Crane Migration at Rowe Sanctuary: Where People and Birds Intersect

An Audubon staffer reflects on her experience volunteering at Rowe Sanctuary during crane season—from seeing more than a half a million Sandhill Cranes to meeting the people who make the month-long celebration happen.

Although I’ve been a birder for nearly two decades, nothing had prepared me for experiencing a Sandhill Crane migration along Nebraska’s Platte River, one of the largest wildlife migrations on Earth. But there I was, trying to take in the sound of intense bugle calls and countless feathers flapping, combined with the sight of flock after flock of cranes flying overhead and crane dances and fights unfolding on the river. Within minutes of watching my first sunset against a backdrop of cranes, I knew that photos and videos were just a small taste of what it feels like being within feet of this incredible migration.

But I wasn’t there just to crane watch. I had traveled through wind, storms, and a blizzard to volunteer for a week during crane season at the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary as part of Audubon’s job share program. What I encountered was not only over half a million cranes but also a group of passionate volunteers who traveled far and wide to share their love of these magnificent creatures with others.

Though not as extensive as they are today, crane tours have been held at Rowe Sanctuary since the 1970s. Now crane season lasts about a month, from March to April. Throughout the past 50 years, volunteers have been an integral part of the center and, within the past decade, have made the season what it is today.

“Crane season wouldn’t happen without the volunteers,” says Amanda Hegg, Rowe Sanctuary’s senior conservation associate who took on an interim role of managing the 2024 volunteer program. She points out that the center hosts nearly 200 visitors participating in crane tours each day. “So we need a lot more people than just the staff at Rowe to make that happen in a responsible way for the cranes.”

It was clear to me that this was the case after participating in this year’s cohort at Rowe. In the months leading up to arriving at the Sanctuary, we joined training to ensure we were prepared to take on various roles. Once we began volunteering, most of our days started well before sunrise, waking up before the cranes to lead morning tours filled with bird lovers and photographers to bird blinds along the river. We answered crane behavior questions and ensured our groups didn’t disturb the birds as they awoke and prepared to take off in unison to feed in the nearby fields.

Midday shifts were filled with interacting with guests on the trails—telling them about Rowe’s work to conserve and restore the Platte River—along with cleaning, answering calls, preparing for photographers to stay in overnight blinds on the river, filling gift shop orders, and assisting with other tasks that supported day-to-day operations. When evening came around, we welcomed and led guests on sunset tours to watch the cranes prepare to roost.

While meeting other volunteers and sharing what led us here, a common theme arose—most of them weren’t local. In fact, of the 80 to 90 volunteers Rowe receives during crane season, around 70 of them are not from the area, Hegg confirms.

Some are fairly new to the crane migration experience, like wife and husband Diane and Tom Anderson who knew nothing about the spectacle of crane season just three years ago. But after an overnight photography blind experience at Rowe, they were hooked and have continued to make the trek from Minnesota to volunteer.

Others are veteran crane lovers, like Jane Adams who counts the species as her spark bird and has been traveling to Rowe from California for eight years. Her reason for coming back? “Just seeing people’s faces when they see the birds for the fly-in…their eyes get really big, some people’s jaws drop…and they just look at you with such awe [on] their face.”

For Pamela Bergmann—a recurrent volunteer and a stewardship board member—her first introduction to the Sandhill Cranes at Rowe was in 2010 while watching a documentary. She wanted to experience it for herself and flew from Alaska to attend both a morning and evening tour—and, in turn, was awestruck. “The cranes pierced my soul and stole my heart,” she recalls fondly. “And it was such an amazing spectacle that I had to come back to volunteer.” Now she works to further Rowe’s mission and encourages others to spend migration season volunteering at the Sanctuary.

Since out-of-towners make up the majority of their volunteers, the Sanctuary provides housing for them. “We’re trying to lower the barrier for people being able to help out,” says Hegg. “We want it to be a good experience that everyone can have access to.” 

Sharing a house and a love of these cranes also encourages the volunteers to bond, as many spend at least a week or more together. They socialize during their free time and even take turns cooking dinners for the group. “We’ve developed friendships that are lasting beyond being here at Rowe,” says Adams.

Of course, local volunteers are vital to the program as many of them help year-round. Anthony J. Santoyo lives 40 minutes from Rowe and has been commuting daily on long weekends during crane season for more than a decade. He’s inspired by Rowe’s dedication to conserve the Platte River habitat for the cranes and other wildlife.

As my week at Rowe drew to an end, I was once again watching the cranes at sunset as huge flocks of them landed close to our blind. This time a group of college students joined our tour. The volunteers were right—seeing the students experience this migration for the first time as they stared in awe was an incredible feeling.

I’m hopeful that they will be spurred to protect these birds and inspire the next generation to do the same—and I’m reminded of how the Sandhill Crane migration season at Rowe is a prime example of one of the incredible ways that people and birds intersect.

As Santoyo says, “Not only do the Sandhill Cranes migrate through here—they also bring a migration of people from all over the world…they migrate through the [Central Flyway] hourglass as the cranes do.”

Will you join this migration, too?

To learn how you can volunteer with Rowe Sanctuary during Sandhill Crane migration season and beyond, visit their website.