do this; even some cell phones have cameras with 10-power or more zoom ability.
So, if you need an excuse to get off the couch and out of the house, take a drive west and look for cranes. They are a natural wonder and a sign that spring has arrived again in Nebraska.