The Call of the Cranes

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    Sandhill Cranes fly overhead at dusk near Kearney, Nebraska. Photo by Katherine Stahla

    Every year, more than six hundred thousand of North America’s strangest sounding birds make a pit stop on their annual flight north. Each spring marks the beginning of flyover season in Kearney, Nebraska, the self-declared Sandhill Crane Capital of the World.

    Kearney lies on the Platte River, which starts in the mountains of Colorado and Wyoming and flows through central Nebraska to join the Missouri river. Snowmelt west of Denver flows across Colorado’s eastern plains into the South Platte, while waters near Walden, Colorado and Casper, Wyoming make up the North Platte.

    What started as a fort quickly became a town and then a city now home to thirty thousand people and a branch of the University of Nebraska. While from the outside it might not look like a tourist trap, for birders there’s no better place to be from late February to early April.

    The Platte’s sandy banks and braided channel provide perfect nesting grounds for birds of all kinds as they migrate to northern Canada, Alaska, and even Siberia. Canada geese, sandhill cranes, and the endangered whooping cranes spend their days in central Nebraska’s copious corn fields, eating leftover grain to gain energy for the long flights ahead of them.

    But the real magic happens in the evenings. At sunset, thousands of birds make their way from the fields to the floodplain, calling out and roosting before a crowd of onlookers. Every morning, the birds wake up at sunrise to head back into the fields for another hard day’s work of building up stores to prepare for migration and mating.

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    Birders have a plethora of viewing areas to choose from. Permanent blinds and observation decks dot the plains of Buffalo county. An old railway bridge was even converted to a walkway that spans the Platte river.

    Geese and cranes are protected by treaties between the countries they call home, and the vital habitat on the Platte is being conserved by the states it runs through. 

    While Canada geese are ubiquitous, and there’s a sizable population of sandhill cranes, there are only around five hundred migratory whooping cranes. While cranes are protected from threats like over-hunting, droughts in the west and flooding in the east make life on the Platte more difficult for everyone — humans and birds alike. 

    As spring turns into summer and the cranes make their way ever further north, birders won’t descend to Kearney until next spring, when the next generation of birds arrives.

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