In late February and early March Sandhill Cranes begin their migration north from southern New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico. They pause along the way close to the Platte River in Kearney, Nebraska and in Colorado’s San Luis Valley. They stay in these areas for about 4 weeks, fattening up to prepare for the long trip north. Their eventual destinations are Canada, Alaska, and even Siberia. This process has been going on for thousands of years, way before man settled in the area.
The town of Kearney hosts a festival put on by the Audubon Society, and in 2017 I got to attend the festival. I participated in two photo-shoots, one in the early morning and one in the evening. There were approximately 420,000 cranes settled in along the Platte.
Both viewings were held at the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary. The first shoot was held at the break of dawn. We met at the Center and attended a short talk about the cranes. We then very quietly walked along the Platte river bank to a blind maintained by the Sanctuary. We were admonished to speak in whispers and turn off high speed continuous shooting on our cameras. Despite all the racket they make this would be enough to spook them and they would depart en masse.
The cranes were stirring but taking their time waking up. It’s almost a socialization hour for them. As the sun rose they became more and more active. Several of them would engage in a delightful hopping behavior that seemed to show their excitement about the new day. Soon they would take off in small groups or in whole flocks. There were so many of them that this lasted well into the morning, till the majority of them were up and out to find food.
The evening shoot was almost the exact reverse. We started off early, basically driving around the corn fields where the cranes like to snack on all sorts of stuff on the ground. For this reason local farmers wait to plant corn until after the cranes leave. It’s a nice way of learning to live with one another.
We then returned to the Sanctuary and again walked to the blind. As dusk crept in the cranes slowly started to fly and settle in along the river for the night. This became and extraordinary process that you can see in the photographs. First we had four birds hanging out on a sand bar on the Platte. Then 30 or 40 more. Then a few hundred more. And then thousands more. As the sky darkened they kept coming, and coming, and coming. I have never seen anything like it. It was an extraordinary experience, and I hope that I can return again.