Annual sandhill crane migration in Nebraska a sight to see for bird watchers

·2 min read
Hundreds of thousands of sandhill cranes rest and feed in the fields near Kearney, Nebraska as they refuel for their journey north.
Hundreds of thousands of sandhill cranes rest and feed in the fields near Kearney, Nebraska as they refuel for their journey north.

It was a spur of the moment decision my wife and I made to travel to Kearney, Nebraska, to observe the annual sandhill crane migration. Even though the weather was not going to be ideal, it appeared the migration would be close to its peak.

We were near Grand Island, Nebraska, 40 miles east of Kearney, when we started to see the first flocks of sandhills. Although a few were in the air, most of the birds were in the fields along Interstate 80.

As we got closer to Kearney, the number of birds steadily increased. The flocks of cranes in the fields along the freeway went from hundreds to thousands. We were learning why Kearney was called “The Sandhill Capital of the World.”

Every spring, sandhill cranes gather in the Platte River basin around Kearney on their migration route north. This annual event starts in late February and lasts through the first part of April.

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This stop is extremely important to these birds as it is used as a resting place and a location to refuel their energy supplies to complete the last leg of their journey north.

Each morning, the cranes lift off of their night roosting locations on the Platte River and head to the neighboring fields to feed. They scour these fields for corn, wheat and other leftover grain residue from last fall’s harvest.

Although these birds stand four to five feet tall, their actual body weight is only five to seven pounds. Their goal during the layover in Nebraska is to add 15% to 20% to their body weight.

Each evening, there is a major flight as the cranes leave their daytime feeding locations and return back to the sanctuary of the river basin.

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This whole migration movement is a well-known event. Judging from the license plates of vehicles parked at observation posts, bird enthusiasts from all over the country come to witness this spectacle.

They estimate more than 600,000 sandhills pass through this region each spring which is about 80% of the world’s sandhill population. From Nebraska, birds migrate to Minnesota, Canada, Alaska and into Siberia.

For those that enjoy watching and learning about birds, this migration is truly an incredible sight!

— This is the opinion of outdoors columnist Jerry Carlson. Contact him at jerrycarlson@cloudnet.com.

This article originally appeared on St. Cloud Times: Minnesota bird watchers enjoy Sandhill crane migration in Nebraska