Nature Notes: Singing Sandhills

Last weekend I took a road trip to south-central Nebraska to try to catch a glimpse of the migrating Sandhill cranes, a task I thought would be much more challenging than it proved to be.  Once you’re there, they’re extremely hard to miss! I’ve always been fascinated by migration events, and I could have died happy last year after taking a once in a lifetime trip to Africa and witnessing the wonders of the Wildebeest Migration. But I have good news! You don’t have to travel that far to see a spectacular migration event! The Sandhill crane migration was far more remarkable than I could have ever imagined. It’s often referred to as one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on the continent. The sheer number of birds and the noise they produced were both astonishing. I had no idea we had anything like this left in our country. It was beautiful. (Click on an image to enlarge.)

So what makes this event so spectacular? First, it’s the place. The United States is divided

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Sandhill Crane Migration Route

into “flyways” or main migration corridors for birds. The Central Flyway is home to the Platte River in Nebraska, which is an important feeding ground for migrating Sandhill cranes and waterfowl.  This extremely shallow, slowly meandering river provides the perfect resting place; extra security and all-you-can-eat buffet included! The cranes and many other birds spend the day feeding on leftover grain in the nearby agricultural fields and return at night to sleep in the protected shallow waters and numerous sandbars of the river, offering a reprieve from predators. Sunrise and sunsets along the Platte River offer magnificent views of hundreds of thousands of birds taking off from and returning to the water. There is something very Mary Poppins-esque about the way they come in for a landing!

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Sunset on the Platte River

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Sunrise on the Platte River

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The cranes begin arriving in the region in February and leave by mid-April, staying four to six weeks as they busily feast in fields to build up their energy reserves.  The number of cranes typically peaks in mid-March, and this year was no exception! The weekend of March 18th & 19th, the Crane Trust estimated the Sandhill Crane count to be roughly 406,000 cranes in the Platte River near Kearney, Nebraska! The energy they gain at this stopover fuels the rest of their migration to their breeding grounds, which may be in the northern US (like our region of Minnesota), Canada, or even as far as Siberia! Without this important stopover, the cranes would arrive at their distant breeding grounds in a weakened state, putting their ability to successfully reproduce at risk.

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If the sight of them alone wasn’t impressive enough, the sounds they make are astonishing. Sandhill cranes have trachea shaped sort of like a saxophone, allowing them to produce a harmony of mixed pitches. No matter what the pitch, these “rattling bugle calls” are very loud and can be heard up to two and a half miles away!

In addition to their vocals, Sandhill cranes communicate with a wide-range of body language.  They pick their life-long mate through dancing displays and continue to use the displays to release stress and strengthen pair bonds between mates.  There is a long list of Sandhill crane dance moves that include stretching their wings, pumping their heads, bowing, leaping into the air, hop-turns, and even picking up debris in their beaks and throwing them around the field!

The morning after we watched the cranes take off, one of the volunteers at the Rowe Sanctuary mentioned the weather was perfect for the cranes to start leaving. Temperatures were supposed to reach 80 °F that day, and the rising thermals were actually visible as you looked out across the barren fields. Sandhill cranes are incredibly efficient fliers, riding the thermals high into the sky and gliding for miles. If the wind is right, they can fly nearly 40 mph and can cover up to 500 miles per day! The next day, I drove home from Nebraska to central Minnesota, and sure enough, about an hour from my house, I saw a pair of Sandhill cranes.

North of the Platte River Valley in the Central Flyway is the prairie pothole region. This prairiepotholeregionregion, including parts of Minnesota, hosts an abundance of shallow lakes and wetlands in depressions left behind by the last glacial retreat. Some of these wetlands are temporary in the spring, some remain all year-long. All of them are part of one of the most important wetland ecosystems in the world, providing critical habitat for nearly 50% of North American migrating waterfowl. The habitat also serves other bird species, such as migrating songbirds and raptors. Unfortunately, due to human modification and agriculture expansion, approximately 40-50% of this critical habitat has been lost.  Many of the remaining wetlands have been degraded in quality due to human interactions. Protecting important freshwater habitats like the Platte River and the Prairie Potholes are crucial to sustaining our wildlife populations, making it possible for future generations to witness the same spectacles we can today. If you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing the cranes – I would highly recommend the trip!

So keep an eye out in the upcoming weeks for some of our returning waterfowl and other birds! In addition to the Sandhill cranes, here are some other birds I’ve recently seen heading north again. Get outside and enjoy the sunshine!!

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A flock of thousands of snow geese (and maybe Ross’s Geese) flying through Iowa.

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You can sometimes find American Kestrels perched on power lines, looking for prey in nearby fields.

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