Each spring, something magical happens in the heart of the Great Plains. More than 80% of the world’s population of sandhill cranes converges on Nebraska’s Platte River valley – a critical sliver of threatened habitat in North America’s Central Flyway. Along with them come millions of migrating ducks and geese in the neighboring Rainwater Basin.
From April 1-3, 2011, eighteen of us from Audubon Society of Greater Denver traveled to Rowe Sanctuary near Kearney, Nebraska to see the sandhill cranes. By this time in the season, the majority of the waterfowl have already headed north towards their breeding grounds. The cranes continue to rest and refuel along the Platte and in the neighboring corn fields. By mid-April, most of the sandhills will head north as well.
There are two crane species in North America. The sandhill crane is the most abundant of the world’s 15 cranes. The whooping crane is one of the largest cranes and also the most endangered in the world with a population of less than 300. In 1941, whooping crane numbers had dropped to an astonishingly low number of just 15 individuals. Efforts to protect the species are working and numbers are on the rise.
Each year, there are reports of one to a few whooping cranes along the Platte, but sightings rare. All of us counted ourselves lucky when we spotted three individuals flying just south of the Platte as we drove out of town and back to Denver. The entire bus sat with awe as we watched members of North America’s rarest bird species flying off into the distance.
The arrival of the cranes on the Platte River, plus the millions of other migratory birds that visit each spring, accounts for one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on the North American continent.