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Sleeping with Sandhill Cranes

Originally Published in Trailer Life Magazine

If you have ever considered spending the night with sandhill cranes, you should know it isn’t the best way to get a good night’s sleep. The prehistoric birds are downright noisy. In fact, the night my husband, Mike Vining, and I spent with them, they never quieted down. Not even for a minute.


But sleeping with sandhill cranes is not about quiet. It’s about seeing the tall gray birds up close. It’s about spending hours in a photo blind along the Platte River. It’s about watching thousands upon thousands of cranes fly in around sunset. It’s about hearing their deep, rolling trumpet and rattling all night long. It’s about listening to the rush of their wings. It’s about watching them dance and chase one another. It’s about seeing thousands of cranes fly off en mass just after sunrise. It’s about hearing their calls long after you leave Nebraska.


Cranes are one of the planet’s oldest living birds. Fossil records prove that cranes have been in Nebraska for more than 9 million years. That’s long before there was a Platte River or a state called Nebraska.

There are six subspecies of sandhill cranes; three migrate, three do not. The lesser sandhill crane is the most numerous subspecies and the most common crane in the Platte River area. In fact, 80-90 percent of the world’s population migrates through the region. The birds winter in Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico, and use the Central Flyway to move from their wintering grounds to the Arctic, including Alaska, Canada and even eastern Siberia, where they breed and raise their young.


Mike and I have plenty of sandhill cranes where we live in Colorado. In fact, the San Luis Valley hosts an annual crane festival in March. That’s when 20,000 cranes drop into the valley to feed and rest before heading north. All except the non-migratory sandhill cranes nest in the north and winter in the south, making stops to feed and rest along the way.


While 20,000 cranes would be plenty for most folks, and it’s something we always observe, seeing the cranes during their migration along the Platte River in Nebraska was an adventure we had only dreamed about. Our dream
came true recently.


We made the journey in late March, when there are typically more than 500,000 sandhill cranes along the Platte River. While most of the cranes are of the lesser subspecies, there are some greater cranes (which are actually twice as heavy) and some Canadian (or intermediate) cranes as well.


Drive along the Platte River, any place from Kearney east to Grand Island, and you’re bound to see sandhills. The birds, with an average height of 3 to 5 feet and a wingspan of 5 to 6 feet, spend the night in the Platte River, so look for them flying over or roosting on the river at sunset and sunrise. The birds boast red skin on their foreheads and crowns, and adults have whitish cheek patches. During the day, the cranes are spread out across the area, usually within 5 miles of the Platte, where they feed in cornfields.


On average, an individual bird will spend about three weeks in the region, gaining about a pound of fat while they are there. Although the birds eat insect larvae, snails and earthworms, most of their Nebraska diet consists of corn. The cranes consume nearly 1,600 tons of corn during their stay. But they don’t do the farmers a disservice. Instead, they devour waste grain leftover from the fall harvest and help the farmers eradicate volunteer corn in the next season’s crop.


Spend enough time watching the cranes and you will undoubtedly see them dance. Pairs boogie to renew their bonds or establish new relationships. The birds mate for life, but if one partner dies the remaining partner will find a new mate. The couples perform elaborate displays whereby they bow with outstretched wings and leap into the air. Sandhill cranes do not reach sexual maturity until they are 3 to 5 years old; in the wild they can live to be more than 25 years old.


Once on their nesting grounds, the pair builds a ground nest and the female lays two eggs. Two chicks may hatch, but it is rare for both chicks to survive to 10 weeks when they fledge. The family stays together until the following spring when they leave the Platte River area. From then on, the youngster is on its own, destined to find a mate when it is 2 to 7 years old.


Kearney, a premier town with all amenities, is located 365 miles east of Denver and 186 miles west of Omaha. It’s a nice place to visit, especially for bird enthusiasts. Their motto, “Kearney is for the Birds,” is good news for the thousands of bird watchers who come from all over the world to witness the world’s largest concentration of cranes. In addition to cranes, there are other avian creatures to see. In the spring, thousands of shorebirds and waterfowl, including snow geese and greater white-fronted geese, pass through the area.


The cranes arrive every March and stay through early April. A popular place to view the cranes is the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary, located in the heart of this magnificent crane staging area. Visitors sign up for field trips to special viewing blinds, available at sunrise and sunset. You’ll walk a quarter to a half of a mile to the blind, either under the cover of darkness in the morning or in late afternoon for sunset, so the birds are unaware of your presence. The unheated blinds hold 26 to 32 people, and there are benches for resting. The charge is $25 per person, per trip.


The best option for serious enthusiasts and nature photographers are photo blinds set very close to major crane roosting sites. There’s no doubt, we had thousands of cranes landing within easy viewing of our blind; it’s normal for cranes to number up to 12,000 per half-mile.


But the weather is another issue. We had cloudy, flat light, in both the evening and the morning. But that part of photography is just luck. Being there among thousands of cranes is a fortunate thing; having superb light is part of the magic that you just can’t control. The weather can be cold and nasty in March and April. Three wooden blinds – 6 feet wide, 8 feet long, and 4 feet high – are available. Cost is $150, with a two-person limit. We ducked into our blind at 4 pm and were retrieved at 9 am the following day. Once inside the blind we couldn’t leave; buckets and bottles handled our waste. We spent the night in our sleeping bags and wore toasty down jackets when we were watching the birds. All multi-person and two-person blind tours are arranged through the Rowe Sanctuary. Call (308) 468-5282 or visit www.rowesanctuary.org for more information.


Although the title of this story is “Sleeping With Sandhill Cranes,” I actually never slept that night. Instead, I listened to the cranes call, I heard their wings as they flew overhead, and I watched them in the inky darkness, straining to see what they were doing. I also heard my husband snore most of the night; nothing keeps Mike awake. But in the end, I was the one who truly experienced what it’s like to be in the midst of a huge flock of sandhill cranes. And I still hear the birds calling me back for another sleepover.

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