THIS BIRDING LIFE: Sandhill Cranes Blanketing the Sky & Land

Story and photo by Budd Titlow

A pair of Sandhill cranes feeding in a marshy wetland. © Budd Titlow

A pair of sandhill cranes feeding in a marshy wetland. © Budd Titlow

The brisk spring air was punctuated by a gusty wind as I stood in breathless anticipation beside the main gates. Once inside, we stealthily crept up the steps of the permanent wooden blind where we could see silhouettes of thousands of birds blanketing the riverbed’s shallow channels and naked sandbars.

The world’s oldest surviving bird species, the sandhill crane still appears curiously archaic. With legs dangling and bent in an awkward landing posture, and neck and wings extended, it is reminiscent of the ancient pterodactyl, the extinct flying reptile. Fossilized remains of the sandhill have been found in Nebraska sediments dating from the Lower Pliocene, some nine million years ago. This has led scientists to theorize that today’s sandhill crane has remained unchanged since that long-ago epoch.

In the United States, one of the prime places to see sandhills is along central Nebraska’s Platte River. Perhaps skeptical of its value, early plains explorers wrote of this river: “It flows a mile wide, an inch deep, and sometimes not at all.” This is still true today, and as such, makes the Platte ideal habitat for the masses of sandhill cranes—up to five hundred thousand birds—that stop and refuel before taking off again on the second leg of their thousand-mile migration between wintering habitat in the southern United States and nesting grounds in Canada’s high Arctic.

During a typical spring day on the Platte, the sandhills leave the broad floodplain just after sunrise and head out into the abundant adjacent cornfields to gorge themselves on leftover grain. While in the fields, groups of cranes put on quite a show—their famous courtship routine known as “crane dancing.” During the dance, male sandhills do everything possible to impress the females, including leaping, bowing, and swirling in pirouettes in midair like ballet dancers. Then, just before sunset, they return en masse to roost for the night in the middle of the Platte’s broad, sheltering channel. It is during these early-morning and late-afternoon mass migrations that the sandhill crane spectacle reaches its crescendo.

As I stood in the blind in the Platte River’s Rowe Audubon Sanctuary, intently watching the floodplain show before me as small clusters of sandhills lifted off on ungainly wings. Then, drifting lazily in the gathering dawn light they used a variety of trilling and rattling calls—kar-r-r-r-o-o-o, kar-r-r-r-o-o-o, kar-r-r-r-o-o-o—trying to coax their earthbound brethren to join them in the air. But the vast majority of the birds opted to remain within the security of the river until after sunrise.

Almost at the exact moment that the sun’s orange-pink orb first appeared on the horizon, dawn’s quiet hush was replaced by a thunderous flapping of thousands of giant wings as the roosting birds all rose as one. As I stood in amazement, chevron after chevron after chevron of these massive birds crisscrossed the sky, practically blocking out the sun and creating an unparalleled cacophony of sight and sound.

As Nebraska naturalist/writer Jon Farrar wrote in his book Crane River, “Once man sensed a kinship with the river and its cranes and marked his own time by their comings. Today, a civilized world rushes by the river and its cranes, heedless of the flocks overhead. But for those who still listen for such things, the call of the sandhill cranes means that spring has come again to the Platte.”

Unfortunately, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service now lists the sage grouse as a “candidate species” for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act. The primary reason for the decline of this species is the wholesale loss of its high plains habitat throughout much of its native range.

About Budd Titlow

A Professional Wetland Scientist (Emeritus) and Wildlife Biologist, Budd Titlow is also an international/national award-winning nature photographer and a widely-published writer/author currently living in Tallahassee, Florida. Throughout his career, Budd has shared his love of photography and nature by presenting seminars, workshops, and field trips Nationwide. He has also authored four books: PROTECTING THE PLANET—Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change (ISBN 978-1633882256), BIRD BRAINS—Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends (ISBN 978-0-7627-8755-5), SEASHELLS—Jewels from the Ocean (ISBN 978-0-7603-2593-3), and ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK—Beyond Trail Ridge (ISBN 0-942394-22-4). Budd’s work is featured on his web site (www.buddtitlow.com). He is currently writing a weekly series of birding photo-essays for the Tallahassee Democrat, teaching ecology-birding-photography workshops for Florida State University and the Tallahassee Senior Center, and serving as President-Elect of Apalachee Audubon Society.