Every winter, when the honks come sounding from way above, I know our visiting sandhill cranes are in town. Here in Florida, we have many birds passing through year round, but the Sandhill Cranes have always captured my attention.
Occasionally, we will have a few large groups of cranes that gather in a particular area, but more often they can be spotted in smaller groups or families all around in various open fields.
The Sandhill Crane migration has been something I’ve known about, but it has always been on my periphery of awareness. That changed this year. This year, I decided to make the Sandhill Crane migration a priority.
Throughout the south from Florida to New Mexico each spring the Sandhill Crane migration begins its northern movement. The ultimate destination goal, is Northern Canada, Alaska, and even Siberia. Yes, these cranes, at least some of them, cross the Bering Strait into Russia.
Interestingly, Siberian Cranes have occasionally been spotted among Sandhill Cranes on their southernly return through the United States. That makes me wonder if Sandhill Cranes have ever accidentally or, perhaps in need of a scenery change, intentionally joined Siberian Cranes for their migration down through China and India?
Joining The Sandhill Crane Migration
To meet these creatures on their journey, I needed to make my journey, to Nebraska. After getting situated in my rental car at the Omaha Airport, I quickly remembered how dreary those Midwestern late winter gray days could appear. Somehow, I enjoy this kinda of change, however, perhaps because I know I won’t be staying too long.
After a couple of hours drive and lots of horizon scanning, I finally sighted my first Sandhill Cranes. Just like in Florida, there they were, a group of about 30 or so birds gathered together. As I drove, the groups became more frequent and varied in size. Some groups of cranes numbered a few, and others easily exceeded thousands.
The Sandhill Crane Migration bottlenecks through the North Platte River central section of Nebraska for a couple of reasons.
Shallow and wide water to Sandhill Cranes is equivalent to a five-star hotel for us. The North Platte River has this to offer for miles. Sandhill Cranes sleep, or roost, standing up. They use the water and any sounds a potential predator would make entering the water as their alarm system.
Also, Nebraska with its seemingly endless fields is full of food sources to feed the entire Sandhill Crane migration easily. Corn and grain remnants, insects, and pretty much anything the cranes can swallow whole is fair game. Sandhill cranes are omnivores.
I’m also guessing Nebraska, especially at that time in late winter, is an excellent location to pause and be sure the weather further north is going to be okay for travel. Of course, I have no idea if this is true, but somehow the Sandhill Crane migration must be able to know and avoid late winter snowstorms and nasty freezing weather.
Exploring For Sandhill Cranes
The first night in Nebraska, I picked a river crossing that looked promising. My excitement level was super ramped up. I had no idea what to expect.
About two hours before sunset not much was going on at the river, so I drove around. In the fields near the river, crowds of Sandhill Cranes seemed to be growing larger. I circled back around to the bridge area again.
Now it was about an hour before sunset, and the air was filling with flying cranes. I thought I’d be seeing them fly to the river, but that wasn’t the case. Instead, the flocks gathered other birds in fields very close to the river, staging themselves as an intermediate step before getting to the water.
I sat in my parked car to stay warm, popping out occasionally to grab a shot or twenty. The field in front and behind me grew and grew with birds. As darkness began taking over light, the birds peeled off in their family groups and flocks and started the procession to the river.
The air filled with activity. Thousands of Sandhill Cranes fly in for their evening roost. Dozens and dozens of cranes floated out of the sky and found their spots for the evening.
Photographing the Sandhill Crane Migration
Shooting these birds was a bit of a challenge. The gray sky on my first two days there made for somewhat drab looking images. Instead of letting that bother me, I made lemonade out of lemons. High-contrast monochromatic photos are an excellent solution for overcast lighting conditions.
There was also a mellow, elegant tone created by that low light and I chose to embrace it and work it into my shots.
Sandhill Cranes are last-minute travelers. If they had to catch a plane, they’d be that guy that just came running up to the gate with his ticket right before they closed the plane door. Most of the cranes flying to the river didn’t start until well after sunset and in very low lighting conditions.
Again, lemonade instead of complaining, I worked with what I had. I could have jacked up my ISO and tried to stop the bird’s motion in flight, but that would leave me with heavily pixelated images.
I went the other direction and slowed down the camera. With an ISO setting of 400 and shutter speeds ranging from 1/20 to 1/6 of a second, I panned the motion of the landing Sandhill Cranes. Of course, this is a hit or miss activity, and there were plenty of misses, but a couple of decent hits.
Private Sandhill Crane Migration
After freezing my fingers off that night, I returned to my hotel and got some sleep. The next morning I returned, in the dark to find the entire roost still in place and completely quiet. Before sunrise is probably the only time, these noisy honkers are silent.
Imagining images of the sky filled with birds, I was hoping for a massive uniformed fly off. It didn’t happen. They took their time about it too. After individual families and flocks pulled away for over two hours, there were still a couple of thousand birds in the river.
Again, needing to return feeling to my fingers, I retreated to my rental and adventured in the countryside. Sandhill Cranes were everywhere but very spread out feeding and replenishing themselves. I decided to do the same with lunch and a nap.
Further down the river was the goal for the afternoon. I wanted to explore a different area and see what was happening elsewhere. After a few hours wondering, I pulled into a muddy farm field access drive on a two-lane road to sit and pause.
In front of my car, a large gathering of Sandhill Cranes had formed. It was around six in the evening with sunset not until about 7:45. As I sat in my car, I watched flock after flock flying in to join the group gathering in the field.
I was really at a loss to figure out how to photograph this activity. Ahead, right, left, overhead, Sandhill Cranes were everywhere. The only thing that made sense was to record this as a video, and I’m glad I did.
For well over an hour hoards of cranes moved into this staging field in front of me. Every once and awhile I’d look down the two-lane farm road I was on and see another car pulled over, but they would only stay for a minute or two. I wasn’t going anywhere; this was getting good.
I didn’t want to fill my memory card with many minutes of video footage, but I had the feeling something might happen. Then, all of a sudden, with the camera video recording, it happened.
The entire congregation of Sandhill Cranes lifted from the ground and took flight. I did everything in my power not to make a noise as the camera recorded, but I was jumping up and down with excitement.
The massive coordination and unified movement of the Sandhill Crane flying were breathtaking. How all those wings and flight paths cooperated with each other, I’ll never understand. It was simply stunning!
And you know what? I turned my head to see all the others that must be witnessing this miracle too, only to be shocked. Not another human soul was on that road, anywhere. I was the only person to see this fantastic natural event. And now you can too, thanks to the amazing technology in our lives.
Tough Act To Follow
After seeing that incredible mass flight, I was content. I had hoped for a warm sunset lit sky with silhouetted Sandhill Cranes, the image I previously imagined I would get, but now that didn’t matter.
I moved over to the river to see this massive gathering in the water, the essence of the Sandhill Crane Migration. They spanned the entire distance of the river for as far as my eyes, and the camera could see.
I was thrilled I made a pano of the previous night’s group of birds I saw so I had something to compare this group too. There was no comparison. The birds spread out in front of my lens numbered in the hundreds of thousands.
Estimates were indicating that an unusually large amount of Sandhill Cranes were in this area at this one given time. The majority of all the birds in the Sandhill Crane Migration were most likely stationed right here at this moment.
Again, I went back to the car in complete darkness and frozen hands, returned to the hotel, slept and returned to this location in the dark. Again, all of these Sandhill Cranes were quiet. That alone was an amazing event to witness, but it didn’t last long.
The cloudy weather broke, and sunlight lit the Nebraska landscape, at least more than the previous two days. It was nice seeing more color of these magnificent birds.
I spent the day wondering and exploring. In the later afternoon, I realized the nearly full waxing moon was up and visible in the eastern sky. As I was driving, a flock of Sandhill Cranes flew in front of the moon. Checking my mirror and slamming my brakes, I wasn’t fast enough to get the shot.
My shoulders slumped a bit with the disappointment of missing that shot. Luckily, that situation which might only happen once in a very long while usually, repeats itself frequently with half a MILLION subjects!
Patiently I waited, and sure enough, group after group flew a similar route in front of the moon, some closer, some very high up. Imagine how many Sandhill Cranes are in the air at once that you can pull over and only wait a minute or two before a group lines up between you and the moon.
The evening was coming and can you guess where I went? Yup, right back to the place the night before. I wanted to see that massive group again.
When I arrived, only crickets. No, not even crickets, they aren’t out yet, too cold still. Only a handful of Sandhill Cranes were in the field that just 24 hours prior held hundreds of thousands of feathered aviators. Rats!
What to do? Back down the road, south of the river about a mile I had seen a large group of birds. This group was nothing like the previous night but still significant.
The sun was setting, and many of the Sandhill Cranes were peeling off and heading to the river in smaller formations. But the population in the field was still large as the sun hit the horizon.
Wait a minute. Some simple logic told me that these guys were obviously going to go to the river, which was to my right. The sun was setting directly in front of me, and the birds were to my left.
The elements were lining up, and this could be my chance to get the shot I visualized months ago when I was planning this trip to see and photograph the Sandhill Crane Migration.
Quickly I set up my camera for a faster shot exposed to the warm yellow sky around the sun. I made many images and used the smaller flying groups to tune the exposure finely, then I waited.
The sun had warmed me enough earlier that I actually took my coat off and had it in the car. Now, with the sun still visible and not even halfway beyond the horizon, the temperature was dropping fast, and I was cold again. However, I knew better than to move away from my post at the camera on the tripod.
I began to worry that the entire group would fragment apart piecemeal and not make the big dramatic sky-filling moment that I imagined. After a few minutes, my worries were over. The remaining collection of birds to my left flapped, lifted and headed straight for the river and directly in front of my whirling clicking camera.
Be careful what you visualize because with a little effort you can make it come true.
What I imagined and what actually occurred were two different things. I’m so happy I invested the time and patiently waited for what was meant to be to unfold.
Seeing a spontaneous, unpredictable event like the Sandhill Crane migration can’t be scheduled or controlled. But with a little luck, patience, a lot of driving and preparedness some magically photographs can materialize that almost capture the feeling of seeing these creatures in person.
I headed back to Omaha for the last evening and had an incredibly delicious meal at a restaurant called Modern Love. Check it out when you’re in Omaha, seriously!
Being in the urban environment helped put in perspective the magnitude of the natural event I was so blessed to witness. Besides the monarch butterfly migration, the Sandhill Crane migration is the largest migration of any animal in North America.
If you have a bucket list, and who doesn’t, taking time out to travel to this unlikely cold destination to see this marvel of nature should be very close to the top of that list. Life is amazing!