Tag Archives: crane

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!

The Dance of the Crane

This past weekend, Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge in the San Luis Valley played host to more than 20,000 visitors. However, most of those visitors weren’t aware that this year marked the 33rd annual Crane Festival despite being the festival’s star attraction.

Sandhill Cranes foraging at Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Jamie Simo.

The Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis) is a magnificent grey bird standing about 47 inches high with white cheeks and a red forehead. Every year in spring and fall, thousands of Sandhill Cranes descend on the San Luis Valley during migration. The valley, with its patchwork of agricultural fields and wetlands, is an ideal “staging area” for the cranes to rest and bulk up for their trek north to nesting grounds in the northern U.S. and Canada or south to wintering grounds in the southern U.S. and northern Mexico. The migration has been going on for at least 2,000 years going by a famous petroglyph inscribed in the rocks of the nearby San Juan mountains.

Thousands of Sandhill Cranes flock to Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge every spring and fall. Photo by Jamie Simo.

When I arrived at the refuge on Saturday, the air was filled with the resounding rattle of the cranes’ cries as they foraged in the fields for barley. Local farmers harvest only a portion of their crop and leave the rest for migratory birds per an agreement with refuge management. As well as ensuring a steady supply of food, this serves to keep the birds away from nearby farmers’ fields and prevent human-wildlife conflict. As I watched, wave after wave of cranes flew over my head to join the mass in front of me.

The spectacle would’ve been awe-inspiring enough, but it became even more impressive when a few thousand of the birds leapt into the air all at once to move a few yards further up the field. The roar of the birds was almost deafening and the air looked like it was rippling with the sheer amount of life in motion.

Once they were back on the ground, I watched the birds preen, feed, or “dance.” Like birds such as the Greater Prairie Chicken, American Woodcock, and other crane species, the Sandhill Crane puts on an elaborate courtship ritual to attract a mate. As part of this ritual, the cranes bow, flap their wings, and leap and twirl in the air like rhythmic gymnasts.

Sandhill Cranes flock to agricultural fields within and surrounding Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Jamie Simo

If successful in winning a mate with this strategy, the cranes will pair for life. They will then travel together to the breeding grounds where they will jointly construct a nest from sticks, aquatic grasses, and other plants. Usually the female will lay 2 eggs, which both parents will brood. Any chicks that hatch will be precocial, meaning they are mobile and able to feed themselves shortly after hatching.

For now though, the cranes will spend the next few weeks at the wildlife refuge eating and loafing in the shallow marshes alongside numerous ducks and other waterbirds. If you’re interested in seeing this amazing display, you’ll want to visit as soon as possible. The Crane Festival is scheduled each year for the peak of the migration and the birds are gone by mid-April.