On the Road is a weekday feature spotlighting reader photo submissions.
From the exotic to the familiar, whether you’re traveling or in your own backyard, we would love to see the world through your eyes.
This month one of the greatest wildlife migratory spectacles on the planet is taking place in central Nebraska. 600,000 Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), from Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona, Kansas and even Mexico fly north to converge on a sixty-mile long stretch of the Platte River. They stay there for a few weeks, fattening on waste corn and small marshland critters, before they leave and head north to breed. Some of these birds will end up in tomorrow, across the International Date Line in northeast Siberia, Others will find ancestral marshes in Canada and Alaska, raising the next generation of cranes to add to the flock next spring.
I have been making a spring pilgrimage to the Platte River for many years as well. Once you see (and hear!) this magical event for the first time, you might find yourself going back again and again, pulled north by the thoughts of spring, renewal, and wonder. So here are a few images I have collected over the years; none of these does it justice. If you ever have a chance to visit the Platte during March, go see it, and hear it, for yourself. If you can’t get there this year, here’s the next best thing. Check this out in the morning or in the evening, and turn up the sound. You can thank me later.
During the day the cranes feed and loaf and dance in fields and meadows some distance from the river. This is a common sight as you drive around Grand Island or Kearney in March. A couple of these guys are “dancing”, a ritualized pair-bonding activity that is always a treat to watch.
In the evening the birds move closer to the river, where they will roost on shallow sandbars overnight. This affords them safety in numbers (Surely one of their neighbors will sound the alarm if a coyote tries to sneak up on the flock, right?), but it has to be a long night with your toes in cold water, and so they dawdle on their way to the roosts.
Here are some more shots of cranes coming in to the roosts, accented by a fiery Nebraska sunset in each instance.
Incoming cranes in the sunset.
Just another sunset.
As the sun goes down, most of the birds will be on the river, in large groups like this one. The location of these roosts changes every year as the configuration of the sandbars changes.
But some of them will continue to fly around and look for a spot even as the sun is slipping below the western horizon.
Lots of other birds, like this Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) spend the night on the river and its backwaters.
In the morning the birds come off the river to go find breakfast. That can be gradual, as with this small group in the dawn light, or it can be an eruption of wings and bugling and swirling masses of birds if someone, or something like an overflying Bald Eagle, gets their attention.
The Lilian Annette Rowe Sanctuary near Gibbon NE, has many blinds where you can spend the evening or the morning hours near the river with the birds, accompanied by a guide who can answer all the questions that come up. Some of these shots were made from their blinds, including this one. As noted above, the dawn experiences and the evening experiences are very different, but both are highly recommended.