Each spring over a half million Sandhill Cranes congregate on Nebraska’s Platte River. Like the migration of wildebeest in Africa and the march of the penguins in Antarctica, the seasonal movement of these graceful birds is a spectacular nature show. As bird watching soars in popularity across North America, Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary near Kearney helps people witness this phenomenon. From March 7-April 8, the Audubon Sanctuary will offer daily field trips with expert guides, plus blinds that allow you to photograph the cranes fairly close.
David Yarnold, President and CEO of the National Audubon Society, recounts his visit to Kearny last year: “When they took off at dawn-- twenty thousand of them--it was just deafening and made the hair on my arms stand up! So if I do have a sound in my soul now, it’s the Sandhill Cranes.”
Under Yarnold’s leadership, Audubon is aligning its conservation work along migratory flyways, the “superhighways in the sky” that millions of birds travel each spring and fall.
“Flyways transcend geographical and political boundaries,” he said. “They give us a literal birds-eye view of environmental issues and trends, and help direct our work. Sometimes this leads us to hands-on restoration, like keeping Nebraska’s Platte River vital for the Sandhill Cranes.”
The Platte River Valley is the most important stopover on the Sandhills’ long migration north from Texas, Oklahoma or Mexico. The region is so vital to birds that it has been designated an Important Bird Area of global significance.
Beyond the photogenic spectacle, the sound of the crane inspired naturalist Aldo Leopold to write “We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution.” With a trachea shaped like a saxophone, Sandhill Cranes emit a fantastic melodic chorus that carries for over a mile. Their courtship display is a dance of hops, leaps and bows.
“It is an amazing sight to see and hear, and it’s available for everyone,” said Bill Taddicken, Director of the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary. “But the annual return of Sandhill Cranes depends on all of us, protecting the Platte River and the environment we share with these great birds, up and down their flyway.”
Wetlands along the Platte River have been adversely affected by dams and drought, but the Audubon team works year round to restore this key destination for 10 million migrating birds, which also includes Snow Geese, Hooded Mergansers and Whooping Cranes.
Events include sunset and sunrise visits to blinds along the Platte River.
These guided tours are approximately two hours in length and there is a fee of $25/person. Reservations are recommended: tel 308-468-5282.
Additional programs March 7 – April 8
Cranes 101 (daily at 9 a.m. & 2 p.m.) – Introductory program on Sandhill cranes and the spring migration.
Crane Behavior Workshop (Saturdays) – An in depth look at crane behavior.
Family Crane Carnival, March 24, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. – Everything you want to know about cranes in a fun, family atmosphere. Jeff Kurrus, Associate Editor of NEBRASKAland Magazine, will be here to sign his new children’s book called Have You Seen Mary?.
Guest Speaker, March 18 at 1 p.m. – Hank Lentfer, author of Faith of Cranes: Finding Hope and Family in Alaska, will join us to discuss how cranes inspire people wherever they are found. A life-long Alaskan, Hank Lentfer is a writer, gardener, fisherman, and a father living in a remote coastal village. He is the steward of a 4,000 acre preserve established to protect a stop-over for migrating Sandhills cranes.
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Crane Fact Sheet
Cranes are among the oldest living birds on the planet. Fossil records place cranes in Nebraska more than nine million years ago, long before there was a Platte River, which by comparison, is a youthful 10,000 years of age.
Here are some quick facts about Sandhill Cranes.
Height: 3 to 4 feet
Weight: 6 to 12 pounds
Wingspan: 6 to 7 feet
Lifespan: 20 to 40 years
Diet: Cranes are omnivorous and their diet varies depending on the season and where they are. The cranes that visit the Platte River Valley feed primarily on grain left in corn fields, which makes up 90% of their diet while here. The other 10% comes from plant and animal foods found in wet meadows adjacent to the river. Seeds, fleshy tubers of plants, grubs, earth worms, snails, amphibians, small reptiles and rodents are all fair game.
Color: Adult is gray with a red crown (bald patch of skin); juvenile is browner overall and has a feathered crown
Subspecies: There are at least five subspecies of Sandhill Cranes, possibly six depending on who you ask. Migratory subspecies include the lesser, greater, and according to some, the Canadian Sandhill Crane. Non-migratory subspecies are the Florida, Mississippi and Cuban Sandhill Crane.
Flight speed & distance: 25 - 35 mph; cranes typically travel 200 - 300 miles in a day, but can reach 500 miles with a good tail wind. When southerly winds start to blow in late March and early April along the Platte, you will see cranes testing these winds for flight conditions. Cranes ride thermals so efficiently that Sandhills have been seen over Mt. McKinley, and Siberian Cranes over Mt. Everest (~28,000 feet).
Nesting: For migratory populations, nesting begins early April to late May. Nests are usually low mounds of vegetation located in wetlands, but are occasionally located in uplands. The female typically lays two eggs, with incubation lasting 29 - 32 days.
Sandhill Cranes and the Platte River
Sandhill Cranes have been found as far north as Alaska and Eastern Siberia. In order to reach these destinations, cranes must build up enough energy to complete their long journey, and to begin breeding. The Platte River provides the perfect spot to rest, and the nearby farmlands and wet meadows offer an abundance of food. Without the energy gained along the Platte, cranes might arrive at their breeding grounds in a weakened condition -- where food may be limited until the spring growing season begins.
The Platte River region has a variety of habitats that support cranes. The most important is the Platte River itself. The river is very shallow and sandbars dot the channels. It is here the cranes rest at night, gaining protection from predators like coyotes.
In the morning, cranes shuffle up and down the river waiting for the sun to pop up over the horizon. As the sun rises, cranes head out to feed and loaf in the surrounding fields. During the day, cranes do their display "dance" to relieve the stress of migration and strengthen pair bonds. Cranes are very social birds and in the evening, congregate in wet meadows before heading back to the river for the night.
A crane's bill is very sharp and sturdy, useful when probing frozen soil. The edges are serrated to grasp slippery food. Not only is it used for preening, it is also used as a weapon.
When a crane is threatened, it will use its wings to maintain its balance and then jump up and strike at the attacker with its feet.
Cranes can stay warm while standing in near-freezing water by constricting blood vessels in their feet. Arteries and vessels in their legs are right next to each other so the colder blood is warmed before it reaches the body.
Backgrounder: See this 2003 Audubon magazine report on the migration http://www.audubonmagazine.org/features0503/cranes.html
See video http://youtube.com/watch?v=3C77NLSiU-o