Visitors to the area may want to view the annual spring migration of the Sandhill Cranes in the Grand Island and Kearney area. Eighty percent of the world’s population of Sandhill Cranes (nearly 600,000) make the hour glass migration to the Platte River valley, which is part of North America’s Central Flyway, for about six weeks every year from late February to early April. The Sandhill Cranes travel from their southern wintering grounds to northern breeding grounds in Canada, Alaska, and Siberia. In fact, this is the only place where all sub-species of Sandhill Cranes gather and co-mingle. The endangered whooping crane also travels through this route. The central Platte River is one of the whooping crane’s principal stopover sites on its 2,400-mile migration. The Platte River area is renowned by birding enthusiasts and Wildbird Magazine rated the area a Top 25 bird watching site.
The Sandhill Cranes usually begin arriving along the Platte in February and the numbers continue to climb until they peak in mid to late March. In early April most leave with a few stragglers remaining through early May. The area around the Platte River provides food and nutrients that sustain Sandhill cranes for the rest of migration and for nesting. While they are feeding and resting for about a month, their diet consists mainly of waste corn that they find in the fields after the harvest of the previous fall. This actually is a benefit to the farmers since they eat corn that would become volunteer corn in the next year’s crop. At dusk, the cranes gather along the broad, shallow waters of the Platte to roost for the night.
As the cranes feed in the adjacent corn fields, bird watchers will be treated to the dance of the Sandhill cranes. Pairs engage in elaborate bowing displays with outstretched wings and high leaps into the air. Although they usually mate and remain faithful for life, as partners die this area becomes an excellent opportunity for the cranes to find new mates due to the availability of potential partners in a small area. The best places to watch the majestic Sandhill Crane are located along the Platte River just off Interstate 80 at the Fort Kearney Bridge or around the Archway Museum in Kearney, Nebraska. The next best spot is the Audubon Rowe Sanctuary in Gibbon, Nebraska that has a crane cam to watch the migration of the cranes via the internet. Don’t forget the Crane Watch Festival this year that runs from March 22nd through March 31st with multiple events that can be viewed at cranewatchfestival.com. For guided tours that are not well publicized I would recommend contacting the Army Corp of Engineers office in Kearney, Nebraska to check the availability of University of Nebraska at Kearney student guided bird watching box rentals along the Platte River. If you have not witnessed this natural migration of the sandhill cranes this would be the time to make your reservations to visit the Platte River Basin around Kearney for Crane Watch 2013.