The Great Nebraska Migration of Sandhill Cranes and the Birders Who Love Them

Every spring, “craniacs” from around the world flock to Kearney, Nebraska, to see the sandhill cranes. One burgeoning birder learns what it means to fit in.

The Great Nebraska Migration of Sandhill Cranes and the Birders Who Love Them

Have sandhill crane—will travel.

Photo by Alexandra Marvar

I roll into Kearney, Nebraska, in the pitch dark and hop out of my rental Buick at the Best Western Plus. I’m greeted first by a smell on the wind: the striking, wild, pungent attestation of livestock farming. It’s fantastic. I’m here.

It’s spring, and the sandhill cranes are making their annual journey north along the Central Flyway from southern Texas up into the northern reaches of Canada. For a couple weeks, these three- to four-foot-tall wading birds will take an intermission along this 75-mile stretch of Nebraska’s Platte River to stock up on food—remnants of last year’s corn harvest—and roost by night in massive numbers in the river’s shallow waters.

The cranes, which can be easily spotted by their silver-feathered, ruby-crowned plumage, lift off in the thousands each morning, spend their days in the nearby cornfields, and then return again at dusk. The oldest sandhill crane ever recorded, tagged in Colorado and last seen in New Mexico, would have, at 37 years old, made this journey more than 70 times. Generations of its forebears made it for 10,000 years.

This all means it’s time for another migration, too: Each spring, Kearney and other Platte River Valley communities get an influx of human visitors. They flock from around the world, and more than double the number of cars on the road each weekend, just to see the cranes. These birders—affectionately known as “craniacs”—well outnumber Kearney’s population of around 33,000 locals. Their passion (and economic impact) prompted officials in 2010 to dub the city “The Sandhill Crane Capital of the World,” and now signs of the rebranding are everywhere; downtown is decked out with crane-themed street art. Hotel hallways are plastered with canvas prints of cranes in flight. Giant silver cranes usher along passersby making their way under the Kearney Archway on I-80. Crane photos cover a wall at neighboring town Gibbon’s new coffee shop, Rise & Grind.

I first picked up my binoculars in the fall of 2020, obsessing over ducks and shore birds visible from my office window—a passion since pursued somewhat antisocially. So I leap at a chance to be surrounded by other birders and maybe learn a little something. Where better than here, now?

A few minutes after 5:00 that next morning, the Best Western lobby is wide awake. Septuagenarians, looking like they were plucked from the pages of an L.L. Bean catalog, are busy pumping breakfast bar coffee into their thermoses, giddy for the sunrise ahead. These are my people.

We all embark on our separate journeys from the hotel out into the still-dark dirt roads outside of Kearney, and I see several of the same faces a half hour later, 15 miles down east at the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary, where this morning’s guided crane viewing experience is about to begin. Volunteers address a small sea of dark-colored puffer jackets—a couple dozen people ready to brave 90-ish minutes outside in 34-degree weather. The first 45 will be in relative darkness and total silence, ensuring we’ll already be in prime crane viewing position when the sun rises.

About a quarter after 6:00, we shuffle out silently—excepting the swishing of the puffer jackets. All huddled together, we proceed like an awkward caterpillar toward the low, wide banks of the Platte. There’s a tall plywood wall obstructing 100 percent of our view of the river—and more importantly, the river’s view of us. At the end of the wall, an ADA-compliant ramp leads into an enclosed room with heaters, and beyond that, there’s a long porch with views out onto the marsh. Rowe completed four of these new bird blinds—what they call “discovery stations”—just before the crane migration of 2020, in response to rising visitor demand. They are purpose-built for this exact excursion: sneaking up on the birds.

In the bird blind, bright colors, talking, and cell phone screen light are verboten until the sun is up. It’s hard to believe our group of around 15 people could manage to spook the nearby cranes over the unholy noises they’re making—some calls like the guttural croak of a bullfrog, others higher pitched, hysterical, layered thousands of times over, like a scene from Jurassic Park. As the sun rises, the volume does too.

Birders eagerly begin filling bird blinds before the sun rises to snag a good vantage point.

Birders eagerly begin filling bird blinds before the sun rises to snag a good vantage point.

Photo by Alexandra Marvar

6:42 a.m. Patty Geist, a Rowe volunteer and an employee of Visit Kearney, appears beside me in the blind. “You can see, in silhouette, the islands—they’re just covered,” she whispers, pointing to the sandbars.

6:56 a.m. It’s light enough to see them now, so it’s official: We’re bird-watching. Anything that looked like land is, yes, mostly cranes, with seven-foot wingspans and big personalities.

7:05 a.m. Black smoke appears on the horizon in ripples. It’s cranes. “Do you see the dark cloud?” Geist points at the horizon. “They’re starting to get active.”

With a view miles down the river, we could be looking at 100,000 birds. Maybe more. I glance around for someone to share my drop-jawed wonder. Other birders are peering through their binoculars, observing crane behavior. I follow suit. Am I doing it right?

Geist directs my attention to some details she loves: a crane bouncing up and down in the water as if on a trampoline to claim his space; mating pairs calling in unison. She’s always looking for specific behaviors—her favorites, or ones she hasn’t seen before.

A Nebraska native, Geist loves the cranes because she loves the Platte River. “Man wants to manage the river for man’s needs,” she says—needs like recreation, irrigation, and hunting. The cranes almost serve as a barometer for the ecosystem. A dam in the 1970s was partially constructed before crane advocates fought and managed to kill the project. However, plenty of threats still persist: debates roil over development or pollution from fertilizers.

Even invasive plant species, like the insidious phragmites, absorb water and usurp the riverbed, propelling habitat loss. “It’s no longer ‘a mile wide and an inch deep,’” she says of the Platte River. “It used to all be open. Not anymore.” The cranes are a critical part of its ecosystem, she adds, and they’re bound to its health. As long as the cranes are thriving, the river will, too.

But for Alyx Vogel, a local and, for the past five years, an outreach specialist at the Crane Trust Nature & Visitor Center 35 miles northeast of Kearney, there’s just something magical about the cranes themselves. The 10,000-acre property gets millions of migrating ducks and geese, she says, but they don’t make the same splash with outsiders. “They’re majestic, awe-inspiring,” she says. “In a lot of cultures, cranes are revered. They can mean longevity. In Japanese culture, they carry your spirit.”

“Man wants to manage the river for man’s needs.”

Photographer Mike Tupper agrees there is plenty of inspiration to be gleaned. He and his wife first started coming from Boulder, Colorado, to see the cranes in central Nebraska more than a decade ago. Last year, he started volunteering at Rowe, where he says he and his fellow volunteers put in weeks of 12-hour days that start at 5:00 a.m.—and some are still around to catch the cranes’ return at dusk.

“They do it with a great attitude and great gusto and great interest,” Tupper says of the volunteers. “And they’re not all conservationists. People from all backgrounds come with a common interest. I liken that to the birds,” he adds of gracefully navigating differences. “We could learn something from them there.”

After coffee at Rise & Grind and some ogling of cranes in cornfields, I chat with a few photographers from Minnesota and Utah. I opt to get lunch at what I expect will be a Kearney cultural and culinary touchstone and find instead a massive sports bar with 20 seats, 24 television screens, and no craniacs in sight. I hear from birders at Rowe—and the nice girl behind the desk at the Best Western—that the hike/bike trail bridge at Fort Kearny State Recreation Area, next to the state historical park, is a prime location for the big sunset swoop.

When I head over early to check it out, I meet Gene Hunt, the Fort Kearny State Historical Park superintendent, who’s worked there for nearly half a century. During crane season, he stays especially busy: The state park brings in as much admissions revenue in six to eight weeks as it does in the rest of the year combined. We talk about the history of Fort Kearny, the lives of the pioneers, and we talk about the wind. It’s picking up this afternoon, and that’s not unusual, he tells me. In fact, homesteaders’ wives were said to have been driven to madness by it.

“The unrelenting wind,” he says. And after pausing for a moment he continues. “The loneliness, the hard work, the grasshoppers, blizzards . . .” First and foremost, though, it was the wind, and this evening on the hike/bike bridge, I get a taste of the madness.

Cranes hold a special significance in several cultures across the world—in Chinese mythology, they're a symbol of longevity.

Cranes hold a special significance in several cultures across the world—in Chinese mythology, they’re a symbol of longevity.

Photo by Alexandra Marvar

With recent retirees from Iowa (who spotted two whooping cranes this morning!), would-be state park campers from Lincoln (whose tent won’t stay staked in the gales), and road-trippers from Los Angeles (who were not warned about the wind), I huddle on the bridge. A woman tells me, through her dust-induced tears, about Lillian Rowe, a psychologist for the U.S. Army and an expert in parrot behavior for whom the Audubon sanctuary is named. A man picks up his tiny dog, which is being buffeted so violently by the gusts it might take flight. His hands are occupied and his hat sails into the trees.

My eyes are watering too, probably from the dirt, but possibly because I am getting sad watching other people wait, all full of hope, while being pushed around in the 40-plus-mile-per-hour gusts. What if they, like a man I met earlier from Ontario, Canada, only have this one last evening to see this big event? What if we’ve all gambled wrong? What if this isn’t the spot to see the cranes tonight? I buckle and leave the craniacs on the bridge behind me. I’ll try the viewing platform eight miles away near Rowe Sanctuary, just in case.

On my way, leaves and corn husks whip like ghosts across the road in my headlights. I’m the only car on this dirt-paved thoroughfare, and I slow to a crawl to watch what’s unfolding overhead. Suddenly, the cranes are everywhere, filling the dusty, dark purple sky. Cacophonous and almost overwhelming, they’re riding the wind back to the river for the night, in black waves. Cornfields and dust and wind and cranes.

I make it to my destination, but all the real birders have gone. The parking lot is deserted. I walk out on the wooden platform, bitter cold wind threatening to push me over, and hear the flock on the water just a couple dozen feet away. It’s too dark to hardly make out their silhouettes, but after watching the sun rise on them this morning, I can tell they’re there.

If the craniacs all gather at the same restaurant each evening, I haven’t managed to learn it. And considering the early mornings, I suspect I’ll have the town to myself again tonight. But I stay hopeful. Back in downtown Kearney, I park in front of a big cranes-in-flight mural on the wall of a carpet store. A man pulls in next to me and lumbers across the street to the Playpen Lounge. Those probably aren’t my people. I opt for the local brew pub—it has a crane sculpture in the window.

The dining room is virtually empty and brightly lit. I have a pub pizza and a pale ale, wallowing in exhaustion, but glowing from the crane sighting on the road. I have grit on my face and in my teeth. I smell like dirt. Sifting through the pamphlets I’d found at Rowe 15 hours earlier, I come across a button I picked up. It reads “Certified Craniac.” I pin it to my jacket pocket and ask for the check.

>>Next: Go on Safari From Your Living Room—and Become a Conservationist, Too

Alexandra Marvar is a freelance writer and photographer based in New England. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Believer, and Vanity Fair.
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