I have just returned from the Platte River in south central Nebraska, leading a group of bird watchers and photographing the annual migration of sandhill cranes.
Each year, for the past 25 or so years, I've made my own migration to the middle of the country during the month of March. You might think this would be getting old and boring after so many journeys, but I find it still very exciting and one of nature’s most spectacular events.
For the past 10,000 or more years, nearly all the population of lesser and greater sandhill cranes gather in this region for a short time during spring migration. After wintering in places such as Mexico, Texas, Arizona and New Mexico, the cranes start their migration northward toward breeding grounds all across the upper states, Canada and Alaska. One of the first stops is Nebraska.
Nearly all the 500,000 migrating cranes funnel down to a short 60 mile to 90 mile stretch of the Platte River where they will spend several weeks feeding and resting. The first cranes start to arrive in late February, and by early March more than 100,000 cranes are not uncommon. As the month rolls on, the number of cranes slowly builds until mid to late March when the full complement of cranes assembles.
Early in March the cranes are joined by several million snow geese who are also on their journey north. Literally at any given time, there are thousands and thousands of large birds flying in the sky. All you need to do is stand still and look around and you will see thousands of cranes and snow geese on the wing. It is an amazing time and amazing place.
This year I had a wonderful group who really got a wonderful show. Winter has been a bit long-in-the-tooth this year so the migration was slightly behind schedule. About 100,000 sandhill cranes were in the area. We were fortunate enough to see many, many flocks of cranes — more than we could count.
Each flock consisted of up to 10,000 or more individual cranes. However, the snow geese were the real show stopper this year. We came across so many flocks of geese, each containing 20,000 or more birds. Often the flocks covered the ground looking like fields blanketed with snow.
One day we took a drive south to check out what birds we could see on a large reservoir. A gargantuan flock of snow geese were resting on the lake. Occasionally the flock would take to the wing and swirl around and around just over the water’s surface before landing back on the lake. Each time it looked like a white tornado swirling about over the lake. Just as we were leaving and heading north away from the lake the flock took to the air one last time. The geese started to fly northward, basically in the same direction we were going, only they were not constrained by roads.
At one point we were driving east bound on a gravel road while the flock of geese was flying due north. I could see that we were going to drive under the flock, which was bucking a head wind and only flying at 300 feet elevation. As we drove under the flock I took note of the odometer. As we drove along the geese completely covered the sky in all directions. They were fighting a strong wind from the north so they weren’t flying very fast. We continued driving due east looking for the other side or edge of the flock. Mile after mile passed without seeing the opposite edge of the flock.
At the five mile mark we could start to see the edge of the flock, and by the time we hit mile six we were at the edge. We drove for six miles under a flock of snow geese! It was one of the largest flocks I’ve seen in over 20 years of going to the Platte River for spring migration. Now you know why I don’t get tired of this amazing natural world. Until next time...
Stan Tekiela is an author/naturalist and wildlife photographer who travels to study and photograph wildlife. He can be followed on facebook.com and twitter.com. He can be contacted on his web page at www.naturesmart.com.