Sandhill Crane Capital of the World

Sandhill Crane at Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge in February 2016. Photo by Jamie Simo.

The Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis) is a large, grey bird standing between 3 and 4 feet tall with a red forehead and a rusty wash on its back and flanks. Every year, western populations make the trek from their wintering grounds in Mexico, New Mexico, and Texas, to breeding grounds in the Northern U.S. and Canada. There is also a more sedentary population in Florida.

Last spring, I went to Monte Vista, Colorado to see them on their staging grounds in the San Luis Valley. Over 20,000 cranes pass through Monte Vista in migration. While this is an impressive number, it doesn’t compare to the number I saw last month in Kearney, Nebraska.

A group of Sandhill Cranes feed in a field near Fort Kearney State Park. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Kearney is known as the “Sandhill Crane capital of the World,” which it rightly earns as over 600,000 Sandhill Cranes migrate through the area every year. The birds are drawn to the combination of sandbars on the Platte River–an ideal roosting place to protect against predators–and the acres of corn fields nearby where they gorge themselves to prepare for their northward flight. The birds begin arriving in late February and leave in early April so the best time to see them for maximum effect is late March.

The weather was cold dreary when I went, which, according to my companions, isn’t unusual for March in the Platte River Valley. Nevertheless, it was amazing. Pre-dawn, watching the mists swirl around the birds as they begin to wake up on the river is truly a unique experience. You have to wonder what it must’ve been like for the first inhabitants of the area to see that spectacle for the first time. And watching the birds come into roost by the thousands approaches the very definition of sublime. The sky will be black with cranes swirling like leaves in a tornado and the sounds of their cries is deafening.

Sandhill Cranes headed to the fields. Photo by Jamie Simo.

It’s impossible to miss the birds when almost anywhere in Kearney, but more dedicated observation spots include Rowe Sanctuary and Fort Kearney State Park. There are also several observation areas along the road.

The peak of crane migration may be coming to an end, but there are also tons of other great birds to see while in Kearney. Shorebirds are starting their northward migration right now, the Snow Geese are massing for their own migration, and there are still plenty of ducks in bright, breeding plumage. It’s definitely worth a trip!

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