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America’s Sandhill Crane Migration Dazzles Birders, Wonder Seekers Alike

SmarterTravel

“It only takes one,” whispers the person next to me.

I barely catch it over the ecstatic singing of the 15,000 Sandhill Cranes that have come to roost on the deep-dusk waters of the Platte River. I hear it mostly because the same thought is ricocheting around my head, too.

That’s because two minutes ago, this stretch of the river in Nebraska was empty save for a single Sandhill Crane. Now I’m looking at more birds than I’ve seen in my entire life, combined. And thousands more are landing every minute. They’re trilling and dancing, flapping and jumping. Their sea of voices washes over the river, a constant crescendo that can be heard from more than two miles away.

The Delicate Dance

Like most evenings during Nebraska’s annual spring crane migration, the pre-sunset river had been alive with the manic energy of tens of thousands of cranes. An hour ago, the cranes landed, as usual, but then the tall gray birds had abandoned water for sky after a hawk—looking to stir up trouble, lion-on-the-savannah style—buzzed this section of river. Now the sun is dipping below the horizon; some of the birds have tried to land again, but keep swirling back up into the purple sky.

“If they don’t come soon, they’re not going to settle here for the night,” says my guide, a tall retiree in a fringed fleece hat, his binoculars trained on the birds. There are two dozen of us lining the open windows of a long riverside blind, and we stay quiet, as instructed. We watch the clusters on the cold horizon and wait.

It’s a delicate dance here between humans and Sandhill Cranes. Unlike the surrounding states where the birds are hunted for sport, Nebraska has recognized the splendor of this annual migration—Jane Goodall called it one of the world’s greatest—and in recent decades has protected not just the cranes and the water, but also, with the efforts of organizations like the Crane Trust and the Audubon Society, the vital riverfront that millions of birds on the Central Flyway depend on as a waypoint each spring.

Consequently, this thin slice of South-Central Nebraska now sees a second migration every March: bird lovers flocking to the Platte for a glimpse of the action. The crane migration doesn’t just attract hardcore birders, either—it’s an unforgettable experience for anyone who wants to witness nature at its finest.

It Only Takes One

The three- to four-foot cranes settle for weeks in the shallow waters of the Platte, spending their days foraging for waste corn left in the field from last year’s harvest and plying the wetlands for snakes and snails. By the time they catch the thermals north, following a route forged into their DNA more than 10,000 years ago, they’ve gained up to 30 percent of their body weight—enough to help them survive freezing temperatures as they fly as far as Siberia to lay eggs and raise the next generation.

We’re shivering in the unheated bird blind, wondering what happens next. The surface of the wide shallow river has been untouched for 10 minutes, an empty stage in a packed theater. Above us, cranes fill the air like illustrations of the wind, casting determined silhouettes across the sky.

And then, a single crane lands on the sandbar 20 feet in front of me. And it just … stands there. It’s not trumpeting wildly up into the mad chorus of the sky, not scanning the horizon for a lost mate or parent. It seems present, unhurried; occasionally it bows its red-capped head to take a sip of water.

In the blind, I’m anthropomorphizing, fretting, wondering, watching. Why is it alone? Cranes, I’ve learned, are rarely on their own. They mate for life and spend years after birth traveling as a family unit. The only times I’ve seen single cranes, they’ve been in flight, calling for their companions. It’s hard not to cast human feeling onto their frenzied searches. This solitary crane in front of me seems as out of place as a toucan on the tundra.

I wonder: Is it waiting? Why won’t it fly away, look for its mate? It’s been standing there for 10 minutes when a family of four cranes flits down and lands gently next to it in a flurry of feathers. Then they’re joined by another six birds, then 10, then 100, and then they’re pouring down out of the sky onto the river by the thousands, a meteor shower of migrants finally finding safety for the night.

And somewhere in the middle of all of this, in a spot I can no longer see, is that single crane, the one who knew this was a welcoming place after all, because this was the bend in the river that offered its parents, and its parents’ parents, and others all the way back generations beyond memory, the sort of refuge that genetic history doesn’t forget.

They’re still landing by the thousands—it’s a spectacle too big to be captured, so I don’t mind that it’s too dark for photos. The cranes are guided by biology and memory. And the people who come to bear witness, we’re also part of a cycle of memory and story. The splendor of the big is matched by the magnificence of these individual moments—the trilling and pirouetting of each crane; the chance to watch relationships, family, evolution, and beauty play out on the gentle waters of the Platte. None of this is for us; we are merely silent spectators. But we’re changed by it just the same.

One Once-in-a-Lifetime

Night falls. I still hear the bugles and the guttural purrs, but I see only darkness beyond the blind. So it’s time. I walk silently back through the sweet-smelling tall prairie grass and bundle back into the car.

Bouncing down dirt roads lit by stars, it’s all quiet until someone says, “That’s probably a once-in-a-lifetime.” And it feels true. But as the birds have shown me, it’s only one once-in-a-lifetime. With this many cranes in a single place, with so many different possible combinations of extraordinary moments, such an observation feels like a promise, not a closing door.

More from SmarterTravel:

Christine Sarkis watched the annual Sandhill Crane migration as a guest of the Nebraska Tourism Commission. She’s not a birder, but she’ll definitely go back. Follow her on Twitter @ChristineSarkis and Instagram @postcartography for more advice about making every vacation the best vacation.

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