Trip Tips Index

The Great Crane Migration

By David Gjestson

The Central Flyway on the left contains the world's largest crane population of about one million birds! The Mississippi Flyway on the right contains about 40,000 sandhill cranes and is growing annually.

With almost one million sandhill cranes (and a few whooping cranes) migrating from Mexico and Texas north through Nebraska to their nesting grounds in Canada, Alaska and as far north as Siberia, the ideal environment offered by the braided Platte River and surrounding crop fields attracts virtually all of the migrants. In the spring, the fields are loaded with waste grain and the riverine habitat, free of predators and human disturbances, have attracted cranes for centuries in the spring each year.

My wife Laura and I have had the March date on our bucket list for years to see the largest crane migration in the world. We finally decided it was time and chose what the Internet said was peak time March 19-20. After researching the topic, we chose to use the Crane Trust located 30 minutes east of Kearney for morning blind reservations.

Because this road trip took nine and a half hours, I should mention we had stayed overnight in West Des Moines to relieve old muscles. After enduring very boring Iowa and Nebraska corn fields along with a constant line of semis, imagine our delightful surprise 10 minutes east of Kearney when we saw huge numbers of loafing cranes covering the 1/4-mile long shoreline of a shallow lake alongside I-80. I was confident there were at least 5,000 sandhill cranes in this gathering!

Thousands of cranes including several whooping cranes alongside I-80

After checking into our motel in Kearney, we stopped at the citys visitor center to identify the best crane viewing sites in the area to experience seeing the birds arriving at sunset. Nearby Fort Kearney Recreation Area, 20 minutes south of town seemed best, so we headed out after a quick supper. A $14 permit got us into the area about 45 minutes before the 7:40 sunset. The parking lot was jammed with cars along with the overflow area!

We had to walk north about 400 yards on a wide, cement trail to a bridge that offered a river view of arriving cranes. Numerous birders walked along with us and I guess there were easily 100 people crowded on and adjoining the bridge. As sunset approached, we learned why binoculars and spotting scopes were mandatory because the flights we saw were one-half to one mile distant! But what a sight as large flights came line after line until dark!

While we saw thousands of cranes east of us, our only reward
with the naked eye was sunset

The next morning, bolstered only by a cup of blah motel coffee, we drove 30 minute east on I-80 to check in with the Crane Trust by 5:45 a.m. We joined 38 other chattering birders and three guides for an indoctrination video about cranes and a lecture on procedures. Cell phone ringer off, cell screens dim, cell flashes off, no tripods allowed (no space in blinds), and no talking in the blind for obvious reasons.

We were all adjourned to our vehicles, instructed to put our flashers on, and follow our guides truck a mile south to the Crane Trusts entrance gate. We all gathered at the gate in silence in the dark while the guides passed out red-lensed flashlights to guide us about 200 yards to the blinds.

The blind was a pleasant surprise! With the wind and 35-degree temperature, we expected a cold in-the-weeds duck blind but found two, 8' x 50' enclosed structures with plexiglass windows facing the river. A two-tiered bleachers ran along the back wall for seating. Plush and comfortable! Each five foot segment of the plexiglass had 8 x 12 slot windows held closed by magnets that allowed us to open it to hear cranes and take pictures.

My view to our right.

My view to our left.

Our sunrise view was of 1,500 cranes 100 feet from the blind,
their primeval sounds holding us spellbound!

With cranes east of us and across the marsh,
our guide estimated 30,000 cranes were roosting here

Our two and a half hours in the blind passed all to quickly as Canada geese, ducks and a bald eagle trying to catch ducks provided nice bonuses to our stay. Our guide told us how lucky we were because we were the first group that had cranes sitting in front of the blind! Oh boy! How disappointing it would have been if we could only have seen cranes through our binoculars!

As we walked back to our cars, we could finally talk out loud about the fantastic experience we just witnessed. We went back to the visitor center for a few souvenirs and were soon on the road back.

Leaving the blind and walking to our cars

Those planning a crane watching trip in the future are encouraged to read what the Internet has to offer and to pick the brains of friends who have been there. The March window is probably the best time and mid-to-late March the best. Take note that none of the private groups offering viewing opportunities guarantee that you will see large number of cranes close up.

Sound fun? Start planning your trip now! (Feel free to email me at for information or talk to me at the ARC luncheon.)

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