Grand migrations of astonishing numbers of animals trigger excitement through books and movies, but what about in person? Cultural Heritage TravelingMom took a look at the Sandhill crane migration that Jane Goodall calls one of the world’s 10 best. Check it out in Nebraska’s Platte River Valley.

Dawn and dusk vital for viewing Sandhill cranes migration.

Sunrise and sunset matter mightily viewing Sandhill cranes migrating. Photo courtesy Crane Trust.

Where to Go for the World’s Best Sandhill Crane Migration?

Seeking Sandhill cranes in big numbers pointed me to Nebraska. World-class migration was my goal, but travel to Africa for the wildebeests is daunting.

I found the elegant birds, and enough rare and critical habitats to fill a year with ecotourism travel.

Crane Trust is where I started. Jane Goodall liked it there and also the nearby Audubon-owned Rowe Sanctuary. “The cranes restore my soul,” she says as she too returns every year to the Nebraska towns that 600,000 birds call home every early spring.

Think Valentine’s Day to tax filing deadline as bookends to the dates to fly to Omaha. Then drive to the bird blinds and spent corn fields along the Platte River Valley.

Focus On Sandhill Crane Migration Biggest volume

Why here? It’s the hourglass of the migration, explains Crane Trust’s Ben Dumas. “The cranes stretch out wide as they head north, and condense their pattern in the 80-mile stretch of the Platte. Then they spread out again.”

See Sandhill cranes many places, but 600,000 roost in Nebraska's Platte River Valley.

The hourglass shape indicates the largest concentration of migrating cranes. Photo courtesy Ben Dumas

That helped me understand why people quote lots of places to see migrating cranes, but none topping the half-million number in this Nebraska valley.

Consider two distinctly different ways to experience this great migration, one of the world’s 10 best Goodall says.

Go with kids or go without.

Seems ironic not to make this a family trip. After all, Sandhill cranes believe in family, mating for life, caring for their kids a whole year.  But there will be some limitations on viewing the sandhill cranes migration with kids.

With kids means no access to dawn or dusk viewing from the bird blinds, hidden on the edges of sandbars and favorite Sandhill crane gathering spots in the river valley.

Once in the blind, stay in the blind. No exits. No bathrooms. No talking. That’s simply not feasible with little kids.

TravelingMom Tip: Crane Trust Nature and Visitor Center developed a path just one-third mile long to a bridge for watching cranes.  Rowe Sanctuary has a glass-walled viewing room.

Six to 10 miles of hiking trails provide family options too in the Crane Trust lands.

Migrating Sandhill cranes channel ancient patterns, and offer travelers million-year-old traditions.

Blue sky sightings of Sandhill cranes not as abundant as dawn and dusk. Photo by Cultural Heritage TravelingMom Christine Tibbetts

Stay Overnight for Science In Crane Flyway

Traveling without kids opens the doors to the bird viewing blinds and to overnight stays with scientists and naturalists sharing details about this rare and critical habitat.

The cranes begin arriving mid to late February and the last crane families leave by mid-April. Book a trip on the edges and gamble. Will these descendants of cranes making the same trip for nine million years will be on time?

Whispers only in blinds for viewing Sandhill cranes migrating. Quiet matters.

Bird blinds are not toddler-friendly. Photo courtesy Crane Trust.

Migration Habitats Yield Ancient Wing Bones

Fossils present that ancient time line with wing bones discovered in Nebraska’s Platte River Valley. Where have they always been going?

Vast breeding grounds in Canada, Alaska and Siberia become the next stop after fueling up on left-over corn in the farmlands and gaining weight in the braided channels of this river. Protein-rich soups of invertebrates and tubers form a main meal.

The ancestors of the cranes I saw would have recognized old Nebraska, at least the 4,500 acres preserved by the non-profit Crane Trust.

“As recently as 200 years ago, this was Nebraska, all of Nebraska” says Dumas who’s building the year-round excursions allowing immersion in the Valley. “Now it’s critical habitat or an ecosystem, a rare-to-find place still looking like it did hundreds of years ago.”

And that’s the point of sticking around after crane gazing, or visiting the Trust another time.

Protein-rich soups abound in Sandhill crane's favorite habitat in Nebraska.

Sandbars matter to Sandhill cranes and they’re abundant in the Platte River Valley. Photo courtesy Crane Trust.

Excursions Support Conservation

Preserve what was. Rejoice in progress, but book an excursion and let your fees and mine support conservation. That might be funding research or securing easements. Managing the land and protecting the water and prairie tall grasses.

“Since looking into the Trust lands is like peering into a time machine,” Dumas says, “you can see the prairie from a different perspective, or truly tell how the sandbars always change, moving through time.”

Immersing is possible for $500 a night, covering two people, including lodging, meals, the naturalist, scientist or other pertinent expert and the experiences.

Be sure everyone’s 18 or older. This is the Crane Trust twist on all-inclusive vacationing.

Sandhill crane migration fuels time to channel ancient thoughts.

Contemplating the majesty of Sandhill cranes migrating calls for quiet time. Photo courtesy Crane Trust

Crane Trust Excursions Protect Habitats

Excursions are evolving just like the Platte River Valley.  Dumas applies his education and experience to design activities that help the rest of us slow down to smell the land and touch the water.

He’s a Colorado native focusing on non-profit work, a self-proclaimed outdoor enthusiast saying “I don’t know of any time I am not outdoors. I’m using the outdoors to share wondrous opportunities with others.”

Can you picture each of these eco-experiences on your must-do list? I found the prairie chickens doing their mating strut, so my next choice is prairie hiking.

  • Sandhill Cranes March – April
  • Prairie Chicken Quest April – May
  • Wildflowers May – July
  • Kayaking May – October
  • Off Roading April – December
  • Fat tire bicycling – Year-round
  • Prairie hiking in the riverine tallgrasses – Year-round
  • Birdwatching Safaris Year-round
  • Photography for SLR camera users – Summer

Nature photographers seeking intensive training in this ecosystem have already registered for the 10-person workshop with wildlife and nature photographers Cheryl Opperman and Rick Rasmussen.

Best to consider yourself shooting at an intermediate or advanced skill level with your SLR camera for this one. With teacher/student ratio 1:2, this all-inclusive option costs $3,000.

Crane Trust Builds Pure Bison Herd

Eco-workshops with or without the Sandhill crane migration always include bison sightings too. That’s because the Crane Trust has established a genetically pure herd on these 4,500 acres.

They were interacting with the prairie as I kept my safe distance, truly conjuring their migrations in America’s not-so-long-ago West.

Sandhill crane migrations busiest at dawn and again at dusk.

Dawn and dusk, every day, best ways to muse with the Sandhill cranes. Photo by Cultural Heritage TravelingMom Christine Tibbetts

Need Tips For Sandhill Crane Travel?

Jane Goodall may be best known to you and to me for her chimpanzee work, but she says the Sandhill cranes show her resilience and hope.  I too consider that a call to action to protect their flyways and nourish their resting grounds.

Here’s what I discovered as a way to participate in the grand migration if you’re not enrolling in an all-inclusive eco-workshop:

  • Book a room in Kearney and Grand Island to embrace two different approaches to observing this extraordinary opportunity.
  • Resist thinking you can pull off on the side of the road and watch from the car because that’s bad for the birds, shortchanges your options and undermines the work of conservationists.
  • Wake up early and plan late dinners because the crane action is most abundant as they arise and again as dusk settles in.
  • Respect the people who’ve told you they saw cranes in Texas or Alabama. Only Nebraska’s Platte River attracts half a million – 80 percent of the world’s Sandhill population.

Since you’ll be driving, find Crane Trust in Wood River near Grand Island at Exit 305 from I-80 toward Ada, and Rowe Sanctuary in Gibbon near Kearney at Exit 285.

Sandhill crane migrations lead to artistic renderings of ancient traveler birds too.

Art galleries allow up-close Sandhill crane interaction when they’re stuffed. Photo by Cultural Heritage TravelingMom Christine Tibbetts

Claim Mid-Day Sightings Of Another Ilk

The Museum of Nebraska Art in Kearney is my mid-day recommendation, especially to get up close to a John James Audubon double elephant folio painting of a Sandhill crane.

Alfred Bierstadt camped with a wagon train near Fort Kearney, so spending some time in front of his work connected me to the birds and the bison I was seeing.

Veer off Interstate 80 at Exit 275 and then cross back over on foot. The Archway makes that possible.

I felt like I was on my own migration in the Archway’s 1,500-ton structure! Engaging exhibitions fill the space, starting with the 28-foot escalator creating a sense of entering a covered wagon.

Fifteen compelling vignettes immersed me in 150 years of western frontier travel along the Grand Platte River and it all happens in this massive arch over the interstate. Kind of a flyway itself I think.

Cultural Heritage TravelingMom has other tips for wider travel in Nebraska and her prairies, landmarks and historic sites.

What migrations have you observed?