Nebraska's sandhill crane migration in March gets a lot of attention from birdwatchers and the general public alike. It truly is one of the world's grandest wildlife spectacles: once experienced, the sight and sounds of thousands of cranes together is never forgotten.
Not surprisingly, we at the nature center receive a lot of questions about the cranes and the migration. Here, we'll try to address some of more common. At the top of the list is this one:
When is the best time to see the cranes? We dedicated an entire post to answering this query -- see here.
I see you offer tours to see cranes. Tell me about these. What happens? Our guided tours are designed to get you as close to the cranes as possible without disturbing them. Participants meet at the nature center; a staff member gives a 20-minute orientation before participants are divided into separate groups (if needed) for the viewing blind and weekend evening footbridge tours. Afterwards, we head out to our separate crane-viewing spots, where we view the cranes for approximately two hours.
What's the difference between the blind and footbridge tours? The viewing blind is an enclosed, unheated structure along the main channel of the Platte River. Reaching it requires caravaning in your own vehicles plus a walk of up to 1/2 mile over rough terrain. Blind tour participants come and go as a group so as to minimize disturbance. Blind tours are offered both morning and evening, corresponding to when the birds leave and enter the river, often in large groups.
The viewing location for the weekend evening footbridge tour is a footbridge crossing a smaller channel of the Platte just south of the center, about a 1/3 mile walk along a handicapped-accessible trail. The bridge is not enclosed, so you are exposed to the elements. Here, you can watch the cranes land onto the prairie just south of the bridge, then onto the sandbars within the channel for the night. Footbridge tour participants may leave whenever desired, but may not return after doing so. These tours are offered weekend evenings only.
Which tour gives a better look? Both are capable of excellent views, depending on the individual tour.
Do you guarantee I'll see lots of cranes if I take a tour? The vast majority of tours are loaded with great looks. But nature being what it is, things can and do happen. For example, sometimes an eagle makes a flyover and frightens the birds off the roost. A very cold winter can delay the migration, making early-season viewing somewhat risky. The river habitat itself changes from season to season, so a location that was great one year may be less so the next (and vice-versa). We do our best to find locations where cranes are roosting.
What about these photographic blinds? These are private blinds placed to give the ultimate crane experience -- you might find yourself literally amongst the cranes! Since an overnight stay is required, photographic blinds are for the hardcore crane viewer only. Contact us for more details.
Can't I see the cranes for free? You can drive back roads during the day, when the cranes are feeding in cornfields. Stop by the nature center and we'll let you know where to look and which roads to avoid (as many roads here are gravel, which can become muddy messes when snow melts or rain falls).
At least three public crane-viewing spots are located along the river to watch the birds come in during the evening. These can be good viewing locations, but since the birds can see you, they won't land as close compared to the viewing blind locations. Nonetheless, these are good options, particularly for families with young children.
Speaking of which, I see you don't allow children under 12 on guided tours. Why not? Experience has shown us that most small children cannot tolerate the outdoor conditions these tours encounter--cold, wind etc.--for extended periods. If you have an especially interested young birder in your family or group, take him/her to one of the public viewing spots.
Should I pre-register for tours, or just show up? Crane tours during the last two weeks of March can fill well in advance, especially on weekends. Outside of that, spots are often, but not always, available for walk-ins. We strongly recommend pre-registering to avoid disappointment. You can register online through our website (nebraskanature.org) or call us at 308-382-1820.
If I take a tour, what should I bring and how should I prepare? See this post for more details.
What's the weather like when the cranes are here? While anything from thunderstorms to snow to wind to warm weather is possible, it's typically chilly in March -- 30's or 40's F for highs and lows in the teens or 20's. Dress appropriately.
What else is there to see besides the cranes? Far from being "boring," Nebraska features a full gamut of natural wonders. Snow geese are prevalent early in crane season, sometimes in flocks that can turn the sky literally white. Fortunate viewers might spot a rare whooping crane, particularly as the sandhill cranes begin to leave in April. Around this same time, the greater prairie chickens and sharptail grouse begin their mating dances. Most habitat for these grassland grouse has fallen to the plow, but at least one chicken dancing ground can be seen -- albeit from a distance -- from a road NW of Grand Island. Grassland grouse remain abundant in the Nebraska Sandhills, where guided tours are available.
With only few small, widely-separated towns in the region, the Sandhills also offer an ideal location for stargazing. If you're in the area for grouse viewing and the night sky is clear and moonless, go outside and take a look up. You'll probably never see more stars at one time, especially if you give your eyes 20 minutes to adjust to the darkness.