Nature creates spectacularly amazing sites and seeing tens of thousands of birds overhead is one of them to experience. Every year, for thousands of years, 80% of the world’s population of Sandhill Cranes migrate through the Platte River Valley near Kearney Nebraska. From late February to early April (and again in October) around half a million of these great birds stop for a couple weeks while on their epic journey of thousands of miles migrating from around the Gulf of Mexico up to Canada, Alaska and Siberia.
Their visit in the Platte river area is primarily for ‘fueling up’ for the next segment of their journey. They weigh on average around 4 kilos / 9 pounds but during this stopover they gain up to 20% of their body weight for their continued journey north. Sandhill Cranes have a wingspan of ~78 inches / 200 cm and fly around 38 miles per hour (60 kilometers per hour). During their migration periods they cover up to 450 miles (720 kilometers) a day. With a lifespan of well over 20 years, they do this annual journey many times.
The most exhilarating times to watch these great birds are just before sunrise and just after sunset. This is when they are gathering in groups of tens of thousands for their night time rest. In the evening these giant flocks will circle overhead, scouting out the area, until a decision is made on where to spend the night. It is an amazing event to watch as what appears to be highly coordinated, the birds will gracefully fly a pattern to come in and land amongst the forming flock. Remember that these flocks can up to ten thousand strong and each bird, in their own time comes in to land from the same angle. It really is like there is air traffic control guiding them in. Depending on the size of the flock, this process in the evening can take over an hour before all of them land and get settled.
Equally impressive but very different is the takeoff in the morning. You will hear the Sandhill Cranes cooing and squawking well before sunrise. At some magic moment they suddenly decide to takeoff. So unlike the evening landing which are only a few birds at a time, the takeoff is almost at once. To see thousands of these impressive birds suddenly take flight is awesome.
During their couple week stay in the area the giant flocks sometimes stay together, but often they break up in search of food. As this is plentiful Nebraska farmland,
You don’t need to be a bird watcher or bird fanatic to enjoy this miraculous wonder of nature. After all there are up to several hundred thousand of these giant birds, so no chance of missing them. By the way, it is not just Sandhill Cranes that stop in the Platte River valley to rest and revitalise – Eagles, Whooping Cranes, snow geese, pintails and mallard ducks, to name just a few are also here.