By Sarah Kuta
Special to The Denver Post
I am cruising the gravel roads just south of Interstate 80 in Nebraska with my parents when suddenly I spot them: a mass of leggy grey birds with dark red foreheads standing among the short rows of harvested corn. My dad, who graciously agreed to chauffeur us around on this chilly March day, pulls off on the side of the road.
As we gather our binoculars and quietly clamber out of the Jeep, a few sandhill cranes stretch their wings and nervously hop forward. A few others, apparently unperturbed by our presence, continue bending over to eat kernels left in the field. It’s nearing sunset, which means the birds will soon head back to the safety of the Platte River to roost for the night.
We stand there for a few minutes, snapping photos and gazing through our binoculars, when the cranes begin to take off. A few small groups lead the way, but within minutes, hundreds — maybe thousands — of cranes take to the sky, making their visceral, other-worldly vocalizations all at once.
I’m lucky to have grown up in central Nebraska, the site of the world’s largest migration of cranes, so making the halfday drive back home to see them every spring is an easy, annual tradition. (And I’m in good company, it seems: Jane Goodall, the renowned anthropologist and primatologist, also regularly visits for the migration.)
But this quick road trip to see one of nature’s greatest spectacles should be on every Coloradan’s bucket list, whether you consider yourself a birder or not. Here’s how to make the trip.
Why the cranes flock to Nebraska
Every February, March and April, more than a million sandhill cranes pass through Nebraska’s Platte River Valley as they journey north to their nesting grounds in Canada and Alaska.
They spend three to four weeks resting and refueling along the river, which is brimming with caloriedense invertebrates and leftover field corn. The cranes gain 20% of their body weight while visiting central Nebraska, according to Brice Krohn, president of the Crane Trust, a nonprofit in Wood River working to conserve and protect this stretch of the Platte for cranes and other migratory birds.
“Our area is a stopover spot in the spring migration where the sandhill cranes gather for the longest period of time,” he said. “They come and stay because of the wet meadows adjacent to the Platte River. It provides exceptional habitat for them.”
The cranes visit other places, too, as they head north — Colorado’s San Luis Valley, for instance — but the sheer number that congregate in Nebraska makes this region unique. They don’t all stop at once, but at the height of the season in March, there are 300,000 to 500,000 birds fattening up together along the river. Other birds also stop in the Cornhusker State every spring, including several species of geese and ducks and the endangered whooping crane.
How to experience the migration
Sandhill cranes are large, tall birds (they stand 3 to 4 feet tall and have nearly 7-foot wingspans) and they gather in big groups, so they’re very easy to observe with the naked eye. For an even closer look, bring a pair of binoculars or a camera with a zoom lens. Krohn also recommends bringing a sketch pad or journal for jotting down thoughts or drawing the birds.
You can spot the cranes within a few miles of the Platte River between North Platte (a four-hour drive from Denver) and Grand Island (a six-hour drive). I-80 parallels the river, so exiting the interstate and driving north or south for a few minutes is a good way to find the birds.
Cranes spend much of the day in cornfields on either side of the river, then they return to the water to sleep.
Around sunrise and sunset, your best bet is to head to the Platte River. There are designated public viewing areas along the water, but you can also stop elsewhere (just be sure not to trespass on private property and park/walk safely).
Nebraska tends to be more humid and overcast than Colorado, and the weather can change by the minute, so wear layers and be prepared for chilly temperatures. Keep your distance from the cranes and never try to approach them.
And don’t just look at the birds — listen to them as well. They make a loud trilling sound that’s often described as bugling and, when thousands of cranes are all calling at once, it’s impressive and awe-inspiring.
“It just vibrates your soul, it really does,” said Krohn. “It’s an unforgettable sound once you sit and enjoy it. It’s wonderful to be immersed in it.”
For a more structured experience, book a tour with the Crane Trust (cranetrust.org or 308-3821820), which offers group viewing sessions led by a guide. The trust’s indoor visitor center in Wood River also has an interactive map, photographs, art and taxidermy specimens of cranes and other birds. Outside, there are 10 miles of trails to explore and a small research herd of bison.
The 1,447-acre Iain Nicol-son Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary in Gibbon (rowe.audubon.org or 308468-5285) also offers guided crane-viewing experiences, including some focused on photography. The sanctuary also offers a one-hour workshop about crane behavior every day during the migration season.
If you can’t make the trip to Nebraska this year, both organizations offer virtual crane tours, in which you’ll be able to view a livestream video of the cranes and hear insights from a guide.
You can also book sandhill crane and prairie chicken tours near North Platte with the company Dusty Trails (dustytrails.biz or 308-530-0048). Next year, you’ll be able to travel to Nebraska with other birders on trips led by Colorado-based guides with Reefs to Rockies, a wildlifefocused travel company (reefstorockies.com or 303-- 860-6045).
Extend your trip
And if you’ve seen enough of the cranes, there are plenty of other ways to beef up your road trip. Take a trip back in time to the year 1891 at the Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer, a 200-acre living history museum in Grand Island with homes, businesses, exhibits and historic interpreters. Visit the Hastings Museum in nearby Hastings to learn about pre-historic Nebraska and the invention of Kool-Aid, which was developed here in 1927.
In Kearney, check out more than 200 vehicles at the Classic Car Collection and consider what life was like for Overland Trail adventurers and Pony Express riders in the mid-1800s at Fort Kearny State Historical Park.
Enjoy a runza, a Nebraska-born “sandwich” stuffed with ground beef and spices (and be sure to ask for extra ranch for dipping). Sip a flight at Prairie Pride Brewing Co., Kinkaider Brewing Co. and other breweries leading the state’s burgeoning craft beer scene.
Bask in the lack of light pollution and go stargazing. Bring your camera and take stunning sunrise or sunset shots.
“Take some extra time and get off the beaten path,” Krohn said. “There’s a lot of diversity here not only in the migratory birds you can see but also the landscape.”
Sarah Kuta is a freelance writer in Longmont.